The Corner

Father Marcel on Trial

Early on Monday morning, I read Maggie Gallagher’s skeptical little note about the case of the lesbian parishioner in Gaithersburg who is widely reported to have been turned away from communion at her mother’s funeral — and who is now asking for the priest who turned her away to be removed from the parish. 

What initially caught my eye was the priest’s name, Father Marcel Guarnizo. I know Father Guarnizo from his work in Central and Eastern Europe, where he established the Educational Initiative for that region. This body recruited some very able Catholic laymen to promote the reconciliation of Catholic teaching with conservative and classical-liberal ideas via conferences, seminars, discussion groups, and so on. Its conferences were of high quality and attracted the participation of, among others, Lech Walesa and Jose Maria Aznar. Social democrats might also approve of them in principle, because one of Father Guarnizo’s aims was to remove the ethnic particularism and extremism that have in the past tainted and distorted nationalism and conservatism in Central and Eastern Europe. From the standpoint of ethics in politics and public life, he did good and necessary work in Europe.

Also, having found him to be firm of principle but a gentle soul in all our dealings, I found it hard to imagine that he would willingly hurt or humiliate anybody — as initial reports implied he had done.

I did not contact Father Marcel between reading Maggie’s account and writing this piece. But I did summon up the webzine she cited, LifeSiteNews, which has more on the story. They also have the traditional journalistic two sources for it. Their full story gives a somewhat different picture to the one in earlier media reports. But other reports, in particular those on lesbian and gay websites, make additional criticisms of Father Guarnizo’s alleged insensitivity. Accounts by other parishioners cast doubt on some aspects of the woman’s story. Many of these contradictions are not really germane to the main point. I will deal below with what seems to me to be the one really significant discrepancy.  

#more#All accounts agree that it was the lady in question, Barbara Johnson, who raised the matter of her sexual behavior when she introduced Father Guarnizo to her lover in the sacristy before the Mass. If she had not done so, he would have given her communion without incident. As it was, he was bound to remind her of the Church’s prohibition about receiving communion in this context.

As a practicing Catholic, she should have known these rules and thus the difficulty in which she was placing the priest. But according to the full story in LifeSiteNews, Ms. Johnson and her companions — her brother and the lesbian lover — walked back into the body of the church, refusing to discuss the matter any further. Father Marcel then conducted the Mass and, at the appropriate time, gave a general reminder to the congregation about the rules for receiving communion. When his parishioner appeared at the altar rail, he — and I now quote from a corroborated eye-witness account — “he quietly denied her communion (so quietly that the [Eucharistic] minister next to him didn’t realize that he did), and the woman promptly went to the other line and received communion anyway!” 

The one significant discrepancy I mentioned above is over exactly when Father Guarnizo was first introduced to his parishioner’s lesbian lover. As best I can piece it together from conflicting accounts, there were two meetings in the sacristy. The first was to discuss the eulogies for the service earlier that morning. It must have ended unsatisfactorily, because it led to the second meeting, “moments before the Mass,” when the introduction, the spat, and the walkout took place. This is significant because if the introduction took place just before the Mass then Father Guarnizo had no real opportunity for private pastoral counseling of Ms. Johnson, let alone her confession. She now suggests in an interview with the reporter, John Stone, that there was ample time for private counseling and that she would have confessed and received absolution from Father Guarnizo. But did she make that clear at the time? And if so, at what meeting? It is hard to see why the priest would refuse confession even at the cost of a short delay in starting the Mass. And if the angry walkout was not the result of her indignation at the priest’s disapproval of her relationship, what was it about? Not least perhaps, what did or does her lover think of the idea of her repenting their relationship?

Whatever the sequence of events, if Ms. Johnson was hurt or humiliated by this — and that’s doubtful — she was at least part-author of her own injury, which was slight and largely unnoticed. Any hurt or humiliation caused by the widespread press coverage does not seem to have been prompted by Father Guarnizo, who has suffered from most of it.

So what the hell is going on here? The explanation, provided implicitly in the press narrative, is that a dogmatic priest preferred orthodoxy over charity on an occasion — the funeral of the lady’s mother — that especially invited charity. He therefore acted insensitively and publicly humiliated a grieving parishioner. That interpretation simply cannot stand examination. It is in conflict with the most significant facts now known, such as Ms. Johnson’s last-minute announcement of her continuing lesbian relationship, the priest’s attempt to discuss it with her before the Mass, and his further and largely successful attempt to conceal his refusal of communion during the Mass.  

A second possible explanation is that the parishioner was completely unaware of the Church’s prohibition on receiving communion while being committed to a sexual relationship outside marriage (“conscious of grave sin”). Her introduction of her lover to Father Marcel was in this version an innocent mistake leading to the wholly unexpected result of his warning her not to receive communion. She was so surprised and shocked by this warning that she refused to continue the conversation further and, still in denial, presented herself at the altar rail.

This explanation stretches credibility to its furthermost limit — and arguably beyond that limit. Admittedly, most Catholics are pretty ignorant of Catholic doctrine in general. But this account would require the parishioner to be unaware of it on a specific matter of great importance to her. It’s a stretch. 

A third possibility is that the lesbian parishioner is well aware of Catholic rules on the receipt of communion — indeed, strongly opposed to them and, more broadly, to Catholic teaching on gay and lesbian sex. She wanted to launch a protest against these rules. Her decision to do so may have been easier in this case because Father Guarnizo is said to be well-known in the community for his strong public defense of traditional Catholic doctrine on this and other questions, notably abortion, and thus held peculiarly responsible for a rule she dislikes. So, when she arrived at the altar rail, she knowingly gave him a simple choice — either to violate his conscience or to cause an embarrassing public scandal.

But was there not a possible third choice, namely private pastoral counseling, as recommended by the Archdiocese? That would have been ideal. But it was not an available remedy on this occasion. Ms. Johnson informed the priest of her lesbian relationship only on the morning of her mother’s funeral service and probably just moments before it. Despite her stated willingness now to confess then, she seems to have refused even minimal discussion of it. And she presented herself at the altar rail following the dispute with Father Guarnizo with, one must presume, a lively expectation of being denied the sacrament. The fact that she was initially spared any public hurt or humiliation was owing to Father Guarnizo’s discretion. This proved to be merely a technical delay, however. The press was informed after the fact anyway; the story went viral in the form of the first explanation above; and it joined the endless stories about “slut” and government-mandated insurance coverage of contraception in the media’s continuing one-eyed survey of America’s culture wars.

Whatever the facts of this particular case, however, lesbian and gay Catholics may feel, reasonably enough, that I have so far omitted a vital point: What are they to do on occasions such as weddings, funerals, and christenings, when they want to join their families fully in a Christian service marking these landmarks of life but are excluded from some of the sacraments? Why should they suffer this exclusion? This anguish is not confined to gays and lesbians. Couples married outside the church, usually because a former spouse is still living, face it too. The long answer is that they should seek to change the mind of the church by prayer and argument. That answer, however, may be long in coming.

And when the answer finally comes, it might well be “no.”

In that event, all those living in relationships that the church characterizes as “a grave sin,” including respectable couples on second marriages without benefit of clergy, have nothing but painful choices. They can try to live according to Catholic teaching at the cost of suppressing some part of themselves. Millions of people do just that, some faithfully, some fitfully, but all in hope. They can leave the Catholic Church and seek some less stern denomination. But if they still believe in the rest of Catholic Christianity, they will be acting perversely — and they will likely feel they are leaving the truth behind them. Or if, after prayer and reflection, they are honestly convinced that their spiritual situation is one not of grave sin but of conscientious disagreement with a flawed Magisterium, they are hardly better off. Probably they should probably remain in the church while refraining from communion in the hope, suggested by the present pope, that their sincere desire for the Eucharist may have a salvific effect even if the rules for receiving it remain unchanged in their lifetime. If they go further and receive communion in defiance of the Magisterium, however, they take responsibility for what the church regards as a grave sin.

That is a burden of responsibility that they can or should take only on their own conscience — as some gay Catholics have honestly done. If they try to manipulate another person into cooperating with, supporting, or approving their taking of communion, they are committing a kind of spiritual aggression against him. Even if they have decided that the Magisterium is wrong on this score, he has not done so. They are attempting to press him into violating his conscience in order to ease their own — or, still less charitably, in order to score propaganda points at the expense of his reputation.

Now, almost everything above is written from a Catholic standpoint. At least I hope so; I am a political writer rather than a religious one, and no doctrinal expert. To a non-believer — to John Derbyshire, say — it must all appear like needless worrying over unprovable trifles: How many devils can dance on the head of a pin? But these are among the questions that today exercise the minds of Catholic Christians. And all the people involved in the Gaithersburg event are Catholic Christians, or presumptively so –including the Archdiocese of Washington.

So one wonders why the archdiocese first entered the controversy by implicitly criticizing Father Guarnizo. (A later statement was more balanced.) It seems likely that they took the first media reports of his publicly refusing communion to a grieving woman at face value. That is an alarming thought in itself, of course, when we consider the usual slapdash-cum-hostile stance of the media towards issues involving the church and sexuality. But it usefully reminds us once again of the church’s growing nervous suspicion towards itself or at least towards its servants who preach the gospels with what Talleyrand called “too much zeal.” And this is a suspicion brilliantly captured by the late Father Richard Neuhaus in his epigram: “When orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be prohibited.” 


The Latest