Catholics need more understanding of Catholicism

There are lots of elements to the on-going story about the denial of communion to a Maryland woman, Barbara Johnson, by Fr. Marcel Guarnizo at her mother’s funeral. One element that will never get any headlines is the low level of understanding even regular Church-going Catholics have about our faith. I remember hearing years ago a religious education professional lamenting the fact that while her parish was filled with many accomplished and well-educated people, when it came to their “religious education,” they stopped progressing at about a 4th grade level.

I’ve been reminded of that time and again as I read comments posted by supposedly informed and practicing Catholics who’ve been sharing their thoughts about what happened in Gaithersburg: who was right and who was wrong? what should official Church leaders do in response? etc.

Today’s “On Religion” section of the Washington Post (p. B2) prints just two comments that demonstrate exactly what I mean:

joestrong701: The priest should be commended for faithfully following the Catholic Church teachings. If you want to be a lesbian, you can’t claim to be being a Roman Catholic. I love basketball, but at 6-2, I can’t sue the Knicks for not picking me to be their center.


Ivegstsyo: The priest denied her Communion because her lifestyle is considered immoral by the Catholic Church. As a priest, he is supposed to deny communion to those who don’t listen or follow Church teachings/doctrine. He was just doing his job. It was nothing personal. Just because you choose to live a sinful life doesn’t mean that the Churchhas to accept who you are.

I don’t know if either of these commenters is Catholic, but if they are, they should consider going back to their CCD/religious education program and take some more classes. “Church teachings” implies much, much more than what one may remember from a catechism class and certainly much more than what can be found through a Google search. It includes areas of study such as fundamental theology, sacred scripture, systematic theology, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, christology, pastoral theology, liturgy and canon law. Perhaps some in depth understanding of these various disciplines and how they fit into the teaching and practice of the Church might better equip them to offer comments about what might have been appropriate actions in the situation now receiving such attention.

It’s true that Church teaching says that we as Catholics should be properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, and that those who are “…obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion,” (cf. Code of Canon Law, #915). It is equally true, however, that the primary assessment for such disposition rests with the individual, and no one else. Only I (and God) can judge my conscience, and only I — taking responsibility for ensuring my conscience is well-formed — can judge my suitability for receiving Eucharist, remembering especially the words we pray immediately before Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”

For those who look to the “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” standard, it would be almost impossible in almost any real-life situation for a minister of the Eucharist to be able to make such a judgment with any certainy. Even if a pastor or priest knew well the spiritual lives of his parishioners, how would this judgment be expressed at a Eucharistic liturgy where so many others are often distributing communion? Perhaps pastors should provide lists to all the Ordinary and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist assigned to each Mass with categories of those “Known to be unfit for communion”? Clearly, such an idea is preposterous, as are attempts by ministers of the Eucharist to judge the worthiness of those who come to share in the Lord’s table. After all, who is to say that even the most notorious mass murderer in history who approaches to receive communion has not — at that moment — made a “perfect act of contrition” and committed to receiving sacramental reconciliation as soon as possible, thus being properly disposed to receive Communion?

Every word in that phrase — “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” — is important. Every word is there for a reason, and every word demands that those who may even consider not admitting someone to communion be absolutely certain and have no doubt whatsoever before taking the potentially scandalous action of denying communion to anyone.

Perhaps, however, the most compelling argument is this: If we really believe that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus, why would we want to get in the way of a sinner encountering the Lord? After all, isn’t He more likely a candidate than any of us to change the heart and mind of the worst sinner in our midst?

“He was an angel, a balm on our hearts”

Even as we struggle with how to respond to the abusive action of Fr. Marcel Guarnizo in denying the Eucharist to Barbara Johnson at her mother’s funeral, and even as we look forward to further action from the Archdiocese of Washington in response, let’s be thankful for priests like Fr. Peter Sweeney of Silver Spring, MD. According to the coverage in the National Catholic Reporter, Barbara Johnson described Fr. Sweeney this way:

“He was an angel, a balm on our hearts,” she said. “He was everything I knew the Catholic church to be.”