Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Good Faith

Last week, Father Marcel Guarnizo, the Roman Catholic priest who, for the last few weeks, has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy over his denying communion to an openly lesbian Catholic woman at her mother's funeral Mass ended his silence with this statement.

Here's the 30-second version of the facts (as relayed by both sides in their public statements): Prior to the beginning of the Mass, Barbara Johnson indicated to Fr. Guarnizo that she had a same-sex lover, and introduced her to Fr. Guarnizo. When the time came for communion, Fr. Guarnizo placed his hand over the host (the bread/wafers) when Ms. Johnson came up, preventing her from receiving communion. Ms. Johnson says that Fr. Guarnizo told her this was because her same-sex relationship was sinful, but he denies that there was any public reprimand.

Now, I'm willing to take Fr. Guarnizo's statement at face value when he says he was incapacitated by a migraine and that this is why he did not accompany the family to the gravesite and sent another priest in his stead. It is, in fact, both pastoral and commendable of him to ensure that a priest was there for the family when I am sure all he wanted to do was to lie down and take care of his aching body.

But by asking us to believe his story, Fr. Guarnizo is asking for good faith on our part, to believe his good word, which is a courtesy he never extended to Barbara Johnson when she came before him to receive communion. This is made even more egregious when he recognizes in the previously linked statement that good faith is the diocese policy and that he agrees with it:

"I understand and agree it is the policy of the archdiocese to assume good faith when a Catholic presents himself for communion; like most priests I am not at all eager to withhold communion. But the ideal cannot always be achieved in life."

From a Biblical perspective, that good faith is absolutely clutch. Saint Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 11:28, "Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup." (TNIV) Paul says this in a passage detailing how to avoid abuses of communion--Paul wants to make sure that communion is taken "worthily." What that worthiness is, exactly, remains unclear from Paul's words alone--he simply says in the following verse that we must "discern the body of Christ," lest we pronounce judgment upon ourselves. That's fine, but Paul doesn't exactly tell us what that means. For my church, and generally for the Disciples at large, "discerning the body of Christ" is taken to mean belief in Christ Himself. If your discernment has led you to affirmation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then my church teaches that you are worthy to receive communion.

We do not ask you for a statement to that effect before serving you communion, though. We take your word for it that you believe you are ready before God to receive communion because Paul is in fact explicit about that part of the equation--everyone examines themselves. Not "Your church ought to examine you," or "Your pastor ought to examine you," but "you ought to examine yourself." If you feel led to partake of the Lord's Supper, it is my pastoral obligation to serve it to you. I consider denying communion to a person who has asked for it to be a violation of my vows of ordination.

I realize that what the Roman Catholic Church teaches vis-a-vis the relationship between confession and communion prevents this particular theology of mine (or of the Disciples)--I believe their teaching, per Canon Law 920, is that to receive communion, a person must be in right relationship with the church by having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least yearly, and serious sins must be confessed before receiving communion.

But that begs the second question--is a same-sex relationship something to confess to as a penitent? I say no. But in his statement, Fr. Guarnizo says, in part:

"Such circumstances can and will be repeated multiple times over if the local church does not make clear to all Catholics that openly confessing sin is something one does to a priest in the confessional, not minutes before the Mass in which the Holy Eucharist is given."

What room is there for grace in this mentality? It is simply assumed in this statement that a homosexual relationship is a sin (and I realize that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church reflects this belief). Now, I can certainly hear confessions of sins from people, but as a Protestant pastor, I do not require it, because I lack the divine capacity to determine which sins jeopardize right relationship with God. As such, even were I to consider homosexuality a sin, I still would not withhold communion because I would be speaking for God in a capacity far beyond what I am capable of doing. In other words--even if homosexuality is a sin, where is the grace?

Fr. Guarnizo, I am sure that you are a good person, even though I imagine you and I likely disagree on a wide array of theological issues. If I were to ever meet you, I would no doubt love to sit down and talk to you over some coffee (or a beer, if that's your poison). But...you're not only unnecessarily shaming a grieving woman who did not need to be ashamed, you're also unnecessarily upping the degree of difficulty for the rest of us pastors who feel called to love gays and lesbians the exact same way we love everybody else and are trying to undo the decades of damage the church has done to its relationship with many, many people in the queer community.

Please, for the love of the God whom we both serve, stop.

Yours in Christ,


  1. Interesting thoughts Eric. In the reformed church we've had some interesting discussions about what Paul means about "discerning the body" in 1 Corinthians 11. This has become a central text in opening up the table to children. A lot of people interpret "the body" to mean "the body of Jesus," but the context suggests that Paul may be referring to the "body of believers."

    The issue at hand in 1 Corinthians 11 is that there is division among the body and certain people are being overlooked during the meal. This has lead our denomination to argue that entrance to the table does not require that we are able to fully comprehend the personhood of Christ. Instead, we drink judgment on ourselves when we partake in the Lord's supper while allowing for division and exclusion to reign among believers.

    This has paved way for us to open the table to children, because it removes the requirement of everyone having a fully developed understanding of Christ and his salvation in order to partake in the meal. This issue was particularly pertinent to me when I worked with people with disabilities. I believe they too have a place at the table even if they are not able to verbally make a profession of faith or a confession of sin.

    Another thought - why did Jesus offer Judas the cup when he knew that Judas' betrayal was imminent?

  2. Hey Phil,

    I think the two interpretations of "the body" as the body of Jesus vs. the body of believers cuts both ways in the end, because, as you said, we are unable to comprehend the personhood of Christ--which Paul takes to be equal with God's own being (Phil. 2:6)--and if Christ's personhood is God-like or otherwise infinite, then it necessarily would include the body of believers.

    Besides, everyone has slightly different capacities for faith, even among able-minded adults, to say nothing of children or people with disabilities--so, as you point to, where does the church draw the line?

    I did think about the story of offering Judas the bread and cup, but that story comes from John, who does not convey the communion ritual as we practice it today, and as was found in the Synoptic Gospels, so I hesitated on whether or not to include it in my thoughts here. But it is perhaps the most famous example of the table being made open to sinners, regardless of sin.

    Plus--there is an apocryphal story from medieval Christianity I am very fond of--that after Judas left and completed his betrayal, he returned to that room to find everybody still there, having not left for Gethsemane yet. And the food is untouched. Seeing this, Judas asks why, and Jesus simply replies, "We waited for you."

    While these conversations between us are always made better with coffee, at least this way they are out in the public sphere so that everyone can hear them, and either benefit or be scared away, as the case may be. =)