Fr. Marcel, Canon 915, And The Rule Of Reasonableness

By now, most people have heard the story of Barbara Johnson and Fr. Marcel.  Ms. Johnson asked Fr. Marcel to distribute the Holy Eucharist to her.  He said no, but allowed an EME to do so.  She now will not rest until  he is removed from parish life.

Most of the blog-o-sphere sides with Ms. Johnson. Some comments are hot.  Some comments, such as that of lay Canonist Dr. Ed Peters, are temperate and analytical.  Some like those of Bishop Knestout try to chart a middle course, acknowledging Ms. Johnson’s hurt without condemning Fr. Marcel.  I think they all miss the real issue.

The opinion that follows is my own.  It is not that of anyone at St. Francis.  It is an opinion based on available information, with the recognition that some facts needed are not public and will never be public.

Based on the facts as I have been able to find them and one fact in particular that never made it into the secular press, I believe Fr. Marcel erred.  He tried to reach a practical compromise that met the spirit of the various rules that governed the situation without the time for cool reflection. I, as a layman, of course, do not judge and do not wish to jump on the bandwagon.  At the same time, many people are questioning the way the Archdiocese handled the situation.  When one identifies the issue correctly — and the issue is not the one that has been reported — , the Archdiocese’s actions were completely appropriate.  Ms. Johnson’s behavior has been reprehensible.  Now is a time for healing and to let the appropriate ecclesial authorities deal with it.

The Facts

On February 17, 2012, the Maryland House of Delegates approved the bill by a 72–67 vote.  On February 23, 2012, the Maryland Senate approved the bill by a vote of 25-22.  On March 1, 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley approved the bill.  It is scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2013.  The law, however, does not require the Catholic Church to solemnize same-sex “marriages.”

Two days later, a funeral Mass was scheduled at St. John Neumann in Gaithersburg for Barbara Johnson’s mother.  The celebrant was Fr. Marcel Guarnizo.  Just before Mass, as he was vesting, Ms. Johnson chose to introduce her “partner” or “lover” to Fr. Marcel.  Fr. Marcel told her that she should not present herself for communion.  Ms. Johnson immediately left the sacristy.  Fr. Marcel tried to go to her, but was physically restrained by Ms. Johnson’s “partner” or “lover.”

When the time came for Holy Communion, Ms. Johnson chose to present herself to Fr. Marcel to receive the Eucharist.  She did this even though (an) Extraordinary Minister(s) of Holy Communion were available. Ms. Johnson described what happened as follows:

When Guarnizo covered the wine and wafers with his hand during Communion, Johnson stood there for a moment, thinking he would change his mind, she said. “I just stood there, in shock. I was grieving, crying,” she said. “My mother’s body was behind me, and all I wanted to do was provide for her, and the final thing was to make a beautiful funeral, and here I was letting her down because there was a scene.”

.  “As a lifelong Catholic and former Catholic school teacher,” Ms. Johnson stated that she was surprised that Fr. Marcel thought her “sexual orientation” was an issue.  Ms. Johnson then went to an EME and received Holy Communion.

After having received Holy Communion, Ms. Johnson then gave a eulogy for her mother.  Fr. Marcel left the altar.  It has been stated that he was sick.  Fr. Marcel then arranged for a replacement priest to accompany the family and Ms. Johnson’s mother’s body to the cemetery.

Ms. Johnson then wrote a letter to Fr. Marcel the next day, Sunday, February 26th.  The letter condemned Fr. Marcel and asserted that his actions were based on politics:

“You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the day of judgment for judging me,” she wrote in a letter to Guarnizo. “I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”

The rest of the letter has not been published.  Meanwhile, Ms. Johnson contacted Fr. Marcel’s superiors at the Archdiocese of Washington.  By Monday, February 26th, the Archdiocese of Washington was investigating the situation.  She was able to speak with Msgr. Michael Fisher, the Archdiocesan Secretary for Ministerial Leadership, who then spoke with Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout.  Bishop Knestout wrote a personal letter of apology to Ms. Johnson dated February 28, 2012.   It is unclear whether this letter was intended to be made public as it differs from the official statement.  The letter expressed regret for any personal hurt that Ms. Johnson experienced and characterizes the situation (as Msgr. Fisher reported it to him) as involving a “lack of pastoral sensitivity.”  Bishop Knestout also personally spoke with Ms. Johnson and the family.

This apology and personal counseling was not enough.  Ms. Johnson informed the Washington Post about the situation. The newspaper published a story on the situation at 9:27 A.M. on Wednesday, February 29th.  Television then got involved on February 29th, too.


Judging from the facts above, the following seems apparent.  First, Fr. Marcel declined to distribute Holy Communion to Ms. Johnson.  Second, it appears that he did so because he believed that it was not appropriate for him, as a priest, to do so publicly.  Third, Fr. Marcel attempted to reach a practical compromise by allowing the EME present to distribute the Eucharist to Ms. Johnson.  This practical resolution seemed to offer a way out of a very difficult situation — by refusing quietly, Fr. Marcel attempted to disassociate himself as a priest in persona Christi from any possible affirmation that Ms. Johnson’s known behavior was appropriate.  At the same time, not having conducted the private counseling that is the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington, Fr. Marcel left it up to Ms. Johnson as to whether she would or would not receive Communion.  Significantly, she decided — after being warned twice that she likely should not receive Communion — to receive the Blessed Sacrament.

It also appears that this really was a pastoral situation — Fr. Marcel does not seem to have believed that Canon 915 applied (or if he did, he believed that the policies of the ADW did not allow him to enforce it until and unless he had privately counseled her).  If he had, he presumably would have (and should have) instructed the EME to decline to distribute the Blessed Sacrament to her.  He didn’t.  Where that leaves me is this:  Fr. Marcel supplemented to the ADW’s direction regarding the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament with the codicil — in a situation where Canon 915 applies, but for the required private counseling, it is appropriate for a priest to decline to distribute the Eucharist, but to allow an EME to do so.

Viewed in this light, Bishop Knestout’s February 28th letter makes perfect sense.  The underlying premise of his letter is that Canon 915 did not apply.  If it did, then Fr. Marcel (or even Bishop Knestout) would have had no discretion and the opinion expressed in the letter would have been manifestly unjust.  But it appears that even Fr. Marcel believed that he had discretion and once Fr. Marcel had discretion, the question then became one of whether that discretion was reasonably exercised in the circumstances. The circumstance was a funeral Mass for the proposed communicant’s mother; perhaps a Sunday Mass or a daily Mass or a different proposed communicant would call for a different judgment.

It may be that, at some time in the future, the Church will adopt the Marcel Principle and handle these situations as he did.  But, as of now, Fr. Marcel’s ecclesial superiors believe that his decision was the wrong one.  We should pray for Fr. Marcel and for Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Knestout who have many difficult decisions to make.


7 Responses

  1. MSNBC further reports that:

    “A letter from an archdiocese official said that the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo was placed on leave for engaging in intimidating behavior, according to The archdiocese had previously apologized for Guarnizo’s behavior.

    The letter was read at all Masses this weekend at St. John Neumann, according to The Washington Post. The pastor there, the Rev. Thomas LaHood, said the removal was not related to the communion standoff, but “pertains to actions over the past week or two.” He did not elaborate.”

    • I find the situation quite murky. I a read post at the link blog that reflects my views at the moment:

      “The allegations of ‘intimidating behavior’ by Guarnizo are not recited in Knestout’s letter, but three questions would occur to me: (a) is this just a pile-on by people looking to kick Guarnizo while he is down?, or (b) are there long-standing legitimate complaints against Guarnizo that the recent controversy made more likely to surface? , or (c) did Guarnizo’s post-controversy conduct in the parish render him intemperate with others, provoking what are really recent complaints? Such are the things that an investigation is designed to, well, investigate.”

      It seems like (C) from the reporting to date. The blog has other good points. I recommend looking it up and considering them.

  2. It has been reported that Fr Marcel has been put on leave for engaging in intimidating behavior.

  3. When Ms. Johnson gets thrown in the lake of fire by Jesus on the last day, hope you all are standing by ready to point out to Him how Fr. Marcel erred by trying to save her in this life because you will have a chance to defend yourselves for encouraging rebellious sinners on the path to hell and dishonoring Jesus in the real presence. Don’t think he’ll agree w/you though, anymore than he agreed w/Judas, Herod and Caiaphas.

    For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 1 Cor 11:29

  4. So are we saying that the gay community can now come to a priest or an EOM and instead of responding “Amen” to “Body or Blood of Christ they respond instead by saying I’m legally married to my same sex partner” we are obligated to give them the BODY/BLOOD of CHRIST. Where is the reverence in that? We might as well be like the other christian denominations who believe that the Eucharist is nothing but an example of Christ. This strikes at the heart and soul of what make us Catholics. I personally feel that Fr. Marcel was thrown underneath the bus before all the facts were received. No matter how you look at this, Canon 915 was the heart of the matter. The question of whether it applies or not is a mute point. What about in the case of a none Catholic? We are also obliged to distribute it to them according to Canon 915.
    None of us were there so judging Fr. Marcel for allowing the EOM to distribute the Eucharist is way out of bounds. For all we know he did not see it. According to Canon 915, Fr. Marcel did his pastoral duty and the EOM who had no clue what was going on also followed his/her conscience, in accordance to Canon 915.

  5. I see several things going on here. First, I think the official statement of February 27th does not forthrightly deal with the issue. Fr. Marcel did not “publicly reprimand” Ms. Johnson. Indeed, Ms. Johnson was silent. Moreover, the EME who gave her Communion did not hear the public reprimand. Second, the “should be addressed . . . in a private pastoral setting” seems to state the ideal. It is clear that Fr. Marcel did not have that opportunity.

    The issue is being played out as a matter of Canon 915, declining to distribute the Eucharist to a person in grave sin which is manifest and which the person obstinately persists. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether, in the circumstance that confronted him, Fr. Marcel should have distributed the Blessed Sacrament to Ms. Johnson, rather than having an EME do it.

    It is clear that neither Cardinal Wuerl nor Bishop Knestout nor Fr. Marcel believed that Canon 915 applied. If so, Fr. Marcel would have instructed the EME to decline to distribute the Eucharist to Ms. Johnson. If Canon 915 did not apply in the judgment of Fr. Marcel, then he did have a duty to distribute the Blessed Sacrament to any Catholic who asks for it.

    As a theoretical matter, there is much to commend Fr. Marcel’s solution. By distributing it himself in face of Ms. Johnson’s manifest error, there is a real concern that the prestige of the Church would attach to his action. After all, Fr. Marcel was acting “in personam Christi.” But in the circumstance — a funeral Mass in which the potential communicant is the daughter of the person for whom the Mass is being celebrated –, pastoral concerns have to give way. That does not mean a priest can never decline to distribute Holy Communion. It only means that in the circumstance the better choice would have been for Fr. Marcel to distribute communion to Ms. Johnson, rather than having an EME do it.

    I came to this conclusion reluctantly. At first, I planned a blistering post about how Fr. Marcel was right to have declined to distribute the Eucharist to Ms. Johnson. I truly believed (and still believe) that a very strong case could be made that Canon 915 applied. But when I reflected on the fact that Ms. Johnson received Communion anyway, I concluded that Canon 915 did not apply, at least in the judgment of all the relevant players. If Canon 915 did not apply, then Fr. Marcel made a judgment call and the Cardinal and Bishop Knestout are the final authorities for the validity of judgment calls. I am troubled by appearing to criticize a priest who was put in a very difficult situation. Monday morning quarterbacking is bad enough, but when I have plenty of planks in my own eye, I should avoid the mote in others’.

    The most important part of this story for me is Bishop Knestout’s actions. At first, I viewed his (and therefore the Cardinal’s) actions as little more than a politically-correct attempt to curry favor with a group that, not to put too fine a point on it, hates us and everything we stand for. Moreover, it is a group that will never be mollified until we disappear. How could he be so naive — especially when Fr. Marcel was set-up?

    However, when I realized the Bishop Knestout’s letter was never intended to be made public, it dawned on me that neither the Cardinal nor Bishop Knestout could have acted any differently. Where I was seeing a lesbian who set up a priest, they saw a lost soul desperately in need of healing. Where I was seeking a political game, they saw a lost soul desperately in need of healing. What I saw as political naivete was in fact precisely the kind of courage Christ demands from the Cardinal, Bishop Knestout, and me — only they lived up to it and I did not. They knew going in how events were likely to unfold, but Ms. Johnson’s soul and that of her family were worth it. I believe it is St. Matthew’s Gospel that recounts the religious authorities criticizing Christ for eating with sinners and tax collectors. When the Cardinal and Bishop Knestout reached out to Ms. Johnson — even through they knew that there was a high probability that their efforts would be spurned — they were standing in Christ’s place while I was standing in the place of the religious authorities. With God’s grace, I hope one day to be as courageous as they were.

  6. According to the Catholic Standard (

    ‘This is the statement issued by the archdiocese on February 27:

    “In matters of faith and morals, the Church has the responsibility of teaching and of bringing the light of the Gospel message to the circumstances of our day. When questions arise about whether or not individuals should present themselves for Communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person. Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive Communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.’

    Does this mean a priest is never allowed to reprimand a person at Communion?

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