As the whole situation regarding Fr. Guarnizo continues to develop, it may help to step back and consider the historical practice of the Church regarding the distribution of Communion.
The following article, from a pseudonymous guest-writer “Scriptor”, challenges the interpretation of this case given by Dr. Ed Peters. I present the article here not because I am in agreement – I am no canonist, so I am not capable of making a definitive claim one way or the other; however, I tend to agree with Dr. Peters’ position – but, rather, because it seems to be a thoughtful discussion of the question.
One thing I am certain of: A bishop has a great deal of authority in his diocese and a priest ought to follow not only the express command of his bishop, but also his implied preferences (though never in a manner contrary to the law of the Church or his conscience).
Thus, if Fr. Guarnizo has been placed on administrative leave – whatever the reason – it is for him a great opportunity to grow in holiness, if only he submits in humble obedience. In this regard, it is extremely harmful to the life of the Church that some have attempted to “rally” behind Fr. Guarnizo against Cardinal Wuerl (and I presume that the good Father does not even want this “support”, which will ultimately only contribute to his ruin).
The guest letter challenging the interpretation of Dr. Peters
Greetings in Christ,
I am writing you regarding the incident that happened recently towards the end of last month in the Archdiocese of Washington wherein Ms. Barbara Johnson was denied communion by the priest, Rev. Marcel Guarnizo. I would like to break open, yet one more time, the whole issue of canon 915. In particular, I would like to challenge the reading of this canon by Dr. Edward Peters.
My argument will be structured around two main points. First, how do we read the word “obstinate” in canon 915? Second, how do we read this canon’s use of the word “manifest”?
The blogosphere is full of discussions that assume that for someone to be “obstinate” according to c. 915 he must have been first privately talked to and warned by a pastor about his sin. On this reading, communion should be denied him only after he has been warned and then continues in his sin and publicly presents himself for communion.
The most recent Magisterial interpretation of canon 915 is the Declaration Concerning The Admission To Holy Communion Of Faithful Who Are Divorced And Remarried, put out by the Pontifical Council For Legislative Texts in the year 2000. It defines “obstinate” as follows:
“obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.”
For this PCILT document, “Obstinate”, as it appears in canon 915, is not necessarily only verifiable by a process of pastoral discussion and warning. Rather, a person is considered to be “obstinate” in their sin if their sinful lifestyle has been lived in for some time and has not been abandoned by them. So for example, cohabitating couples, simply by their lifestyle, are “obstinate” in their sin. So also the sin of a practicing and open homosexual would be considered “obstinate”. Of course, it makes good pastoral sense to avoid “making a scene” and embarrassing people by having to deny them communion in public. If a pastor can speak beforehand to a person he has good reason to consider publically unworthy, he should do so. But prior discussion and warning are not absolutes. Even apart from them, the minister has an obligation to deny communion to the publically unworthy. The PCILT document says,
“Naturally, pastoral prudence would strongly suggest the avoidance of instances of public denial of Holy Communion. Pastors must strive to explain to the concerned faithful the true ecclesial sense of the norm, in such a way that they would be able to understand it or at least respect it. In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy. They are to do this with extreme charity, and are to look for the opportune moment to explain the reasons that required the refusal. They must, however, do this with firmness, conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls.” [Emphasis mine]
I think this idea of the necessary “prior warning” has accidentally gotten inserted into the discussion and raised confusion because of the issue of Catholic politicians who support political policies contrary to the faith. The public unworthiness of such politicians is a bit more difficult an issue than the public unworthiness of cohabitating couples or practicing and open homosexual persons. In the case of such politicians, it makes sense for a bishop to first talk with the politician, verify the objective gravity of his political stance (which by nature is going to be a more complex matter than fornication, adultery, or homosexual acts), warn him, and—if he persists in his stance—only then issue a diocesan-wide notice instructing ministers to refuse communion to him.
But this sort of mini-due process is not the inescapable paradigm for implementing canon 915 which has to do with the obligations of the minister in the given moment when he is distributing communion. Moreover, this canon embodies divine law. It is binding for even extraordinary ministers. If he is to avoid the grave sin of scandal, every minister of communion must make a judgment call according to his own conscience, even if his judgment is at odds with that of his pastor or even that of his bishop.
What has happened is that over the past 50 years or so, for good or for bad, our bishops have stopped having recourse to the discipline of excommunication. Canon 915 has of late come in to fill the vacuum. We have been treating it as if it were a sort of low-level form of excommunication, requiring inquiry and due-process. Yet canon 915 is no such thing. It is not prescribing a punishment, even if, to our overly-touchy contemporary sensibilities, it seems like it is. Rather canon 915 is rooted in the divine law that requires ministers to protect the sanctity of the Blessed Sacrament, the right of the community not to be scandalized, and the integral good of the person being refused communion (who is thereby being spared from committing the unspeakably heinous sin of sacrilege).
The second word in canon 915 that needs to be looked at afresh is “manifest”. Here I differ with Dr. Peters who, as it appears from his recent blog posts, reduces the question of whether someone’s sin is “manifest” to the issue of whether it is manifest to the people who happen to be in the communion line or in the Church building when the person in question presents himself for communion. I would argue against this reading of “manifest” on the basis of analogy with (1) the historical discipline of the Church and (2) the Church’s current magisterially mandated practice of refusing communion to the divorced and remarried.
In regards to (1), it is helpful to read Cardinal Raymond Burke’s 2007 article, “The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin”. In this article, Cardinal Burke has assembled a number of texts that show the historical continuity and consistency in the Church’s practice regarding the denial of communion to the publically unworthy. After reviewing all these texts, it becomes clear that the “public” or “manifest” character of someone’s unworthiness to receive communion is based (among other things) on types of lifestyle or profession. The publicly unworthy are those whose sin is public in principle. The tradition of the Church regarding the practice of withholding communion from certain types of sinners does not look primarily to the accidental knowledge of the bystanders who happen to be present but rather is grounded in the nature or character of the sin the person has embraced. Whether or not the person’s grave sin is “manifest” or “public” depends on the act itself—contextualized within some sort of populace, not necessarily within the populace that happens to be immediately present when the person in question presents himself for communion. For example, a married man who has a secret mistress is an occult sinner, but as soon as he leaves his wife and moves into his mistress’s house, he has gone public with his sin. He now shares an address with a woman who is not his wife. His situation is intrinsically public or manifest. The Church’s historical practice would be to refuse him communion, regardless of the knowledge or lack thereof of the bystanders.
A specific case in point can be seen in a particular text that appears in Cardinal Burke’s essay. As every canonist knows, canon 712 of the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches is the Eastern equivalent to our Latin rite canon 915. One of the fonts of c. 712 is a very ancient text from the early centuries of the first millennium. Burke writes about,
“a text of Saint Timothy of Alexandria, which underlines the responsibility of the minister of Holy Communion to refuse the Blessed Sacrament to a public sinner. The question is posed: Whether it is permitted to give Holy Communion to a heretic who presents himself to receive amidst a large crowd? Saint Timothy of Alexandria responds that it is not permitted to give Holy Communion to the heretic, even if he is not recognized in the huge crowd.” [Emphasis mine]
Here we have someone whose sin is of a public nature. The hypothetical person is a heretic (presumably he is in some sort of habit of associating with a heretical sect and doesn’t just hold his heretical opinions to himself quietly). Even if, per accident, the people standing by him while he presents himself for communion do not know he is a heretic, if the minister knows him to be such, the minister cannot in good conscience give him communion.
In regards to (2), we need to note that, for the past 30 years, the Magisterium has been putting out interpretations of canon 915 that have been directly challenging the interpretation we American Catholics have been giving it (including the interpretations found in English language canon law commentaries). Consult, for example, the CDF’s 1994 Letter To The Bishops Of The Catholic Church Concerning The Reception Of Holy Communion By The Divorced And Remarried Members Of The Faithful, the 2000 PCILT document I have referenced above, and John Paul II’s 2003 Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia.
A careful reading of these Magisterial texts necessitate an understanding of the term “manifest” in canon 915, that—however understood—by no means precludes the minister withholding communion if the bystanders in the communion line or those who happen to be present in the building are not aware of the cohabitator’s sin. For these documents, if I as a minister of communion am aware that the person presenting themselves to me to receive communion is a Catholic that is cohabitating, I cannot in good conscience give them communion. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else in the Church building at that present time knows this about the person. I know it, and I know that their sin is per se public. They are thus publicly unworthy. Any other interpretation of “manifest” in the case of such people is against the whole tenor of what the Magisterium has been trying to get across to us for the past few decades.
Now just as in the case of the cohabitator, the practicing and openly homosexual person has embraced a mode of life that is contrary to the moral law and is public in principle. If an active homosexual has no problems with showing up with her partner to public functions and introducing her to others as such, this person’s sinful lifestyle is open and public. She might not think her reputation has been publicly sullied, but she has brought upon herself the reputation of being a practicing homosexual, which objectively speaking is a sinful and disreputable lifestyle. No minister can lawfully give her communion. But this is precisely what obtains in the case of Ms. Barbara Johnson.
In closing I am saying that the whole “prior warning” thing is misleading and that Dr. Peters’ interpretation of “manifest” in canon 915 is too narrowly construed. Once canon 915 is interpreted in light of the historical practice of the Church and current Magisterial norms, it becomes clear that Fr. Guarnizo was properly implementing canon 915. This priest has been getting a bad rap for doing the right thing. Rather, I would think that when Fr. Guarnizo denied communion to Ms. Johnson, he was, to quote the above PCILT document, “conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls.” Are we?