The lesbian communion incident: Canon law versus the Eternal Moral Law

Fr. Marcel Guarnizo was in the sacristy, preparing for a funeral Mass, when the daughter of the deceased entered with another woman. The daughter, Barbara Johnson, identified the other woman as her lover. She made a deliberate disclosure to the priest that she was in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. It was also evident from her words and actions that she is well-aware that her life choices are contrary to Church teaching.

The woman in question was baptized Catholic as an infant or child; her mother received a Catholic funeral. But Barbara Johnson publicly describes herself as a Buddhist and as having been “openly lesbian” for 25 years. She is not a believing Catholic; she is not a practicing Catholic. She has departed from the Catholic Faith by rejecting the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. Therefore, she cannot be admitted to holy Communion.

Can. 912 “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.”

Can. 915 “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

A person is automatically excommunicated, if he or she departs from the Christian faith by the sin of apostasy, or by the sin of formal heresy or formal schism. This woman departed by heresy, in that she rejected the teaching of the Magisterium on the immorality of homosexual acts, and by apostasy, in that she left the Christian Faith for a non-Christian religion (Buddhism). She is automatically excommunicated.

It is important to understand that automatic excommunication for apostasy, formal heresy, or formal schism is not only a provision of Canon law:

Canon 1364, n. 1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

but also an unchanging part of the eternal moral law. For each these three sins is inherently incompatible with continued Communion with the one true Church. Each of these three sins therefore automatically excommunicates the person who knowingly chooses to commit the sin, regardless of Canon law. If there were no Canons on this topic, the apostate, heretic, and schismatic would still be automatically excommunicated. If Canon law stated the contrary, then that Canon would be always null and void. For the eternal moral law is above Canon law.

Barbara Johnson is also obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin by choosing to be in a homosexual relationship for 25 years. She is not to be admitted to holy Communion for all three reasons: her apostasy, her heresy, and her unrepentant grave sin.

Over at Canon Law Blog, Dr. Ed Peters has interpreted the written law of the Church so as to accuse Fr. Marcel of breaking the law, by denying Communion to this woman. His interpretation of “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” takes only a legalistic approach. Though he admits that the woman sinned gravely, he nevertheless claims that Fr. Marcel acted illicitly and should have given Communion to her.

This same legalism apart from morality allows him to claim that a married permanent deacon may not have marital relations with his wife. More on this point.

Dr. Peters interprets Canon 915 as requiring a very democratic “majority rules” interpretation, so that “a substantial majority of the community in question” would typically need to be aware of the grave sin, in order for the sin to be “manifest” and Communion to be denied. But Canon law says no such thing. It says “manifest” as in ‘evident’ — not “manifest to a majority of the community”. The woman in question deliberately chose to make her grave sin manifest to the celebrant of the Mass.

The “obstinately persevering” requirement is also proven by her own words and actions: she went into the sacristy, before a funeral Mass for her mother, to boldly proclaim to the priest her grave and longstanding sin. She even brought her lover with her, to introduce her to the priest, in the sacristy, just before Mass. Her obstinacy in this grave sin continued over a long period of time, so much so that she was living with her illicit lover.

How could such a deliberate act be interpreted as not manifest, or not obstinately persevering? It takes a special type of Pharisaical interpretation of Canon law to reach such an absurd conclusion.

In my view and in the view of many of my fellow Catholics, the conditions for this Canon were easily met. Communion was licitly denied to her. She was told by the priest not to receive Communion. She did not feign ignorance as to why Communion would be denied to her.

Is it the case that only a Canon lawyer, such as Dr. Peters, is capable of correctly interpreting and applying this Canon? The Canon itself would be useless, if such were the case. For the persons who distribute Communion, who are bound by this Canon not to dispense Communion in certain cases, are generally not Canon lawyers. Rather, the Canon is written in plain language, which the ordinary priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister of holy Communion can understand.

However, the point that I would like to emphasize is that Canon 915 is not per se of Canon law, but of the eternal moral law. Some Canons contain direct expressions of teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Anything that is per se of Canon law is changeable and dispensable. Anything that is per se of Canon law is also subject to a legalistic interpretation. Pharisaism is not legalism applied to laws, but rather legalism applied to matters of faith and morals. And that is exactly the problem with Dr. Peter’s approach. He treats all of Canon law as if it were per se of Church law only, and he disregards cases (e.g. denial of Communion; deacons having marital relations) in which the eternal moral law takes precedence over Canon law in both its interpretation and its application.

The prohibition found in Canon 915 is, by its nature, of divine law and therefore it transcends the domain of ecclesiastical law. The interpretation, therefore, must be above all moral. the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts has a document on Canon 915 which says the same:

“The prohibition found in the cited canon, by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church. The scriptural text on which the ecclesial tradition has always relied is that of St. Paul: ‘This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord…..’ “

A legalistic interpretation and application of the law, in this case, would cause grave scandal to the faithful at Mass. For Barbara Johnson’s sin was manifest to many of the participants in that Mass. As at almost any funeral, many family members are present, and they know about each others lives. The family members of the deceased knew that this woman was a lesbian, openly living with another woman for 25 years. If the priest had given her Communion, he would have committed the grave sin of scandal. No legalistic interpretation of any law is sufficient to nullify the doctrine of the Church on faith or morals. No interpretation of Canon law can ever withstand the positive and negative precepts of the eternal moral law.

In addition, knowingly choosing to give Communion to persons obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin is a sacrilege. It is a grave offense against the Lord, because holy Communion is Christ Himself. So again, a legalistic interpretation that carefully parses the wording of the law, so as to allow giving Communion to persons known to be continually unrepentant from grave sin, is a serious error. Such an approach ignores the eternal moral law. If there were no Canon on this topic, or if a Canon stated the contrary, every priest would nevertheless be required by the eternal moral law to deny Communion in such cases. So the exact wording of the Canon is not at issue. And this is true because Canon 915 “is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws.”

Canon 915 is primarily an expression of the eternal moral law, and so it must be interpreted and applied according to moral norms, not merely, nor primarily, legal norms. “For whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks a sentence against himself, not discerning it to be the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:29). Dr. Peters’ legalistic interpretation of the wording of the law relativises the precepts of the eternal moral law, as if they were entirely dependent on the wording of the Canon, making the eternal moral law subject to legalistic interpretation, and thereby emptying these precepts of their substance.

The relevant document from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts considers the subject of denying Communion to persons who are divorced and remarried. Essentially, such persons are living with an illicit lover, not a licit spouse. The woman in question here, Barbara Johnson, is also living with an illicit lover. But her sin is more grave than the divorced and remarried: homosexual sins are more gravely disordered, and her rejection of Church teaching on homosexuality is also the sin of heresy. So the penalty that applies to the less grave sin, denial of Communion, can also be applied to the more grave sin.

More from the same document:

“Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

“The phrase ‘and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin’ is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable.”

But this is exactly the error of Dr. Peters. When interpreting Canon 915, he distorts “its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable” in a wide number of cases, contrary to the eternal moral law. His interpretation essentially ignores the grave sin of scandal and the grave sin of sacrilege.

“The three required conditions are:

“a) grave sin, understood objectively….

“b) 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.

“c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.” (PCLT)

The above document proposes only three conditions, whereas Peters proposes five.

The document considers that even divorce and remarriage is sufficient to constitute all conditions. That the couple lives in the same domicile makes the sin manifest. That family and friends know of this living arrangement also makes the sin manifest. The same applies to the lesbian who was denied Communion. She was openly living with another woman; her family members certainly knew of this, since she brought her lover to her own mother’s funeral Mass. If a man or woman has a secret affair, he or she does not bring the illicit lover to a funeral Mass, where many family members are gathered.

The obstinate persistence condition is met by the divorced and remarried by the fact that they live together. This is not a grave sin committed on one occasion, or even a few sporadic occasions. It is a deliberate and persistent choice to continue in what the Church clearly teaches is a grave sin. The lesbian who announced her sin to Fr. Marcel is in essentially the same situation, living with an illicit lover. So the obstinate persistence condition is met.

The only differences between her situation and that of divorced and remarried couples is that her sin is more gravely disordered, and she had the gall to announce her grave sin, in a fully deliberate manner, to the priest, in the sacristy, just before Mass. She also had the arrogance to approach for Communion after being specifically told she could not receive.

Her sin could hardly have been more objectively grave, or more manifest, or more obstinate. In every way, her sin exceeds the sin of the divorced and remarried who approach for Communion. And the the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts has declared that these divorced and remarried cannot be admitted to Communion under Canon 915 (as well as Canon 916). Therefore, Johnson, too, was morally and licitly denied holy Communion. The action of Fr. Marcel in denying her Communion was also morally-required, so as to avoid the grave sins of scandal and sacrilege.

I have never in my life heard of anyone proclaiming such a very grave and unrepentant sin, to a priest, in a sacristy, just before Mass. The malice of the act is astounding. It is as if she were standing at the foot of the Cross, announcing her grave unrepentant mortal sins before Christ Himself, as He was suffering for the salvation of all, and as if she were also mocking Him. The priest in question had a grave obligation under the eternal moral law to deny her Communion, so as to avoid sacrilege against the Eucharist and grave scandal to the faithful. If he had acted according to Ed Peters’ thinking, he would have sinned gravely himself.

Some of the holy martyrs of the Church suffered death rather than permit the Eucharist to suffer sacrilege. This priest lost his faculties indefinitely as a result of a similar holy act. But as for the opinion of Dr. Peters, I only have this left to say: Pharisaism never leads to martyrdom.

Edited to add:

Father Marcel Guarnizo issued a statement, quoted in part below:

Fr. Marcel: “In the past ten days, many Catholics have referenced Canon 915 in regard to this specific circumstance. There are other reasons for denying communion which neither meet the threshold of Canon 915 or have any explicit connection to the discipline stated in that canon.

“If a Quaker, a Lutheran or a Buddhist, desiring communion had introduced himself as such, before Mass, a priest would be obligated to withhold communion. If someone had shown up in my sacristy drunk, or high on drugs, no communion would have been possible either. If a Catholic, divorced and remarried (without an annulment) would make that known in my sacristy, they too according to Catholic doctrine, would be impeded from receiving communion. This has nothing to do with Canon 915. Ms. Johnson’s circumstances are precisely one of those relations which impede her access to communion according to Catholic teaching.” (Source)

What Fr. Marcel is essentially saying is that he based his actions on the eternal moral law, rather than on Canon 915. Fr. Marcel is bound by the requirements of the eternal moral law, and so he was compelled to deny Communion, regardless of Church law. Yes, it is certainly true: if the eternal moral law and Canon law conflict, we must always obey the eternal moral law, even if it means ignoring or contradicting Canon law.

However, my view is that Canon 915 is a limited expression of the eternal moral law on the topic of denial of Communion. And I would argue that, in this case, both Church law and the eternal moral law required the same action: denial of Communion.

See also: Who should be denied Communion under Canon 915?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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4 Responses to The lesbian communion incident: Canon law versus the Eternal Moral Law

  1. jbbt9 says:

    Excellent post Ron.
    As well reasoned and expressed as always.
    thank you

    God bless all


  2. V. Adamos says:

    Father Marcel in his statement said that “Ms. Johnson promptly chose to go to the Eucharistic minister to receive communion and did so”. So even though he denied her communion, he allowed her to take one from the minister. Is that ok, or am I missing something? And if that really happened, what is he defending?

  3. Paul Razalla says:

    I have mentioned this before, Ed Peters uses his weapon of the CIC (915), disregarding that a sacrilege is committed and further, the desecration of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. It seems to him that to be legalistic is far superior to the moral law. Peter would rather see the downtrodding of Out Lord just to satisfy the reasoning of CIC 915. And the problem is, he keeps harping on this, article after article.

    The punishment of Fr. Guarnizo was unjust. The DC diocese should be ashamed of themselves, defending a manifest heretic and apostate and punishing a good and orthodox priest for protecting Our Lord from further desecration.

  4. Paul Razalla says:

    V. Adamos, you didn’t read the whole report. He did NOT allow the Eucharistic Minister to give the lesbian Communion because the E.M. didn’t know what was going on. Besides, to prevent scandal, which would have been done if he advised the E.M not to give her Communion and therefore cause consternation at the Communion line. The lesbian simply moved to the ER.when she was refused by Fr. Guarnizo. She was probably already furious in her heart when she received Our Lord. (See 1 Corinthians 11:27)

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