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Canonical observations on Fr. Guarnizo’s statement of March 14

March 15, 2012

Fr. Marcel Guarnizo’s statement evidences misunderstandings of several aspects of Catholic law on the administration of holy Communion and confirms my sense that Guarnizo erred in withholding holy Communion in this case. Regarding those errors, I believe that he, and those inclined to support or even imitate him, need correction.

Preliminary points

I offer here canonical commentary, and that, only for those who are interested in the operation of canon law in the Church and are aware of (or willing to take direction on) how this venerable legal system serves the Christian community. Those suffering, regardless of their doctrinal views, from various kinds of ecclesiastical antinomianism are invited to address their more basic concerns about the role of law in the Church in another context.

I comment here only on Guarnizo’s decision to withhold holy Communion from Barbara Johnson on Feb 25, except briefly to correct one parenthetical remark by Guarnizo: he apparently thinks that Cdl. Wuerl does not have the authority to “suspend” him. I have stated all along that Guarnizo is not suspended, but there is no question that Wuerl could suspend Guarnizo, or apply any other appropriate penalty, if things come to that (cc. 1408, 1412).

This is a blog post (if a longish one), so I can’t include as much scholarly apparatus (e.g., footnotes, in-text citations) as befits a study of this matter. Likewise, I must leave some useful but secondary points of law unstated here; none of those points, however, in my opinion, would rehabilitate Guarnizo’s decision in this case.

Summary of pertinent facts

Guarnizo admits that he only met Johnson a few minutes before her mother’s funeral Mass, admits that he had no knowledge whatsoever about the Johnson family, and offers no indication that he knew anything about the congregation gathered for Mass that day.

Guarnizo says that, a few minutes before Mass started, Johnson appeared in the sacristy and introduced another woman as her “lover”; further conversation was prevented by the “lover” standing in a doorway. There was apparently no mention of Johnson’s possible lesbian activism, her cohabitation status (if any), her degree of ‘alienation’ from the Church, or her possible involvement in Buddhism.

There is no reason to doubt but that Johnson was baptized Catholic and there is no evidence that she ever proffered an “act of formal defection” (when such were possible) or has been found guilty of a canonical crime such as apostasy (c. 751, 1364).

Primary applicable canons

Notwithstanding some unguarded talk about no one having the right to receive holy Communion, canon law provides a complex of norms that upholds the faithful’s fundamental rights—rights ultimately conferred by Christ through His Church—to receive the sacraments. Cappello, DE SACRAMENTIS (1945) I: 361.

Canon 213 asserts the right of the faithful “to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments”; Canon 843 § 1 forbids ministers from withholding sacraments from those “who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them;” and Canon 912 states that “any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.” Moreover, Canon 18 requires that any law restricting the exercise of rights (as Canon 915 certainly does) be strictly interpreted, that is, that the restrictions in Canon 915 be construed as narrowly as reasonably possible. Considered individually or as a group, these canons are strongly pro-reception.

The chief norm requiring the faithful to prepare well for the worthy reception of holy Communion is Canon 916. Of its nature, however, Canon 916, dealing essentially with internal forum matters, does not (any more than do several other canons in the Code) lend itself to exterior enforcement by ecclesiastical authority. Canon 916 binds gravely in conscience and an accounting to God of one’s conduct under that canon (or at any rate, under the values it protects) will be owed by each Catholic at Judgment. But Canon 916 itself is not regarded as an object of external-forum enforcement by ministers of holy Communion.

In contrast, Canon 915 binds ministers, not recipients. Prescinding from rarely encountered excommunication and interdict situations, Canon 915 lays out several distinct conditions that must be simultaneously satisfied before a minister of Holy Communion may (and indeed, should) withhold the Eucharist from a member of the faithful. To justify withholding the Eucharist under Canon 915 according to its plain terms, the conduct in which a communicant perseveres must be obstinate, manifest, grave, and sinful. These conditions must be understood and assessed according to the Church’s canonical tradition, else, one is no longer talking about the law of the Catholic Church.

Given the very strong canonical presumptions accorded the faithful in regard to reception of the sacraments, and given the strict interpretative hermeneutic set out in Canon 18, the burden is, without question, on the minister of holy Communion to verify that all of the conditions listed in canon 915 are satisfied before he withholds holy Communion from a member of the faithful who approaches for it publicly.* Put another way, the burden is not on Guarnizo’s critics to prove that he should not have acted as he did in this case, rather, the burden is on Guarnizo to prove that he acted in accord with Church discipline.

Summary argument on Canon 915 in light of Guarnizo’s admissions

Guarnizo did not know, and could not have verified, whether Johnson’s sin (speaking objectively), which could be grave (a conclusion I think a Catholic could reach based on the words used here) was also manifest, as well as obstinate and perseverating. Yet such factors, according to a host of respected commentators writing over many decades, must be verified before withholding holy Communion from a member of the faithful. Consider:

“If the priest … doubts the publicity or notoriety of the crime, it would certainly be safer to give the Holy Eucharist to one who publically asks for it.” Dom Augustine, COMMENTARY (1920) IV: 230.

“Occulto peccatori qui publice accedit ad sacram Mensam administranda vero est sacra communio … si fideles, quippe cum eis indignitas non sit nota, timore afficiantur, ne et ipsi infamentur, si sacerdos ob … ignoratiam, errorem, etc, eos praetereat.” Jone, COMMENTARIUM (1954) II: 100.

“If there is doubt about the notoriety of the sin, the communicant is to be favored in public.” Abbo-Hannan, SACRED CANONS (1960) I: 854.

“Before a minister can lawfully refuse the Eucharist, he must be certain that the person obstinately persists in a sinful situation or in sinful behavior that is manifest (i.e. public) and objectively grave.” Kelly, in GB& I COMM (1995) 503.

“The minister of holy communion should not publicly deny communion to a person who, being afflicted by grave sin and/or subject to a non-declared penalty latae sententiae [e.g., for apostasy] is not notoriously under those situations.” Gramunt, in EXEGETICAL COMM (2004) III/1: 615-616.

I know of no commentator who disputes these views. In terms of Canon 915, and given Guarnizo’s factual admissions above, I conclude that Guarnizo erred in withholding Communion.

Interestingly, some language in Guarnizo’s statement suggests that not even he thinks that Canon 915 provides cover for his decision, and we now turn to other factors that he thinks might justify his withholding Communion from a member of the faithful who asks for it publicly. We must determine whether these grounds (a) would support him in principle and, if so, (b) whether they would do so in fact.

Guarnizo’s appeal to other grounds

G: 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.

In principle, Canon 844 § 1 directs Catholic ministers not to administer most sacraments to non-Catholics (though for somewhat different reasons and with somewhat different implications depending on baptismal status of the petitioner). Baptized Catholics, however, are presumed to be Catholics until death (absent satisfaction of some very rarified conditions), and therefore, notwithstanding their possible self-description as non-Catholic, they continue to enjoy the benefits of the strong pro-reception canons outlined above. Canon 844 does not support withholding the sacraments from baptized Catholics, and indeed, it adds to the norms supporting reception of same. Guarnizo’s implicit appeal to Canon 844 fails as a matter of law.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Johnson identified herself as Buddhist before approaching for holy Communion and, even if she had so claimed, there is no way that Guarnizo could have confirmed her new status (essentially, as an apostate) based on a few words before Mass. Guarnizo’s implicit appeal to Canon 844 fails as a matter of fact.

G: If someone had shown up in my sacristy drunk, or high on drugs, no communion would have been possible either.

In principle, intoxication would be a good example of not  being properly “disposed” for the reception of the sacrament under Canon 843 § 1. Guarnizo does not, however, claim that Johnson was intoxicated or high on drugs, so, his implicit appeal to Canon 843 fails on the facts.

That said, what Guarnizo might have meant that his awareness that Johnson had a female “lover” sufficed for him to conclude that she was not properly “disposed” to receive holy Communion. If so, there are several problems with that claim.

Most traditional canonical and sacramental authors who discuss “disposition” for sacraments divide their analysis of “disposition” into ‘objective’ factors (such as being obviously drunk) and ‘subjective’ factors (such as being in the state of grace, or motivated by right intention, etc). Cappello, DE SACRAMENTIS (1945) I: 401-407, 444-450; Halligan, ADMINISTRATION (1963) 111-113.

Guarnizo alleges none of traditional ‘objective’ factors by which commentators could conclude for indisposition (e.g., eating food in the Communion line, or cursing at the minister, gravely immodest dress, having communicated twice that day, and so on), so, he can only be impugning Johnson’s ‘subjective’ state. That kind of discernment, however, is impossible for human ministers to make, and is another reason why Canon 916 (which operates in the realm of conscience) is distinct from Canon 915 (which operates only in the realm of verified conduct).

G: 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.

For reasons I can develop elsewhere, I think that withholding holy Communion from those divorced and remarried outside the Church is an application of Canon 915 (see, e.g., Kelly, in GB&I COMM [1995] 503), but I need not prove that point to show that withholding the Eucharist from divorced-and-remarrieds, that is, those who status is de iure public, is appropriate under, among other things, the 1994 CDF Letter on Communion for Divorced and Remarried Catholics, n. 6. Of course, as Johnson is apparently not divorced and remarried outside the Church, and because Guarnizo did not suspect her of being so, his implicit appeal to the CDF letter and/or c. 915, fails in law and in fact.

In brief, I find none of the additional arguments which Guarnizo offers for his conduct sufficing to justify it.

Some other brief points made by Guarnizo

G: Ms. Johnson’s circumstances are precisely one of those relations which impede her access to communion according to Catholic teaching.

The syntax of this sentence is not clear, but it amounts to a gratuitous assertion, resting on a continuing confusion between a recipient’s duties under Canon 916, and the minister’s duties under Canon 915. To grasp the difference between these two norms is grasp the essence of the thing.

G: Ms. Johnson was a guest in our parish, not the arbitrer [sic] of how sacraments are dispensed in the Catholic Church.

First, canon law does not require parish membership for admission to holy Communion in a parish; second, it is very inappropriate to refer to any baptized Catholic as a “guest” in a parish church (cc. 1214, 1221); and third, the Church is the arbiter of how sacraments are to be dispensed (c. 840), and she does so through her canon and liturgical law. Ministers of the sacraments are bound to observe those laws faithfully (cc. 838, 841, 846).

G: In all of the above circumstances, I would have been placed in a similar uncomfortable position.

The minister’s comfort level is irrelevant to his duty under the law. I believe some priests perform private acts of reparation for sacrilegious Communions which they fear might have been committed with their material cooperation.**

G: Under these circumstances, I quietly withheld communion, so quietly that even the Eucharistic Minister standing four feet from me was not aware I had done so.

The lack of immediate commotion associated with Guarnizo’s action is irrelevant to whether he withheld holy Communion from a would-be recipient, and if so, whether he acted rightly. In any case, the commotion that his action provoked in its wake has been enormous.

G: But I am going to defend my conduct in these instances, because what happened I believe contains a warning to the church.

I, too, believe that this case is warning to the Church, a warning to make sure that ministers of the Eucharist understand and observe the Church’s sacramental law. The Church can best defend herself from a hateful world seeking her harm when she follows her own rules; but when she, or hers, fail to do so, the problems become legion.

Final remark

I have long believed that the express terms of Canon 915 support its much wider application against certain prominent scandal-giving Catholics, and I have labored to advance the application of Canon 915 ad bonum Ecclesiae et salutem animarum. Serious misapplications of the values underlying Canon 915, however, undertaken by ill-informed ministers and touted by grossly ill-formed partisans, only set back the cause of seeing Canon 915 applied correctly today.

* There is no doubt but that one approaching holy Communion at Mass in a parish church, as Johnson did, is approaching the sacrament publicly. Note that the ability (indeed, duty) to withhold holy Communion from persons approaching privately (an uncommon scenario these days) but believed by the minister to be unworthy, is wider. Abbo-Hannan, SACRED CANONS (1960) I: 854; Jone, COMMENTARIUM (1954) II: 100, etc.

** Here are a few words for priests grieved by having to administer holy Communion to persons whom they strongly suspect are unworthy: Jone, COMMENTARIUM (1954) II: 100, wherein “Huiusmodi damnum publicum vitandum autem sufficiens est causa, quae cooperationem materialem ad peccatum alterius permittit.” and Cappello, DE SACRAMENTIS (1945) I: 476, wherein “Quidam scriptores, praesertim rerum asceticarum, exaggerant gravitatem peccati Communionis sacrilegae. Cavendum est ab omni excessu, ne fideles, rudes praesertim et pueri, in desperationem coniiciantur.” These words, coming as they do from priest-authors who were pastors as well as scholars, might offer some consolation to ministers grieved by seeing fresh wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ.

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