Fr. Guarnizo re-visited
Much has been written in the last couple of weeks on the incident in which Fr. Guarnizo refused communion to a woman because he claims that she had introduced herself and ‘her [female] lover’ to him in the sacristy before Mass. Reactions have been strong all around. The woman in question went to the press, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. placed Fr. Guarnizo on administrative leave [for unrelated issues he claims, which fact Fr. Guarnizo disputes], Dr. Edward Peters, a noted canonist, has written extensively in his blog on the correct interpretation of the canons which outline when Communion is to be denied, and so on. Some of the reaction has been quite erudite, and well-reasoned; other, emotional ranting. I, for my part, have also reacted; although, this is my first foray into expressing those reactions publicly. It seems to me that issues need to be separated and clarified.
First is the issue of whether or not Fr. Guarnizo was correct in refusing the woman Communion. While his opinion is very unpopular, I must come down firmly on the side of Dr. Peters. His explanation of the canons in question is correct, well-reasoned, supported by scholarship and well-documented. If people were to calm down, put their emotions aside, and think about what the canons say, they would see that this case was not one envisioned by the Supreme Legislator of the Church for the denial of Communion. We may not like the law, we may think it needs to be changed, but the law is what it is. Does that mean that Fr. Guarnizo may not have been rattled by his encounter in the sacristy? Of course not. Does it mean that we can’t be sympathetic to his erroneous judgment? Of course not. But it does mean that he interpreted the law incorrectly. I think what really has people upset, however, is not so much that Fr. Guarnizo may have made an error in judgment, but that he has been placed on administrative leave.
This second issue, the removal from ministry, which has not received any well-reasoned attention, needs to be addressed. The law is not being followed in placing Fr. Guarnizo on administrative leave. In as much as denying the woman Communion was a violation of her rights in canon law, so too is Fr. Guarnizo being denied his rights. Let me explain.
Dr. Peters opines in his blog:
“Canon law, a living legal system serving a living Church, is trying to catch up to some recent developments in, among other things, the theology of holy Orders, which developments have brought about, among things, the eclipse of the Pio-Benedictine category of “simplex priest”, leaving a hole in the law, or at least in its terminology, to describe a priest who is not under a penalty (c.o.), nor irregular for orders (c. 1044), nor restricted pursuant to a penal process (c. 1722). This category of priest undoubtedly exists (because faculties for preaching, confessions, sacramental acts, and so on, can undoubtedly be restricted or taken away without any suggestion of guilt, etc.), but the 1983 Code does not give us a neat term to denote such priests. Until such time, if any, as the Legislator chooses to give us such a term, the phrase “administrative leave” seems to cover that gap fairly well, or at least, it does so among people who know what they are talking about.”
Dr. Peters points out, and admits, that ‘administrative leave’ does not exist in canon law. According to him, the 1983 Code of Canon Law does not have a category, or a mechanism, by which to remove a priest from all ministry by administrative (i.e. non-penal) means. In other words, a priest who has been excommunicated, suspended etc. is prohibited from exercising his sacred Orders because he is being penalised for a crime which he committed. But what if he hasn’t committed a crime? What if his actions show that he ought not to be allowed to act as a priest? Which laws would apply? It is my firm contention that a mechanism does exist in the Code: irregularities. An irregularity to being ordained, and/or to exercising sacred Orders, is kind of like an impediment to marriage (but not quite, for all sorts of complicated canonical reasons.) It is something (an action – like having participated in an abortion [yes, some actions can be both crimes and irregularities], or a quality – like the lack of the use of reason) which prohibits a man from being ordained or exercising his Orders. It does not necessarily imply any guilt on the part of the man in question – kind of like one can’t marry a first cousin. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong; however it is something which prevents you from being ordained, or exercising Orders after ordination. In the days before the 1983 Code, for example, if a man was born without some of his fingers, (surely not his fault), then he could not be ordained or would not be allowed to continue to celebrate Mass (if he lost his fingers after Ordination.) Another example, which remains in the 1983 Code, is insanity. It’s not the poor priest’s fault he lost his mind! But we can’t let him say Mass or hear confessions any longer. So irregularities are not penal law: there is no crime involved. We canon lawyers call it administrative law. Just as the government has legislative, judicial (penal) and executive (administrative) power, so, too, does the Church. Irregularities are an exercise of administrative power.
Given that Fr. Guarnizo didn’t commit a crime by denying holy Communion (because it’s not listed as one of the delicts in the Code – now perhaps the woman in question, and some others, wish that it were a crime, but it ain’t), or given that a priest did some horrible thing which isn’t a crime, how can Church authorities address the problem? Well, there are several ways, but completely removing him from ministry, or administrative leave, is not one them. The only form of ‘administrative leave’ in the Code is an irregularity. But the things which qualify as irregularities are listed specifically, as crimes are, in the Code (see canons 1040-1049). Now don’t forget, we can’t play amateur canonist any more than we can play doctor. Canonical language has very specific meanings and we can’t just make words or laws mean anything we want them to mean. We have to be trained in order to discuss these things correctly (more on that later!) Canon 1040 states, “[…] No impediment is contracted which is not contained in the following canons. Nullum autem impedimentum contrahitur, quod in canonibus qui sequuntur non contineatur.” That means that there is no action, or quality, which completely impedes a cleric from exercising his Orders (deacon, priest or bishop) if it is not contained in the canons. Only the Supreme Legislator can add or subtract to those acts or qualities, and he has to do it by changing the law. Irregularities are the Church’s administrative way of saying that a priest may no longer exercise any ministry because his actions or qualities either place the sacraments in danger of being invalid or bring scandal and disrepute to the sacraments, including the priesthood.
Now, are there actions which bring disrepute to the priesthood? Of course. We need only to think about sexual abuse of minors by clergy. And here we arrive at an important part of the issue. Sexual abuse of minors by clergy is NOT an irregularity (and this canonist thinks it ought to be, but it’s not – see I don’t like the law, would like to see it changed, but I have to follow the law). It is a crime, however. When abuse is discovered, then a judicial process must be started, in other words, we have to prosecute the cleric. But what happened historically in the Church? Well, as we now know, many in the Church, in the not too distant past, were poorly trained in canon law and especially poorly trained in penal law (your average priest gets a course on marriage law in the seminary and precious little else – so while we’re all talkin’ about better formation of clergy!). So instead of using the means that the Code gave us for dealing with this crime (and yes, admittedly, there were problems with the penal law which made it difficult to deal with clergy abusers), and because irregularities didn’t solve the problem (although for many years canonists succeeded in misapplying one of the irregularities (c. 1044) to make it ‘fit’ the situation of sexual abuse), they came up with the idea of ‘administrative leave’. It’s a type of, “Well, Father, we both know you did something bad and quite frankly you can’t continue to be a priest, so we’re just going to insist that you stop performing any ministry.” Okay, so that’s a bad caricature but I think you get the point. Now for clerical sexual abuse, something big sure needed to be done, but for other things? Does an erroneous judgment about giving or denying Communion (even in the worst case that it was informed and done with malice) justify removing a priest from ministry completely? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
Dr. Peters says the living Code is trying to catch up to new developments in the theology of Holy Orders. Really? What new developments since 1983? If anything, the Code (and no system of law is ever perfect) tried to express the Second Vatican Council’s teaching and insights on the sacrament of Orders in its law. The Code expresses that a priest exercises his ministry in virtue of his sacred Orders and not merely at the will of the bishop. The bishop has to be careful about whom he ordains, but once ordained, the sacrament gives a cleric a certain freedom and dignity which cannot be removed except under very specific circumstances. You see, penal law is very specific. Adminstrative (executive) law is full of discretion: it gives more leeway to the person in authority. Therefore, the Code limited administrative power when it came to holy Orders because it recognised that a cleric is ordained to do something, and is supposed to do it whether or not the bishop likes him (and let’s face it, some of us priests are pretty unlikeable.) Hence the Code does not give a bishop the power to put a priest on administrative leave. It gives him the power to declare an irregularity for issues which the Church thinks serious enough to warrant a complete removal from ministry. It gives him the power, with some discretion, to limit individual aspects of ministry, like preaching, hearing confessions, witnessing weddings etc. for reasons connected to those individual ministries. The Church decided that the dignity of sacred Orders was more important than giving those with administrative or penal power the ability to correct every wrong and to exercise arbitrary authority. So what does the law allow, administratively, apart from irregularities? Some examples will illustrate.
Let’s say we have a priest who stutters terribly, or someone who just can’t deliver well a homily if his life depended on it. Does it make him a bad person? No. Is he guilty of a crime? No. Should he be allowed to preach at Mass? Maybe not. For the sake of argument, let’s say that poor Father just can’t put two ideas together and communicate them; people are calling the beleaguered chancellor every Monday morning complaining about the homilies, people are going to other parishes, the collections are down, and there just isn’t another priest available to preach on Sundays. Well, the Code allows a bishop to remove a priest’s faculties to preach (c. 764) (Yes, a priest needs faculties – a kind of permission – to preach, but that faculty is given to him by the law itself, and not by his bishop.) That would be an administrative way of restricting the priest’s ministry without implying any guilt on his part. Or let’s say Father is an excellent preacher but every Sunday he preaches for thirty minutes and it’s all mush about God is love, and law doesn’t matter, or maybe everyone is going to Hell (the possibilities are endless). Is he breaking the law? No. Is he prudent? No. Is his preaching effective? Most probably not. Should he be allowed to preach until he amends his ways? Probably not. Does it involve discretion of the bishop? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? No, of course not. Can it be abused? Yup, but welcome to the world of original sin, a possibility we have to allow for greater goals. The point, however, is that there is a mechanism to deal with these more messy situations.
What if Father is continually calling up the chancery on Monday mornings because he has neglected to get the needed dispensations for a marriage he performed on Saturday. This hasn’t happened just once, but several times. Should he be allowed to continue to witness marriages? Depends. The bishop could remove his faculties for weddings until such time as Father has shown his competency in the necessary canon law for marriage. That would be an administrative way of dealing with a problem. But even here we need to distinguish carefully. A Pastor validly witnesses marriage by the law itself because he holds the office of pastor. He does so invalidly (c. 1109) only if by sentence, or by decree he is excommunicated, placed under interdict, or suspended from his office (i.e. he is being penalised, not however in the case of a penalty latae sententiae). Hence, a bishop cannot prohibit a pastor from witnessing marriages by administrative power. He could require the pastor to submit his wedding files for verification to another person. But the only way to prohibit him administratively from witnessing marriages would be to remove him from the office of pastor. The case is different with someone who is not a pastor (like Fr. Guarzino who was a parochial vicar – assistant pastor). He often receives, from the bishop, delegated faculties to assist at any marriage in the diocese, which faculties the bishop is free to revoke. But nothing (except c. 1109 above) prevents a pastor (willing to risk the ire of his bishop) from delegating a priest, whose general faculty (previously given by the bishop) has been revoked, from assisting at a particular wedding, or indeed, any wedding in his parish (c. 1111).
What if Father likes to play around with the rubrics of Mass? You know, he does all sorts of weird things, makes up his own prayers, likes to have children read the Gospel and act it out at the children’s Mass, wears a stole over his jeans and polo shirt. Distasteful as it might be, it’s not a crime in the Code. It’s forbidden, but it’s not a crime. So how do we deal with it? Well, a priest can be prohibited from celebrating Mass only in two ways: because of a penalty (which doesn’t apply here, yet) or because of an irregularity (see canon 902, and commentaries on it, particularly the Exegetical and Navarre commentaries). Does that mean a bishop has to tolerate this nonsense? No. The Code allows him to make penal laws for his diocese or particularly for the priest in question. If the priest violates those laws, then he can be punished with a penalty which bars him from celebrating Mass.
Hence the law allows a bishop to address some individual ministries, even with strict conditions as we saw in the above examples, by administrative power. There are some, however, which he cannot address administratively, like baptism. Any priest may baptise anyone under the age of 14 (cc. 861, 863). No special faculty or permission is required (taking into account c. 862). Short of a cleric being irregular, excommunicated, suspended, or under penalty of a particular penal law, there is no way to prohibit a priest from performing baptisms of people under the age of 14, not even by administrative leave, because, even if one were to grant its existence, the salvation of souls must be the supreme law. All that to say that the Code does not give an Ordinary (save the Roman Pontiff) absolute authority over a cleric.
Getting back to the main point: to prohibit ministry in a global manner, the only mechanism is an irregularity. Therefore, I disagree with Dr. Peters (not something I am in the habit of doing) that ‘administrative leave’ covers a gap and works well among those who know what they are talking about. I don’t believe there is a gap (although the Legislator may decide to change the law to create ‘administrative leave’ as distinct from an irregularity.) Many canonists, or chancery officials, may wish there were such thing as ‘administrative leave’ but we must respect the law, even if we don’t like the law. Of course, we can’t force Dr. Peters to blog, with his customary clear and sound reasoning, a justification for his belief that ‘administrative leave’ is a viable canonical option. His doing so, however, would certainly add valuable insight to a much-needed conversation in canonical circles.
Third, (yes, all that and we only got through two issues,) the fact that Fr. Guarnizo is not incardinated in the archdiocese in which he works is canonically irrelevant to this case, other than, if he doesn’t like it there, he can move back to his own diocese. The Ordinary, under whom he works, can most certainly penalise him according to the law (cc. 1408 and 1412 as Dr. Peter’s has already shown) (a claim which Fr. Guarnizo refuted, demonstrating his need to study more canon law). Fr. Guarnizo, for his part, enjoys all the protection of the law which the Code gives him, even though he is not incardinated in that diocese.
Fourth, and finally, to put some of this in perspective, and in defence of Dr. Peters, if we were to consider some other scenarios, we might see why it was wrong for Fr. Guarnizo to deny communion. What if a young heterosexual couple came into the sacristy and informed Father that they were living together outside of marriage, that they were a little nervous because they hadn’t been to Mass in years but she wanted to do this for her deceased mother’s funeral. And let’s even say that Father dutifully, and compassionately, instructed the couple that it was good of them to honour her mother’s wishes, that it was not necessary to be uncomfortable as he would guide them through when to sit and kneel, but that they should refrain from coming forward for Communion. What is Father to do when they boldly approach him in the Communion line? Most certainly not deny them Communion! That’s on their consciences, not his. As priests, especially in this day and age, we often give holy Communion to people that we suspect are not in a state of grace. We have parishioners whom we know have missed Sunday Mass, even habitually, and yet, despite our preaching about the need for confession, still approach for Communion. And we admit them to Communion. Rightly so. Even some of our extraordinary ministers of holy Communion probably are distributing Communion while in a state of sin. While this woman’s homosexuality is a hot issue, we must keep it in perspective. As Dr. Peters demonstrates, her sin was neither manifest nor obstinate as canonical doctrine understands those terms. God will judge her if she received Communion unworthily. We, for our part, must wait patiently for the mercy and justice of God to be made manifest – even for our own sins!
So what are we to make of Fr. Guarnizo? He didn’t commit a crime in refusing Communion to the woman. There is certainly no irregularity about that. And even if the administrative leave is not the result of this incident, but of the fact that he is intimidating towards parish staff, well, what on earth does that have to do with the exercise of priestly ministry? I have a fight with my parish secretary so therefore I cannot celebrate Mass publicly, hear confessions, perform baptisms, witness marriages? Come on! Surely there has to be some connection between the administrative power used and the reasons for its use. If Father is mean to his secretary, then send him for an anger management course, or, egads, remove him from the parish (which indeed happened in addition to the ‘administrative leave’) and assign him some other work. Removing him from ministry is egregious overkill, besides being canonically illicit. And if, but let’s take the Vicar General at his word, this is really about the denial of Communion, then make Fr. Guarnizo take a canon law course (probably not a bad idea anyway,) make him issue a public apology to the lady (and, yes, swallow, for the good of everyone’s humility, the fact that this woman is provoking the controversy) and move on.
It’s time to stop the ranting, to pray for the woman’s conversion, to help Fr. Guarnizo understand that he acted wrongly (wrongly does not mean maliciously), to help him see that parts of his response show an ignorance which needs to be corrected, to pray that authorities will correct the uncanonical way in which they have treated Fr. Guarzino, and for all of us to be better informed about the law and discipline of the Church. Salvo meliore iudicio.