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Fr. Guarnizo re-visited

March 22, 2012

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.


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  1. Thanks for your kind words. Several interesting ideas above, let me react to just two.

    1. The only conceivable irregularity/impediment for the exercise of Orders (c. 1044) in the Guarnizo case would be “amentia or some other physic illness”, for which I, from afar admittedly, see no evidence. So that doesn’t get us very far in understanding this case. But, that c. 764 (preaching), cc. 900/903 (celebrating Mass), and c. 974 (confession), may all be invoked against a priest with no showing of crime or mental illness (although either condition could suffice, obviously), suggests that all faculties for ministry could somehow be revoked, as here apparently, leaving a priest essentially in what used to be called by the commentators a “simplex” state. Maybe the term ‘administrative leave’ has become so loaded these days (by misuse, etc), that we should not use it anymore. I’m fine with that, it’s not a canonical term to begin with. We’ll need another term, though.

    2. The ‘development’ in Orders I had in mind you basically stated without realizing it. In a way analogous to bishops being recognized as possessed of dignity arising from their ordination and communion (and not just from the grant of jurisdiction from the pope), so priests are now better recognized as possessed of dignity in virtue of licit ordination (and not just as delegates of the bishop). Hence, the default setting in the 1983 Code is that priests (or deacons!) enjoy most faculties upon ordination (instead of their sitting for junior clergy exams, etc., per c. 970, olim c. 877) and suggests a ‘development’ in the accuracy with which we recognize priestly character. Mind, I’m not opposed to rethinking the idea of some qualifying exam for certain faculties (esp. confession and preaching) but they aren’t required now, so I must find another way, within the law, to describe Guarnizo’s status and, assuming I can do that, conclude that, so far, his rights have not been violated.

    • Well, yes, exactly, there is no irregularity in play here. But my point is that removing someone’s faculties for preaching, confession, and marriage (in this case), does not override the canonical fact that he can still celebrate Mass (I would argue publicly), he can still baptise, in other words, he is still ‘in’ ministry, at least those which the Code gives to him that do not require explicit faculties. Faculties are not required for every ministry. My secondary point, is that if those faculties which can be removed, are removed, then there must be a canonical justification for it; otherwise, it is a mere arbitrary use of administrative power, something which we both agree, the Code has tried to address. [And, yes, I did realise what I was saying. I don’t think you can correctly say that those are insights that happened well after the promulgation of the 1983 Code. Those insights were around long before. Therefore, administrative leave, covering a gap as you say, is not a response to ‘new’ insights. It’s a way of getting around the law which people don’t like.] If we take the VG at his word, what on earth does removing faculties have to do with being arrogant toward parish staff? Fine, remove his from office as parochial vicar. But administrative leave? what does that mean?

  2. Fr. MacDonald,

    Thanks to both you and Dr. Peters for your reasoned and dispassionate discussions of Canon law. I look forward to further posts.

  3. Very Interesting post, Father. I came here via Fr. Z, and I wish you much success with your blog. I will put it on my bookmark list.

    Semper Fi!

  4. Thomas permalink

    Greetings from a Scottish admirer, Father!

    I wondered if you might comment on this post on Rorate Caeli?

    In light of recent moves by Western governments to redefine marriage I have been thinking about the nature of legal positivism which we as Catholics condemn insofar as it proposes laws that are contrary to the Natural Law.

    But what of the Church? Occasionally when reading an opinion by a canonist (which I admittedly is not something I often do in my limited spare time!) I find it can smack of a kind of legal positivism as well. As if there were no appeal to moral truths outside of the code of canon law.

    My gut feeling is that the priest was right to refuse Holy Communion to this woman. Canon law disagrees (according to yours and Dr Peter’s reading of it) with me. But I know that if I recounted the situation to most orthodox Catholics they would instinctively feel that Fr Guarizo was correct.

    Can canon law contradict a correct sensus fidelium?

  5. ok, so please forgive me if you addressed this and I just didnt get it…but what if it didnt have to do with her gay status? and in the sacristy, she had told him that she was not a practising catholic and did not go to mass on Sundays…does the same apply if he refused her communion?

  6. Some of the arguments I’ve seen regarding Fr Guarnizo claiming he applied the canon incorrectly, as that woman’s sin was not public seem to forget one thing. She was at a funeral mass for her mother. I’d argue that most of the people there knew she was a practicing lesbian, and therefore her sin was public, and she was quite unrepentant as she was there with her lover. Do you think that the fact that most of the people at the mass knew she was an active lesbian changes the argument regarding the application of 915?

    • I saw that Fr. MacDonald already responded to your comment, but there was something else that came to mind. Even if her sin was manifest, would Fr. Guarnizo been able to ascertain if she was obstinate? Had she ever been corrected before? How many times? Was she raised or did she get her understanding of the Church in a liberal environment? If she has been stubbornly persisting in her lifestyle in opposition to the admonitions of a priest or bishop she would be obstinate, but Fr. Guarnizo wouldn’t have known that.

      In Him,

      • According to the June 24, 2000 Declaration issued by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts on this matter, prior warning is not necessary (although it is preferred.) Nor is an attitude of defiance required. All that is necessary is that the sin is enduring.

        ” 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.”

        Also consider this from the same Declaration: “In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures [prior counseling] 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.”

  7. I echo Mr. Porlick’s heartfelt thanks and eager anticipation of future posts.
    I suppose Dr. Peters’ encouragement has worked!
    I’ll make my own grateful contribution by bookmarking the blog and calling the Paris riot police, just in case.

  8. Dear Rev. Fr. MacDonald,
    I’m very glad that you have started your blog. Following this discussion of canon 915, I have heard one issue brought up quite a number of times, but I have never heard a canonist address it. Would you consider doing so?

    “Manifest” seems to be generally taken as “manifest to a particular community”, or, perhaps, “actually notorious in a given community” (with the indication that if someone went to another community where word had not yet reached, that person could not be refused communion there because of the risk of scandal). I’ve heard the argument, however, that some sins are manifest in themselves. For instance, if someone, having been divorced, remarries outside the Catholic Church, the remarriage represents a public, manifest, notorious, and gravely sinful state of life, therefore communion must be denied to people divorced and remarried even if it causes admiratio during the Liturgy or results in the loss of good reputation of the divorced and remarried.

    The argument states that because marriage is a public act by its nature, and anyone who looks into the matter can discover the divorce and remarriage, there is no need for the priest to ask how actually notorious the remarriage.

    A simile is set up between this and cohabition in general, and active and public homosexual cohabition in particular. Many of the laws that led up to this canon, it is pointed out, such as the Rituale Romanum of 1614, explicitely mention cohabitators as sinners manifestly infamous and sinful in a public way. Setting aside that the lady in question claimed that she was “married” to her lover — since I haven’t heard it claimed that Fr. Guarnizo was aware of this — the argument is made that merely openly living with one’s lover is an intrinsically scandalous and gravely sinful relationship. If an attempt is made to hide it in some way, it might be occult, depending on how widely know it is. If, on the other hand, it is open cohabition, then, the argument goes, it is a manifest sin even knowledge of it has not yet spread within a particular community because it can become knowable to anyone since it is of itself public.

    In this particular case, the priest could know with certainty that she was living in a homosexual relationship with a woman, and that she was not hiding it, insofar as she was introducing the woman as her lover. It seems like a reasonable assumption that, if she introduced her “lover” as such to the priest, she has done so or will do so to other people. Furthermore, since her lover was present, it would seem almost certain that she could not get through the wedding and reception without people learning of the relationship (these things have a way of spreading). And, if nothing else, it appears her brother was with her when she told the priest this, so her brother at least knew. Wouldn’t it be scandalous to those people who already knew and potentially scandalous to those who were likely to find out to give her communion? And wouldn’t this be a scandal not in the sense of admiratio, but rather insofar as it could lead people into error, either by thinking it was alright for someone living in an openly homosexual relationship to receive communion, or that acts of homosexuality were not considered scandalous and gravely sinful?

    But I’ve read canon lawyers say that the law is clear in this instance, and that he could not have made the judgment that her actions are manifest. Can you explain why this is (if it isn’t too much)?

    I’m confused about this because I have read that a priest has a duty under the Divine Law and Canon Law to not give communion to those persevering in manifest and grave sin. If, however, this is a cut and dry case, it would seem very difficult for a priest to “figure out” who is living in manifest and grave sin.

    I have a second question too, which is probably much easier, but I only want to ask one question at a time, especially when I’m unsure if you’ll be able to answer them. If you are too busy or unable to answer this question, I understand, but it’s very much bugging me.

  9. A supplementary question might be:
    If she had introduced the lady to the priest not as “my lover” but as “my spouse”, could the priest, having warned her to not receive communion, have denied her communion in a similar way to how he would deny communion to someone divorced and remarried?

    Thanks for your consideration.

  10. Here’s a repost of what I posted on March 16th:
    In Response to Dr Peters (English)
    In responsio ad Dr Peters (Latin)
    punoy melto lhakimo fetros (Aramaic)

    Western Catholic Code of Canon Law = CCC (1917,1983)
    Eastern Catholic Code of Canon Law = CCO (1990)

    Let’s start by saying that if Fr. Marcel Guarnizo was an Eastern Catholic priest, then what he did would have been supported fully by the laity and the Church. (Please see the CCO canons below.)

    Let’s analyse the point that Dr. Peters made with regards to CCC (1983) 915.

    He says “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.”

    Canon 915 from the CCC (1983) says “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.”

    Dr. Peters focuses on the following part of canon 1915, based on the known facts at the time of the incident.
    Canon 915:”others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion”;
    Dr. Peters render of Canon 915:
    “conduct in which a communicant perseveres must be obstinate, manifest, grave, and sinful”

    The fact is that she presented herself as a Lesbian in a sexual relationship to a priest that she didn’t previously know, outside of the seal of confession. Thus, given her boldness it can be justly concluded that her Catholic family members at the Funeral Mass knew of her status, as well as any invited Catholic friends she or her lover had invited. Any rational and reasonable person would arrive to this conclusion. So we’ve satisfied the part that says “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin”. In conclusion, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo was justified in his actions and any attempt to paint it otherwise is not supported by the facts, by Canon Law, or by reason.

    Also, given that CCC (1917) canon 861 gives us the clearest understanding of the duty of a priest in relation to a sacrilegious situation with regards to the Holy Eucharist and that CCO (1990) canon 712&713 clearly puts emphasis on preventing sacrilege against the Holy Eucharist; and following Pope Benedict XVI’s insistence that the Church is always in a state of continuity and not in a state of rupture, we can conclude with certainty that Fr. Marcel Guarnizo was right in his judgment to deny Communion.

    Canon 699
    §3. Other Christian faithful, by virtue of baptism and chrismation with holy myron, assembled in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, participate actively in the Sacrifice of Christ in the manner determined by the liturgical books or particular law, and do so more fully if they consume the Body and Blood of Christ from the same Sacrifice.

    Canon 712 – Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist.

    [According to the 1994 English translation correction of CCO canon 712 the word “forbidden” is changed to “to be prevented”. Book => Companion to the Eastern Code — Pontficio Istituto Orientale.]

    Canon 713 – §1. The Divine Eucharist is to be distributed in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, unless a just cause suggests otherwise.
    §2. Concerning the preparation for participation in the Divine Eucharist through fast, prayers and other works, the Christian faithful are to observe faithfully the norms of the Church sui iuris in which they are enrolled, not only within the territorial boundaries of the same Church, but, inasmuch as it is possible, everywhere.
    CCC 1917:
    Can 853. (This is what Dr Peters believes should be applied always, except where his strict understanding of CCC (1983) Canon 915 applies.)
    Can 855 §1. & §2.
    Can 856.
    Can 858 §1. & §2.
    Can 861. Praecepto communionis recipiendae non satisfit per sacrilegam communionem. (This is important to the point that Fr. Marcel Guarnizo made.)
    Can 866 §1. Omnibus fidelibus cuiusvis ritus datur facultas ut, pietatis causa, sacramentum Eucharisticum quolibet ritu confectum suscipiant. (This another one that Dr Peters will focus on excluding the previous canons.)

  11. theeremita permalink

    Dear Father,

    I have only one question (which arises from my ignorance):

    Doesn’t canon 843 §1 already deal with those situations where it would
    be unlawful for a priest to deny a sacrament?

    As I understand this canon (again, from my ignorance), it establishes
    the minimum conditions for a sacred minister to be obliged to confer
    the requested sacrament: the “requester” must “opportunely ask” for
    it, be “properly disposed” and not be “prohibited by law” from
    receiving it.

    So, I logically conclude that if any of these three conditions is not
    met, then the sacred minister doesn’t have an absolute obligation to
    confer the requested sacrament. Is this correct?

    The code doesn’t mention any criteria in order to determine if the
    “requester” is properly disposed. I suppose that it’s assumed in most
    situations. But doesn’t the fact that Ms. Johnson unsolicitedly
    presented her as an active homosexual and prevented Fr. Guarnizo from
    obtaining further clarifications on her situation constitutes enough
    evidence for him to doubt about her being “properly disposed” to
    receive the Eucharist?


  12. Father, could you please explain the impact of the June 24, 2000 Declaration of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts on this issue? It seems to me that the Declaration makes it very clear the Canon should be interpreted in a light that heavily favors the avoidance of scandal.

    In this circumstance, there was a Washington Post death notice which listed the woman and her partner “Ruth” as if they were a married couple. Plus, it was a funeral attended by family and friends, and the woman demonstrated her willingness to publicize her lifestyle. How is it possible to conclude that the opportunity for scandal was removed? It seems the Declaration required the priest to withhold Communion.

    Here’s the link to the Declaration:

    I know it references divorce and re-married people, but notice paragraph 5 draws in similarly situated people: “The Church reaffirms her maternal solicitude for the faithful who find themselves in this or other analogous situations that impede them from being admitted to the Eucharistic table…” It strikes me as quite logical conclude that the interpretation of Canon 915 should be consistent, and not vary according to the particularities of the grave sin.

  13. Wow, Fr. MacDonald, great to see another cannon law blog. I’m a fan of Dr. Peters (who isn’t?) and love to hear another perspective! So far I love your blog.

    Thomas, your question is a good one.

    Cannon law is not dogma, it can be and regularly is changed. Also, being against cannon law does not mean a thing is, in and of itself, bad. Celibate priests are the practice in the West. This does not mean marriage is bad, or even that married priests are bad (as in necessarily sinful). Cannon law can forbid things that are not sinful. But, by being forbidden, it becomes sinful not because of the act itself but because it becomes an act of disobedience. But, can Canon Law demand things that are sinful?

    Cannon Law cab be misused, not properly understood, and therefore specific instances of its use can be wrong. But, can cannon law itself teach something contrary to the faith?

    Is cannon law protected by the Holy Spirit from being in error? I don’t know. And the answer, “as long as it is properly understood, it can never be, if it seems that way you are just interpreting it wrong” seems too convenient to me, though that does not mean it is not correct.

    In this case, however, it is not a problem. There should be a cannon law against her receiving communion, and there is! A priest should not be able to withhold communion from me based on a guesses of what he thinks I might have done, and he can’t!

    Cannon Law does not permit sin, it forbids it explicitly and therefore, Cannon Law is not going against the Faith and states that she should not have gone to receive communion. What Cannon Law does not do, is allow the priest to give communion only to those he thinks are worthy, such an idea would be unfair to the laity and unfair to the priest. Only when it is clear to everyone why communion is being withheld can it happen and not be detrimental.

    Yes, this means that priests regularly give communion to people who are unworthy, I mean really, look at the length of the communion line, clearly not everyone is at that moment worthy to receive the Lord. Priests know that many people are receiving unworthily, and many former sinners are in a state of Grace.

  14. Welcome! (From a fellow Canon Lawyer!)

    • mortimer permalink

      come on get in here< fr. John, and help straighten this mess out…and bring it up to the level of Cardinal Wuerl where it finally belongs.

      • Sorry, I’m on a blog fast for Lent! (Reading some interesting ones but not doing my own just now. Will be back.)

  15. Welcome to the blogosphere Father! It’s good to see some thoughtful, dispassionate discussion.

  16. Thanks to you, Father, and to Dr. Peters. As a civil lawyer, I sympathize with the remark about legal positivism. Perhaps we are running into the difference between common law and civil code. The common law system of the Anglo-American tradition does not look to legislation to solve every problem. It fills in the gaps by applying common sense and principles that are express or implied in the developed jurisprudence, often beyond anything stated in legislation. It will not abide anything that “shocks the conscience of the chancelor.”

    A civil code system, such as the Napoleonic Code, is bound by legislation. It does not have the flexibility to deal with situations not envisaged by the legislator. You canonists seem to be working in a civil code system. If so, it is more than a little ironic, because the Church is the champion of the natural law, which is often the basis of common law decisions, although most lawyers and judges don’t call it that, but finds little opportunity in a civil code.

    And yet, perhaps there is an opening. In the discussions I have seen of c. 915, it seems to be assumed that Communion may be denied only if certain conditions are satisfied. But that is not what 915 says. It says Communion must be denied (ne admittantur) if the conditions are satisfied. By itself, it leaves open the possibility that other situations could warrant the denial of Communion. I didn’t hear any canonists howling when the Archbishop of St. Paul denied Communion to people wearing a rainbow sash or when the Archbishop of San Francisco said he would have denied Communion to two “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” if he had realized who they were.

    I am grateful for the comments regarding “administrative leave” and the withdrawing of faculties. I was worried when the Archdiocese first announced that the case would be handled as a “personnel matter.” It sounded suspiciously noncanonical, perhaps with the intent to veil the proceedings in the usual privacy claimed for “personnel matters,” especially when the personnel don’t want any privacy, and avoid the formalities and procedures that a canonical process would require. Evidently, a canonical process was avoided because it could not provide the desired result, throwing Fr. Guarnizo under the bus.

  17. luckythegoldenretriever permalink

    Bravissimo, Father!

    And you allow comments. Huzzah!

    An important element in this whole issue is the precise situation in which Fr. Guarnizo found himself. He was confronted, minutes before Mass, by a woman who self identified as a lesbian and who admitted involvement in a homosexual relationship. He had little opportunity to reflect on this matter, to pray about it or to sleep on it and he certainly had no opportunity to consult a canon lawyer, nor one of his superiors. He was placed on the spot and he made a spot decision. I think these are important details.

    It’s almost like being confronted with an intruder in your home. You have little time to reflect, little time to consider your options. The police are far away. You must make a decision now. Do you shoot or not? It’s a spur of the moment thing which, with hindsight, may turn out to be wrong but hindsight is 20/20.

    For this reason, I think much of the commentary on Fr. Guarnizo’s actions is Monday morning quarterbacking. The commentators weren’t there and most of them are not entrusted with the responsibility of distributing the Sacred Species.

    As for the statement of the Archdiocese that he was placed on leave for “arrogance to parish staff” and that the Communion issue is a mere coincidence…………….this simply insults peoples’ intelligence. Absolutely nobody believes it, it totally undermines the credibility of the Archdiocese and it reinforces the belief that Fr. Guarnizo was tossed under the buss.

  18. Marie permalink

    Dear Fr. MacDonald,
    Thank you and congratulations on your new blog. You seem to be a more reasonable canonist than Dr. Peters. I must admit Dr. Peter’s reading of the canon law applying to the Johnson-Guarnizo case drove me mad. I wished there were other canonists out there who do not disregard common sense.

    I’m quoting here parts of Dr. Peter’s response to Fr. Guarnizo’s letter, which (Peter’s) appear troublesome to me.

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

    Peters: 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 verified conduct).[/quote]

    This is where I have problems with Dr. Peter’s analysis:

    “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.”

    I am not a canonist, but in my opinion, Fr. Guarnizo not only alleges, but was utterly convniced that there is an “objective factor” by which to conclude for indisposition, and any person with common sense can see that.

    Okay, Let’s lay the “objective factors” out.

    A person may be refused communion if he or she is:

    1. Eating at the communion line. Objective factor: chewing, maybe an open packet of food in hand.
    2. Drunk – Objective factor: alcoholic breathe, slurred speech
    3. Cursing at the minister. Objective factor: an angry voice, vile language.
    4. High on drugs – Objective factor: erratic behavior
    5. Wearing gravely immodest dress – Objective factor: not enough fabric covering private parts
    6. Has received communion twice that day – Objective factor: Priest remembers giving the same person communion twice earlier that day.
    7. A non-Catholic – Objective factor: the person’s own words, if he had told the priest beforehand that he is not Catholic.

    So, along the same line, the Johnson case obviously displays an objective factor:

    8. A practicing lesbian – Objective factors: the person’s own words, completely unsolicited and without remorse, telling the priest before hand that she has a female “lover; also the presence of her “lover” makes her words an even stronger “objective factor.”

    At another Catholic forum, someone recalled the time Cardinal Pell (when he was still archbishop of Sydney) withheld communion to a group of homosexual rainbow sashers who presented themselves for communion at Pentecost. Cardinal Pell instead offered a blessing, which was refused.

    By Dr. Peters’ reading, Cardinal Pell would have been so wrong to withhold communion to these people.

    Again, thanks for your new blog.

    • Marie,
      Thank you, but please be careful. I do not like comparisons to Dr. Peters such as you make. He is much more learned than I, has much more experience. I am the novice.

      As for your commentary itself, you must re-read my posts. I am in agreement with Dr. Peters on the issue of c. 915 but not on the fate of Fr. G. Secondly many of the questions you raise have already been answered. But do, please, keep reading, having fun, and driving yourself nuts. I’m having a great time doing it too.
      Fr. MacD

  19. Marie permalink

    Thank you, Fr. MacD, for your reply.
    But don’t you think that Johnson’s voluntary information about her “lover” and the lover’s presence itself sufficient “objective factors” to discern indisposition?
    I know this question has been asked before, but neither you nor Dr. P seem to think them as objective factors and why not?

  20. Marie permalink

    Fr. MacD,

    I’m trying to make a parallel with the Johnson-Guarnizo case to your example:

    1, 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.

    J-G case: Johnson came into the sacristy, totally unsolicited, while Fr. G was vesting and introduced her female “lover.” Fr. G tried to talk to her, but she apparently walked away and while he tried to follow her through the narrow sacristy door, he was blocked by her “lover” who refused to move.

    2. 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.

    J-G case: Let’s say that Fr. G only got the chance to talk to Johnson right there at the communion line, telling her that since she is living with a woman (tactfully avoiding “in sin”), she MAY not received communion. Let’s also say that the priest was waiting for her response before deciding to give or not to give communion to her?

    3. What is Father to do when they boldly approach him in the Communion line? Most certainly not deny them Communion!

    J-G case: Let’s say that instead of listening and responding to what the priest was saying, Johnson merely switched to the Extraordinary minister’s line and received communion there. Fr. G would never know that Johnson was offended until she started talking to the media about the incident, and sending him a nasty note the next day.

    So how did you and Dr. P know that the priest would decide to refuse her communion without hearing her answer?

    As to what the Vicar General did to Fr. G, I totally agree with you. The charge of intimidation does not seem to have anything to do with his priesthood and the punishment seem an overkill. Thanks for writing about it.

  21. Jack permalink

    Wow, that was a brilliant read; thank you. I appriciate your delivery and train of thought. I think I now have an inckling of this curious event.

    Best of Wishes for Your Blog,


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