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Faith Leaders Respond to Catholic Priest’s Denial of Communion to Lesbian Parishioner

The National Religious Leadership Roundtable, convened by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, responded to the action by a Roman Catholic priest who denied communion to a lesbian parishioner at her mother’s funeral in Maryland this past weekend.

Father Marcel Guarnizo of Gaithersburg’s St. John Neumann Catholic Church denied communion to Barbara Johnson. “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin according to the church,” he was quoted by Johnson as saying. The priest also left the altar while Johnson delivered a eulogy and did not attend the burial.

Earlier this week, Johnson received a letter of apology from the Rev. Barry Knestout, one of the archdiocese’s administrators. Archdiocese officials also released a statement saying that the priest’s actions were against “policy.” But while Johnson appreciates the apology, she is calling for Guarnizo to be removed.

Responses from National Religious Leadership Roundtable Members

Marianne-Duddy Burke, Executive Director, DignityUSA:

What happened to Barbara Johnson is one of the most heinous denials of pastoral care imaginable. In reality, what occurred was a denial of Jesus’ ministry, which so often showed an embrace of those on the margins and which regularly set aside the laws of ritual purity in order to attend to people’s needs. Most Catholics will be appalled by this priest’s actions. Members of our church know the profound comfort that the Eucharist can be at times of grief, and how important our church’s rituals can be in bringing families together. Tragically, this incident only added to the family’s pain.

DignityUSA has called on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to establish an advisory committee to discuss how church officials deal with issues of importance to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and our families. This incident is just one more illustration of the need for a better understanding of our community’s pastoral care needs. We want to prevent any other families from experiencing this kind of pain at such a critical time.

Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry:

A disgraceful action like this from a priest should not be tolerated. Though the Archdiocese of Washington has acknowledged it was an error, what is still needed is a public apology from the priest and an offer of pastoral mediation between him, the woman, and her family.

New Ways Ministry calls on Catholics to contact Cardinal Wuerl and ask that he speak strongly to oppose such blatant discrimination and pastoral incompetence. Catholics support free and equal access to communion of all Catholics, especially at such a pastorally critical moment as a funeral, just as they strongly love and support LGBT people. Cardinal Wuerl needs to instruct all his priests and pastoral ministers not to repeat such an action. The archdiocese should provide pastoral training on LGBT issues for its priests and pastoral ministers.

It’s important to keep in mind that Fr. Guarnizo’s action is not representative of the thousands of priests who minister daily to LGBT and heterosexual Catholics across the country. At the same time, one incident is one too many. As the blogosphere echoes with the reverberations of this story, this priest’s action is sending a loud negative message about the Catholic Church to LGBT people and their allies. While we try to correct this negativity by writing to the cardinal, we must also counter it by reminding people of our own stories of positive and affirming Catholic parishes that welcome and celebrate LGBT people. Most importantly, we must speak out to Cardinal Wuerl to ensure that reconciliation occurs, and that an incident like this one never happens again.

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., Co-Director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER):

The Eucharist is a sacrament not a political football. All are welcome at the table. Barbara Johnson and others who are denied their rightful access to communion have their spiritual rights violated. Until those rights are restored, let people of goodwill set their own welcome tables.

This terrible abuse of one family at a time of great pastoral need is but a snapshot of anti-LGBT theology in action. It is outdated, outmoded and outrageous. The institutional church owes the family an apology and the priest a remedial course in sacramental and pastoral theology.

Dr. Michael Adee, Executive Director, More Light Presbyterians:

We grieve that this daughter and her family experienced judgment rather than grace and care. We cannot imagine how a priest or pastor could fail to provide pastoral care during the funeral of a loved one. Regardless of any human-made institutional church policy, let us remember that it is God’s Church, God’s communion table and Christ’s invitation, not ours. We are all children of God. We’re all part of God’s good creation, including God’s LGBT children and their families.

Rev. Dr. Nancy L. Wilson, Moderator, Metropolitan Community Churches:

When I heard that communion had been denied to a daughter at her mother’s funeral because the daughter is lesbian, I remembered the words of Jesus who urged his followers to be known by their love for one another. It is time for the Catholic Church and all Christians to be known by their love rather than their judgmentalism. As the head of Metropolitan Community Churches with ministries in 40 countries, we know that God is love — so if it’s not love, it’s not God.

Howard Solomon, President, World Congress of GLBT Jews:

As president of the World Congress of GLBT Jews, I am distressed anytime religious leaders choose prejudice and divisiveness over acceptance and inclusion. As a Jew, I would not pretend to tell Catholic leaders specifically how to act. However, any person of faith can see that being doctrinaire at a funeral to a family member of the deceased is insensitive and inappropriate almost beyond comprehension. Good people of faith must stand united against such actions.

Rev. Troy Plummer, Executive Director, Reconciling Ministries Network, United Methodist Church:

Shunning a grieving daughter at her mother’s funeral is a heartless act that violates the great commandment Jesus gave us to love God and love our neighbor. When judgment trumps compassion the Gospel is lost. My heart goes out to a lesbian daughter who loved her mom enough to eulogize her while enduring such unfaithful actions.

Bob Gibeling, Lutheran, National Religious Leadership Roundtable:

There is no greater personal insult to a Christian in a worship experience than the denial of communion elements. To compound this insult by inflicting it during the funeral of a person’s mother is reprehensible. As Pastor Barbara Lundblad of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has often commented, whenever Jesus had to choose between a law and a person, Jesus always chose in favor of the person. The priest who inflicted this insult deserves the strongest form of discipline possible for not following the example of Jesus himself, who said absolutely nothing about same-gender couples but preached volumes about helping hurting people.

Rev. Harry Knox, Interim Executive Director, Integrity USA:

Integrity USA, which works for provision of all the sacraments to all the baptized in the Episcopal Church, stands firmly with our sister Barbara who was denied communion at the funeral of her mother by a Catholic priest. We acknowledge Barbara’s pain and pray that Christ’s reconciling love will fill her heart and that the healing presence of the Holy Spirit will mitigate her hurt. She showed she knew the humility that invites a blessing from Christ when she arrived at the altar; the fact that a priest forgot what he knows about the unconditional love of Christ will not keep her from true communion with her Redeemer, no matter how stingy the soul of this misguided priest.

Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, Institute for Welcoming Resources and Faith Work Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:

‘Christ is the host, Christ sets the Table and Christ welcomes all’ — every Sunday as we take communion, our congregation acknowledges that it is God in Christ who invites, offers hospitality and is extravagantly welcoming. Especially because of this boundless grace, it is devastating to hear that a fellow pastor has so deeply violated a child of God seeking communion. That the child of God was the daughter of the woman whose funeral the church was celebrating makes the pain exponentially worse.

Now is the time to end this kind of ecclesial abuse; Lent offers us, as individuals and as the church, the opportunity to turn toward God’s love and justice. I pray this experience will help us do so.