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Priest who denied lesbian communion suspended

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Father Marcel Guarnizo, the Roman Catholic priest who denied Barbara Johnson communion at her mother’s funeral because of her sexual orientation, has been placed on administrative leave. According to a statement from the Archdiocese, the suspension is for “engaging in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.” The Archdiocese of Washington DC and the pastor of St. John Neumann parish, Father Thomas LaHood, have both claimed that the suspension is not directly related to his denial of communion, but rather in his words and actions in the time following that incident.

“The Archdiocese has acted appropriately in removing Father Guarnizo from ministry,” said Allen Rose, President of Dignity/Washington, the largest Chapter of the national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholics. “We are encouraged by this action, which will do much to restore Catholics’ faith in our Church’s commitment to pastoral ministry.”

The February 25th incident wherein Johnson’s family says Fr. Guarnizo covered the bread with his hand and stated, “I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin” has prompted a national debate among Roman Catholics and others about who is worthy of receiving communion and when and how it is appropriate to deny someone communion. Initially, an official from the Archdiocese sent an apology to the Johnson family, indicating that the family received a lack of kindness from the priest in their time of grief and offering a private mass to the family. However, days later, the Archdiocese backtracked by publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post, claiming that priests have the obligation to deny communion to gay and lesbian people if their sexual orientation is known. The Archdiocese continued to call being gay or lesbian a “grave sin” for which one should seek forgiveness.

Even as the larger debate continues in Roman Catholic circles about who is eligible to receive communion, GLAAD has been working with Barbara Johnson, Dignity USA, and media outlets, to ensure that the focus of the story is on proper pastoral care of the family who is in grief. Beyond the rules of canon law is an understanding that priests are called to minister to those who are in grief over their loved ones. The initial apology from the Archdiocese and the reasons stated about the removal of Fr. Guarnizo indicate that his gifts do not lie in pastoral care or pastoral ministry.

This was the main complaint of the Johnson family when the incident occurred. The family issued a statement that focused on the Church’s role in pastoral care. “While we understand this letter does not pertain to the events that occurred at our mother’s funeral, we are hopeful that Bishop Knestout’s decision will ensure that no others will have to undergo the traumatic experiences brought upon our family. We urge all Catholics to put aside political points of view, and pray that our Church will remain in Christ’s love.”

The media around Barbara Johnson’s story has further alienated Catholics across the United States, further demonstrating how Roman Catholic leadership is out of step with the vast majority of Catholics on support for LGBT people. It is possible that this corrective action shows that Catholic leadership recognizes that their church should care for people, rather than just rules or political positions.

“The removal of Father Guarnizo is a good first step in response to the outrage of the denial of Communion at a family funeral,” DignityUSA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke said in a statement. “Now, we call on the Archdiocese of Washington, DC and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to work on addressing the climate that allowed Father Guarnizo to believe this was an appropriate response. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics and our families experience exclusion at Mass every single week, although in ways not as dramatic as this incident. We need our Church leaders to hear what this feels like to us, and to work with us on ways to strengthen our Church. Can we honor the memory of Barbara Johnson’s mother, whose faith was clearly so important to her, by beginning to talk with each other?”

GLAAD commends the Washington Post for bringing this story in great detail, and with a fair and accurate portrayal of Barbara Johnson and her family. We will continue helping Barbara Johnson tell her story, and amplify the voices of other pro-LGBT Catholics. 

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