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Catholic Communion in the news, again

One of the terms that journalists hear during many continuing education sessions at the Poynter Institute down in Florida is "stakeholder." Basically, a stakeholder is someone whose life will be directly affected by the accuracy and fairness of a story. This stakeholder may be a source in a story. Then again, it could be someone who is part of an institution that is being covered in the news. The key -- again -- is that their lives will be directly affected by this story, positively or negatively.

This stakeholder concept is, in effect, a way of forcing journalists to broaden our thinking, to help us realize that while many stories do have two sides, many others have multiple stakeholders whose views must be taken seriously.

A key element of "stakeholder theory," you see, is that journalists must listen carefully when stakeholders keep insisting that a newsroom's coverage is flawed or slanted. It is especially important when they say that information is consistently inaccurate or that stories consistently contain crucial gaps.

With this gatekeeper concept in mind, let's look at an A1 story in The Washington Post that is creating a lot of online heat and some light. It's an emotional, gripping story -- the kind that screams out for balanced, fair-minded coverage. Here's the top of the report:

Deep in grief, Barbara Johnson stood first in the line for Communion at her mother’s funeral Saturday morning. But the priest in front of her immediately made it clear that she would not receive the sacramental bread and wine.

Johnson, an art-studio owner from the District, had come to St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg with her lesbian partner. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.

“He put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin,’?” she recalled Tuesday.

She reacted with stunned silence. Her anger and outrage have now led her and members of her family to demand that Guarnizo be removed from his ministry.

It soon becomes clear that this is, to say the least, a story with multiple stakeholders.

First, there is Barbara Johnson, who is convinced that the priest's action was rooted in "politics," not in doctrine. The story makes it clear that the family is focusing its rage on the priest, not the Catholic Church in general. It also includes this information:

Johnson’s mother and late father were lifelong churchgoers who scraped to send their four children to Catholic schools, said Barbara and her brother, Larry Johnson, a forensic accountant who lives in Loudoun County. Barbara lives in Northwest Washington and for years taught art at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, her alma mater.

Second, there are the leaders of the local gay community, whose outrage is not as nuanced as Johnson.

Third, there is the Archdiocese of Washington and its leadership. The archdiocese quickly apologized for the priest's "lack of pastoral sensitivity" and even added that his action violated a local policy. A quote from that statement made it into the report:

“When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person,” the statement said. “Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.”

Finally, there is Guarnizo himself and those who believe that he was doing his best to follow church law in what was clearly a rushed, difficult setting. In other words, he did not have time to find out (a) if Johnson's relationship with her "partner" was sexual, which would violate church teachings, or (b) if she was a regular communicant at another parish (perhaps a more liberal Catholic parish) in which she has some kind of confessional relationship with another priest. The bottom line: The priest was not sure that the daughter was still a practicing Catholic in a sacramental relationship with the church.

The priest declined to be interviewed, perhaps at the request of archdiocesan officials. The story does make it clear that pro-Vatican Catholics (sample here) are rising to defend the priest and to criticize the local church leadership. The story notes:

“Fr. Marcel Guarnizo has been thrown under the bus for following Canon Law 915!” wrote one Catholic blogger in the archdiocese. “The issue here is not the priest but Barbara Johnson.”

While this story contains a variety of voices representing various flocks of stakeholders, including the archdiocesan leadership, it does not contain any material that attempts to explain the viewpoint of the priest.

In other words, to use Poynter language, it appears that Father Guarnizo is not a stakeholder in a story that centers on his actions and beliefs. This is most strange.

For example, please note that passing reference to "Canon Law 915." It would be logical for readers to ask, "What, pray tell, does Canon 915 say, since there are those who believe it is linked to this priest's actions?"

Canon 915 will, of course, be familiar to anyone who closely follows debates about the sacramental status of Catholic politicians who publicly and consistently oppose the teachings of their own church. However, I would argue that Canon 915 should have been quoted in this story. It states:

Canon 915: "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."

From the viewpoint of the priest and his defenders, the key words would be "... others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin."

Those words are relevant -- if the priest is a stakeholder in this story, a person whose views need to be accurately and fairly reported. But he is a stakeholder, isn't he? After all, his career is on the line.

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