Canon law vs. anonymous voices? (updated)

Several things are becoming clearer here in Beltway-land, as coverage continues of the clash between Father Marcel Guarnizo and the Buddhist-Catholic-artist-gay-activist Barbara Johnson. Before addressing a few key themes, here's the top of the recent Washington Post article that covered the latest development in the case.

A Gaithersburg Catholic priest who triggered national debate late last month when he denied Communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral Mass has been placed on administrative leave from ministry in the Washington archdiocese.

Details about why the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo was barred from ministry -- a severe penalty -- were not immediately available. The Washington Post learned of the action from a letter dated March 9 that was written to other archdiocesan priests. The letter from Bishop Barry Knestout, a top administrator in the archdiocese, which covers Washington and its Maryland suburbs, says the punishment was for “engaging in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”

At this point, it's clear that Guarnizo was -- to some degree -- a controversial figure in the region before the Johnson episode, serving as a leader for conservative pro-life Catholics, in particular. This would make him a controversial priest to the Catholic left, which is a powerful force -- to say the least -- in Catholic affairs in Maryland and D.C.

It would be speculation to say that this automatically means that he was targeted for elimination by Johnson or anyone else. It is not, however, speculation for journalists to see that there is public evidence of doctrinal clashes around him, clashes between his supporters and his enemies. It is not speculation to say that the Archdiocese of Washington does not welcome clashes of this kind and that its leaders are quick to make moves to make public conflicts go away.

I have found the comments of canon lawyer Edward Peters to be particularly helpful on several aspects of this case. For example:

Isn’t it just splitting hairs to describe Fr. Guarnizo as being on “administrative leave” when everyone knows he is suspended?

We are talking canon law, right? Well, canon law is an ancient legal system that, over many centuries, has developed numerous terms of art. Canon law is not secret, but neither is it simple. Those who want to discuss canon law intelligently must understand and observe canonical definitions, or risk talking nonsense. In any case, it is not incumbent on canon lawyers to run around explaining their terms to everyone under the sun who wants to express an opinion about this canonical issue or that. Instead, it is incumbent on those many others to find out (or at least to take some guidance on) how canon law uses certain words before pronouncing judgment.

The word “suspension” denotes a canonical penalty imposed only upon guilt for a canonical crime (c. 1333). In the not-too-distant past, some ecclesiastical officials, including bishops, misused the word “suspension” to describe what may be more accurately described as “administrative leave” ..., but when they did so, canonists, publicly and privately, corrected that misuse of terms and, for some time now, the mistaken use of “suspension” seems to have faded out among ecclesiastical leadership. Deo gratias. Only to reappear now among some bloggers. Sigh.

But: if you are talking canon law, and you describe a cleric as “suspended”, you have described him as being guilty of a canonical crime. Therefore, those describing Fr. Guarnizo as “suspended” are canonically defaming him.

And, at the parish conflict level, there is this:

Little in Knestout’s letter suggests that this action is being taken in response to the lesbian/Communion controversy (though one may be sure that the pro-lesbian camp will claim victory, and the pro-Guarnizo camp will decry the ‘mistreatment’ of the priest).

The allegations of “intimidating behavior” by Guarnizo are not recited in Knestout’s letter, but three questions would occur to me: (a) is this just a pile-on by people looking to kick Guarnizo while he is down?, or (b) are there long-standing legitimate complaints against Guarnizo that the recent controversy made more likely to surface? , or (c) did Guarnizo’s post-controversy conduct in the parish render him intemperate with others, provoking what are really recent complaints? Such are the things that an investigation is designed to, well, investigate.

Peters also notes something strange about the phrase "a severe penalty" in the Post story referenced above. In an online version of the story, that phrase was connected -- by a reference URL -- to one of his blog posts. However, Peters is quick to note that the "very first point of my post ... is that Guarnizo is NOT under a penalty (let alone, a severe one, a description of suspension that I never used)."

The key, once again, is that this conflict seems to be unfolding along the familiar lines of similar Catholic wars about church doctrines, especially on sexuality, and the attempts of conservative Catholics to advocate church teachings and to enforce them. In other words, the Post is now a key player in a battle between competing camps of local Catholics.

So, who are the key players? That's where I see a major journalism problem developing. Consider this passage:

The interaction between Johnson and Guarnizo, who grew up in Northern Virginia and has spent much of his ministry in Russia and Eastern Europe, triggered intense and emotional debate among Catholics on the Web.

Some said being in a same-sex relationship makes someone automatically ineligible for Communion, a moment that Catholicism teaches creates the actual presence of Jesus Christ and is not for people outside of a “state of grace.” Others said the process of determining a person’s “state of grace” is complex and personal, something between a Catholic and God.

The key words? That would be "some said" and "others said." I also think that was supposed to say, "something between a Catholic, his or her priest and God." Otherwise, we'd be talking about Protestantism.

Oh, and by the way, note the use of highly specific journalistic attributions in this summary passage -- not.

So who are the key players in this bitter debate, other than the folks who are writing press releases for the Johnson camp and the legal team at the archdiocese? Who is on what side, in terms of the parish conflict? Who is willing to go on the record -- in the parish and inside the archdiocese -- in support of Johnson and in opposition to this priest?

No clues so far. I guess the key players need to remain anonymous.

UPDATE: Here is another essay, coming from a conservative Catholic source, that does a fine job of running through the details of this case and stressing -- time after time -- that Catholics on both sides of the dispute simply do not know the facts at this point in time. The key, again, is that readers do not know what is happening in the parish at the heart of the conflict.

Please respect our Commenting Policy