One-sided battle of the Catholic canons

So, as I see things, it appears that the principalities and powers at The Washington Post have reached an interesting legal conclusion in connection with the ongoing drama that is the clash between Father Marcel Guarnizo and the Buddhist-Catholic-artist-gay-activist Barbara Johnson. It seems that the Post team has decided that Roman Catholic canon law is carved in stone and bulletproof when it comes time to throw the book at a priest who -- as the evidence seems to show -- erred on the side of rigor in his attempt to defend the sacraments of the church.

However, it seems that the canons are meaningless -- not even worth mentioning -- when it comes to the actions of a former, or inactive, or openly rebellious Catholic who makes the decision to present herself for Holy Communion after telling that priest about her rebellion against a key church doctrine.

Before looking at this past weekend's Post feature on this case, let's return again to the weblog of canon lawyer Edward Peters, who has staked out an intellectual position on this case that is tweaking activists on both sides. Read the following carefully:

There is not, and never has been, the slightest doubt but that a Catholic woman living a lesbian lifestyle should not approach for holy Communion, per Canon 916.

The language in question:

1983 CIC 916. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

Back to Peters:

One so approaching risks receiving the Eucharist to her own condemnation. 1 Corinthians XI: 27. But, once any Catholic approaches for the public reception of holy Communion, a different norm controls the situation, namely, Canon 915.

The only question in this case is, and has always been, whether the centuries-old criteria for withholding holy Communion from a member of the faithful were satisfied at the time this woman approached this minister. Unless all of those criteria were satisfied at that time, then, no matter what moral offense the woman might have committed by approaching for the Sacrament in her state (for which action she would be accountable before God), the minister of holy Communion acted illicitly. Period. End of paragraph.

Now, if the minister of the Church acted illicitly in this case (and the information available to me indicates that he did), he needs to be corrected (not punished, corrected). That said, his evident love for Our Lord in the Eucharist, and the conditions under which this decision seem to have been suddenly thrust upon him, suggest that there is no deep disrespect for certain members of the faithful at work in him, and the demands for him to be severely disciplined seem aimed more at exploiting the incident than at resolving it.

So, for the Catholic left, the key to this legal and doctrinal puzzle is this question: Was Johnson, as a self-proclaimed Buddhist lesbian living in a committed same-sex relationship, "conscious of grave sin" as she approach the altar at her mother's funeral?

The answer, saith the Post, is clear: No. She was not conscious of sin because she does not believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church on the relevant issues.

But if she does not believe the teachings of the Catholic Church, why does she want to take part in its central sacrament, a sacrament reserved for those who are living in Communion with the church and its teachings?

Thus saith the Post, in a passage that is clearly coming straight from Johnson and her kin:

... Johnson was back home in Washington, wrestling with her own Catholicism, which had waxed and waned through her life as she confronted truths about her own sexuality. In the past decade, Johnson had returned to her alma mater, Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, to teach art, a move she said was part of a process of coming back to Catholicism on her own terms.

The question, of course, is whether one returns to the Catholic church on one's own terms or on the church's terms. According to the church, the answer is that the Catholic church and its leaders are in charge of defining those doctrinal terms. According to Johnson, that decision is up to her -- a stance that Catholic leaders will describe with one simple word, which is "Protestant."

Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence, as there should be, that the ever-cautious and very mainstream Archdiocese Of Washington has had just cause to question the actions of Guarnizo at that moment. The Post has, properly, made that clear.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Post team realizes that Johnson was violating the laws of her church on that day, as well.

This was, in effect, a violent crash between two cars that were veering out of their lanes.

There is much to discuss in this news feature, including a classic example of why the word "cult" or "cultish" should never, ever, be used in news copy without (a) an adjective to describe how this word is being used ("personality cult," perhaps, or "a doctrinal cult") and (b) without strict and clear attribution to show who is hurling this epithet at the group in question. The article also ends with a rather blatant slap that is sure to anger some readers and please others (try to guess which side gets slapped).

But the key is that the story offers readers one half of the Canon law complexities in this case.

Readers need both halves of that equation. Readers need to see the evidence on both sides of this fight, if the goal is journalism.

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