Toward the end of last month, a woman attended the funeral Mass for her mother at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md. (not far from where I live). She went out of her way to inform the priest who was to celebrate the Mass of her sexual relationship with another woman. In accordance with the clear requirements of the Catholic Church’s rules governing the Eucharistic ministry, when Barbara Johnson the approached the altar for communion, Father Marcel Guarnizo “quietly withheld communion, so quietly that even the Eucharistic minister standing four feet from me was not aware that I had done so.” Willfully taking advantage of his effort to act with discretion, Johnson “promptly chose to go to the Eucharistic minister to receive communion and did so.”

Asserting that she had been “humiliated,” Johnson promptly demanded that Father Marcel (as he is often called by those who know him) be removed from the diocese. A short time ago the archdiocese, apparently catering to her demand, issued a statement announcing that Father Marcel’s “assignment at St. John Neumann Parish is withdrawn and he has been placed on administrative leave with his priestly facilities removed until such time as an inquiry into his actions at the parish is completed.”

I spoke with Father Marcel this week, confirming firsthand the account he shared in his recently released public statement. God knows why the Archdiocese of Washington would choose this moment to take a punitive stance toward a priest who simply carried out his clearly prescribed duty to act with respect for the Living Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I know that people suggest that withholding the Eucharist is somehow unloving. But for centuries the prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas has reminded practicing Catholics of the grave spiritual risk involved in the unworthy reception of the Eucharist, as we pray “that this holy communion may bring me not condemnation and punishment, but forgiveness and salvation.”

Given the risk incurred, how can it be loving for a celebrant or Eucharistic minister simply to ignore it when someone presents herself for communion after purposefully declaring that she is among those who “are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” because they “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin”? If we were dealing with a risk to her bodily health, I doubt that anyone would pretend to misunderstand the situation. For example, suppose someone tells the host of a reception that she is allergic to peanuts. In reply he tells her that she must avoid the wontons being offered by some servers as they are fried in peanut oil. Would it be loving and considerate for the host to ignore her statement and offer her the damaging hors d’oeuvres himself?

Of course, people who doubt the reality of spiritual harms will scoff at the notion that they should be treated as or more seriously than the risk of physical suffering and death. But does it make sense for responsible authorities in the Catholic Church to take actions that convey this casual attitude toward a person’s spiritual life? In fact, the Church has always treated these matters with the utmost seriousness. In the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ “Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful who are divorced and remarried,” they are approached with the utmost care and rigor:

“The scriptural text on which the ecclesial tradition has always relied is that of St. Paul: ‘This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself.’…

“In effect, the reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion.”

These days, on account of the media elite’s pervasive bias toward godless materialism, susceptible individuals within the Catholic hierarchy may be tempted to make managing this media’s anti-Catholic hostility a higher priority than seeking first the kingdom of God with respect to the true substance of love. This true priority doubtless accounts for the conclusion of the aforementioned Declaration:

“Pastors must strive to explain to the concerned faithful the true ecclesial sense of the norm, in such a way that they would be able to understand it or at least respect it. In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy. They are to do this with extreme charity, and are to look for the opportune moment to explain the reasons that required the refusal. They must, however, do this with firmness, conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls.”

The Declaration further suggests that the responsibility of the Eucharistic minister is so imperative that “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it.”

The logic of this Declaration supports the conclusion that a Eucharistic minister must err on the side of reverence for the Living Presence and concern for the grave implications that follow from unworthy reception of Holy Communion. This casts serious doubt on the good judgment of those Church officials who apparently surrendered to Barbara Johnson’s demand that Father Marcel be removed from priestly duties in the archdiocese.

Right now the Catholic Church, and a large part of the whole American Christian community, has taken a firm stand against the coercion of conscience involved in government mandated support for abortion forced upon Church-related institutions. But the stance of conscientious objection requires and presumes conduct that consistently gives first priority to the demands of conscience as they conform to God’s will. Is it credible to defy the provisions of civil legislation on grounds of conscience while contravening the demands of conscience codified in the laws of the Church? Is it right to demand that the government show greater respect for the Church’s conscience than responsible Church officials do? If, despite the risk of grave spiritual harm to individuals and to the community, the accommodation of manifest grave sin is tolerable for priest and other members of the Catholic Church with respect to what the Catholic Church regards as an indispensable tenet of the Catholic faith, why is it so intolerable with respect to the similarly grave issue of complicity in abortion? Both involve deadly spiritual damage. Abortion involves the infliction of deadly physical harm as well. Is it consistent with the Church’s true priorities to suggest that it sees the latter as somehow more worthy of conscientious observance? What then of Christ’s priorities when he said, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

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