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Unpacking Catholic Outrage Over Barbara Johnson

Posted in Editorials on March 7th, 2012

Last week, a story broke about a Catholic woman in Maryland who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral because she is a lesbian.

I read comments about this on social, media and saw many outraged Catholics criticizing the priest in question. While I think it shows how far the LGBT movement has come that this is a huge news story and so many people are outraged on Barbara Johnson’s behalf, it frustrates me. I think it’s a good sign that so many people are feeling compassion for this woman – even religious straight people. But this whole controversy is at the heart of why I left the church, so it touched a nerve for me.

In 2004, the Archbishop of St. Louis publicly stated that John Kerry could not receive communion in his diocese because he is pro-choice. This was the last straw for me. I knew that it would only be a matter of time between denying communion to pro-choice public figures and all pro-choice parishioners. Not every bishop denied communion to Kerry, but Archbishop Burke was not reprimanded in any way – his behavior was fine with the hierarchy, and there would be nothing to prevent similar actions from taking place in the future. I felt sick – I was no longer welcome in my own church. And a few years later, Pope Benedict was elected, the man who wrote memos in favor of pro-choice politicians being denied communion. This was evidence that people like Benedict and Burke showed the true direction of the church, not more moderate leaders who wanted to put as many people in the pews as possible, regardless of their disagreement with church doctrine.

The situation with Barbara Johnson is sad on many levels. It’s sad that her mother died. And it’s sad that a priest, who was supposed to comfort her rejected her in such a public way. Receiving communion is a big deal for Catholics. To be told that you may not do so can feel like a devastating rejection. This is why so many Catholics are outraged. It’s not just the denial of communion, which people seemed ambivalent about in John Kerry’s case. It’s that the rejection happened on a day when Johnson was mourning her mother’s death. This outrage comes from the compassion people are feeling for any person who is suffering because a loved one had died. If this had been on any other Sunday, or if Johnson had gone to the press because her priest had refused to marry her and her partner, this story would not have made such a splash. To me, this signifies that the outrage is not over denial of communion or the churches position on homosexuality, it’s that the priest publicly humiliated a woman who was mourning the death of her mother.

There are some Catholics taking the position that “a no-sin rule would bar all from Communion” but this misses the point. Most of the people who make the news for being barred from communion do so because they disagree with the church’s position on divorce, choice, or gay rights – that is their positions on sexuality. No one is barred for being a crooked businessperson, for supporting the Iraq war or the Death penalty – the first of which is a violation of the Ten Commandments, and the latter two the church could not be more clearly against. This is entirely political and it’s entirely the politics of sex and patriarchy. Being outraged that the church has turned the Eucharist – the rite most scared and holy to Catholics into a political weapon is the reason why I left the church. The hypocrisy of proclaiming it to be essential to spirituality and a relationship with God, and then denying it to people because of their personal sexual choices or opinions is the utmost hypocrisy.

The Archdioceses of Washington has issued a weak apology, but it misses the point. I find myself in solid agreement with this Catholic blogger who states that the preist was “thrown under the bus for following Canon Law.” I don’t think that homosexuality is a sin, of course. But I do think the this Father Marcel Guarnizo was in fact, simply following the rules of the church. And that is the source of my frustration with the Catholic response to this story. These people who attend Mass, give money and time to the church find themselves outraged that the church is following it’s own rules. This is nonsensical. If you are outraged, why are you still Catholic?

There is no way for any average parishioner or even priest to change the course of the Catholic Church.
You can stay, seething in outrage, you can complain – as if you were complaining to a brick wall, or you can leave, and free your conscience from the burden of supporting an institution that treats people so cruelly. *
*Exit, Voice and Loyalty

3 Responses to “Unpacking Catholic Outrage Over Barbara Johnson”

  1. Sheri Says:

    I am still Catholic for the same reason I am still an American. Any institution run by people has it’s flaws, some more major than others, but I feel that the possibility for good and reform is there. No I don’t agree with everything the Catholic church does (in fact I HATE a lot of their rules), but I feel that eventually, the Church will catch up to society, and slowly the major problems will be worked out. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, but the Catholic Church is a very old institution, it can supposedly trace it’s roots back to St Peter, and in it’s 2000 year history, it has slowly evolved… the key word being slowly. But I believe at its core, the Catholic Church is good, and I hope that one day it will be even better. Just as if you look at the history of the Church, there have been times it has done very horrific things, but also has done a lot of good, and for that reason I can not abandon it. I view its flaws as man’s flaws, not the religion’s.

    Because I can’t describe it well, I will make this comparison: I haven’t moved to Canada because the US has murdered thousands of innocent people in the Middle East, or turned their backs on war ravaged villages in Africa, and I still won’t move to Canada if Mitt Romney gets elected. So I won’t abandon the church because of it’s flaws. I look at the US just as I look at the Church: an overall good institution that has immense potential for good, but needs lots of reform.

  2. MissCherryPi Says:

    Yes, I think that Catholic people are good people (or can be just as good as any other group). But I think that the reason ultimately that it isn’t comparable to moving to Canada is that in the United States, I can vote, I can lobby my representatives, I can run for office, and try to influence public discourse. So if I see something wrong, it’s up to me to try and change it.

    Speaking up too loudly against the church could get me excommunicated. And by nature of being a woman, I could never ever be a part of the decision making process, so I have no influence or control over the Church. No lay person does. Many people believe that the church will change because it must or risk becoming obsolete and forgotten. But often when religious are threatened, they become even more reactionary instead of yielding to pressure. And so I left before I could be kicked out.

  3. Sheri Says:

    Very true. There are huge differences between the two, and there’s no democracy in the Catholic Church. But I couldn’t think of any other comparison, since I’m having a hard time describing how I feel.
    But I do believe that the Church will change because over the course of its history, it has changed. It just takes a freaking long time. But the basic principles (leading a just, moral life and following the teachings of Jesus) that are at the heart of the Church, I feel are good, and I can’t abandon it because of the bad things that happen when people make bad interpretations when applying them. Application of these principles can go awry because though they are good principles, individual applications depend on the interpretation and judgment of people, which can never be 100% perfect. These are inherent problems with any institution. The Church’s problem is that it is enforcing moral doctrines from the Old Testament that are not applicable or just today, though they may have been necessary for society at the time they were written. But I have faith that eventually they will slowly realize this problem and change for the better. But yes, it is up to people already in charge in the organization to start these changes, but when they realize that almost all of their followers feel a particular way, eventually I believe they will start to change.

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