Denying Communion in DC

The Washington Postreports on a Christian woman who was denied Communion in Washington, D.C.: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.

Barbara Johnson

To deny someone a role in his or her mother’s funeral for whatever reason is shocking and cruel. Such a denial being employed on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation is blatantly discriminatory.

The specific form of denial used in this episode has a long history, however.

Denying Communion to a Christian challenges the status of that believer’s soul, effectively accusing the person of living in sin, which threatens his or her salvation. Christian religious authorities have used the tactic of denying access to the Eucharist (body and blood of Christ) for centuries, although it is somewhat rare to hear of it in today’s world.

The issues of who (if anyone) has the authority to deny Communion and under what circumstances has been debated by Christian theologians. Denial of Communion may be perceived as an act of discrimination or even as an aggressive attack on a believer. Religious authorities and organization have long been empowered to discriminate against believers and to expel lay people who fail to meet their standards.

Historians of early modern Europe are familiar with evidence of Catholic authorities denying Communion to believers. In the Latin Christian Church, the Pope periodically used excommunication to bar individuals, or even entire communities, from Communion.  Protestant churches have used very similar tactics from the early days of the Protestant Reformation. Lutheran communities outlawed Masses for the Dead and insisted that believers conform to a new liturgy for the Eucharist. Calvinist churches in Geneva and Scotland excluded sinners from the Lord’s Supper, as they referred to Communion as a commemorative act. The Council of Trent clarified and standardized the Catholic liturgy of the Mass, as well as techniques for dealing with “defects” in the celebration of the Eucharist. Some early modern historians see these tactics as part of a much broader pattern of “social disciplining” during the period of the Catholic and Protestant Reformations.

Sixteenth-century Reformers intensely debated the proper meaning and form of celebrating the Eucharist. Such debates were not merely intellectualized theological debates, since ordinary Christian priests and believers had to negotiate how to perform Communion rituals in their local communities. The sharp differences over this central Christian act were instrumental in producing the European Wars of Religion.

This historical context suggests that acts of denying Communion should be perceived as acts of religious intolerance and symbolic violence.

For more information on the historical development of Communion during the period of the Reformations, see: Lee Palmer Wandel, The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Northern Illinois University students in HIST 414 European Wars of Religion, 1520-1660 will be interested in the Washington Post article.

Update: the Washington Post has published another article updating this story.

This entry was posted in Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, European Wars of Religion, French Wars of Religion, Religious Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

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