It is my contention that the cocktail of religion and human nature can be so dangerous precisely because of the propensity that a person has to presume that one cannot be wrong in religious matters. It is too easy for the denial of human fallibility to eclipse compassion even in a religion of love. In other words, the tendency to think that one cannot be wrong renders much invisible. In fact, efforts to make the lapses transparent are regarded typically as an affront to be justifiably attacked. I am reminded of M. Scott Peck’s theory of malignant narcissism in religion. The narcissism is actually the defenses that can be observed in a person’s conduct. They in turn surround a sense of emptiness that is felt by the narcissistic person at his or her core being. Of course, the emptiness is psychological rather than physical. It is in reaction to the felt-emptiness that the narcissist in religion refuses to confront even the possibility of fallibility—that one can be wrong.
According to the Huffington Post, a “Catholic priest who was pulled from ministry after a furor over denying Communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral insists he did the right thing and criticized the Washington archdiocese for disciplining him. . . . Guarnizo said he learned moments before the funeral at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md., that Johnson was a lesbian and was attending the Mass with her partner. Guarnizo refused Johnson Communion when she approached the altar during the liturgy. The Archdiocese of Washington said the priest’s action was a violation of church policy because he had not spoken in detail with Johnson beforehand to be able to make a proper determination of her status. The archdiocese later placed Guarnizo on administrative leave, citing ‘intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry’ in unrelated incidents.” In other words, Guarnizo should have taken Johnson aside before the Funeral Mass, rather than confront her as she was approaching him to receive communion. At the very least, Guarnizo’s so obvious lack of compassion for a grieving daughter at her mother’s funeral should be a huge red flag. The priest’s pathology may even affect his cognitive functions.
The Huffington Post also reports Guarnizo as asserting that he “denied Communion to Johnson— a baptized Catholic—on the same basis that he would have denied it to a ‘Quaker, a Lutheran or a Buddhist,’ or someone who ‘had shown up in my sacristy drunk, or high on drugs.’” However, according to the Catholic Church, membership is a very significant factor in whether someone can receive communion. Furthermore, to liken a woman living with a woman to being drunk or on heroin in church represents still another category mistake. The priest was confusing having sinned from being mentally and physically able to receive communion at the Mass. In other words, he was not thinking with all his ducks in a row.
Moreover, Guarnizo’s refusal, being based on his belief that Johnson had sinned, would mean that any member of the Catholic Church who has sinned after having gone to confession should be denied communion. How many Catholics attending Mass on a given weekend are in a state of grace? Moreover, is one human being able to judge whether another is in a state of grace? Who is to say that Guarnizo was in a state of grace in acting without compassion to Johnson?
Reacting to Guarnizo’s attempt to justify his conduct, Johnson’s brother Larry wrote that the statement was “arrogant, repugnant, deceitful. . . . My family had finally hoped some sense of peace regarding my mother’s funeral had been achieved and we could finally grieve her loss . . . (b)ut the reprehensible Fr. Guarnizo has reinforced and confirmed how egregious his conduct was and how repugnant a person he is.” Doubtlessly dismissing Larry and even the archdiocese’s reaction, Guarnizo continued nonetheless to stolidly believe that he could not have been wrong in the matter.
To be sure, even though the archdiocese suspended Guarnizo on “unrelated matters” and referred to Johnson only indirectly as “others,” after citing parish staff who were ill-treated by the priest, an apology was issued to Johnson for Guarnizo’s “lack of pastoral sensitivity.” It can be argued, however, that the archdiocese could not apologize for Guarnizo. Not only is it not possible for one person or group to apologize for another person’s attitude, such an apology is nullified if that person refuses to repent and apologize himself. In other words, the adding insult to injury of the offending party (which was Guarnizo rather than the archdiocese) nullifies any apology the archdiocese might want to provide as a sort of vicarious substitute.
The fact is, Guarnizo firmly believes that he cannot be wrong with regard to his aggression against Johnson. No amount of punishment or external pressure more generally can force him to change his attitude. Even the Catholic Church is powerless to make a dent in his halo of presumed infallibility. This is one reason why religion can be so dangerous: the presumption that one cannot be wrong cannot be checked internally and even external pressure may not make a dent in the arrogance. As a result, a lack of compassion resulting in harm can be inflicted as though by a sociopath. Society seems to have a blind spot with respect to the sociopathy that can find cover under the auspices of a religious calling or mission.
The “loop hole” for aggression that Guarnizo used but refuses to see is not limited to traditionalist Catholic priests whose hatred of “liberals” can simmer just below the surface. Such anger can erupt in passive and even active aggression under the subterfuge of a greater compassion as per some privileged religious dogma. Human nature itself seems to mix with the religious domain in such a way that presumptuousness and arrogance are emitted as though noxious poisonous gases. Indeed, David Hume theorized that human beings are inherently inclined to orient religions to human characteristics (i.e., anthropomorphism). The culprit, Augustine would readily admit, is self-idolatrous pride. It is the refusal of such pride to admit anything not of its liking that makes religion so dangerous when mixed with human nature. At the very least, we ought to be very skeptical about what we can know or even believe in matters that transcend the limits of our cognition and perception by definition. Such an attitude is two degrees of separation from Guarnizo’s attitude—the intervening abyss being almost unfathomable.
David Gibson, “Marcel Guarnizo, Catholic Priest, In Letter Defends Denying Communion to Lesbian Woman,” The Huffington Post, March 15, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/marcel-guarnizo-lesbian-communion-barbara-johnson_n_1349388.html?ref=religion