I don’t know how much of a national story this has been, but the Washington area has been all agog for the last week-and-a-half over an incident at a Catholic funeral. Seems that the deceased’s daughter, a woman by the name of Barbara Johnson, went to the priest who was presiding and informed him that she was a lesbian, then presented herself for Communion at the funeral and was refused. Various non-Catholic activists and journalists became instant experts on Catholic sacramental practice, and pronounced anathema on the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo for his lack of pastoral sensitivity in turning away a person he knew for a fact was living in mortal sin. Then it turned out that the woman in question is not only gay, but a practicing Buddhist. This raises a really big problem for the Big Thinkers, like one of the Washington Post‘s high powered reporters, Michelle Boorstein:
The story we’ve been covering in recent days about a Maryland priest who refused to give a lesbian Communion at her mother’s funeral has set off many sensitive, complicated subjects for Catholics. Who is eligible for Communion? What are the responsibilities of a priest? What’s the spiritual purpose of a funeral Mass?
Now the latest issue: Can you be a Catholic and practice Buddhism at the same time?
The latter camp, of conservatives, has in recent days circulated an academic paper Johnson, 51, wrote in graduate school, in which she defined herself as a Buddhist. On her Web site, for an arts education program, she describes herself as “a student of many things, from Buddhist philosophy to nutrition and alternative medicine.” She does not mention Catholicism.
“She is not even a Roman Catholic any longer, yet she presented herself for Communion..” wrote blogger Rod Dreher on The American Conservative.
“Aside from her homosexuality, the woman is a non-Catholic, literally an apostate, and she complains about being denied Holy Communion and wants to get the priest fired,” writes Catholicism.org.
This really is an open-and-shut case, unless you live in Postland.
Johnson’s depiction of her own blending of the faiths, while infuriating to purists, appears to put her in the mainstream of American religion. One recent Pew poll on multiple religious practices shows 88 percent of white Catholics cite at least one non-Christian religion that they believe can lead to eternal life, a higher percentage than the number of black Protestants (81 percent) or white mainline Protestants (85 percent) who said so. The same survey also found that roughly a quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation and a similar number believe in yoga not just as exercise, but as a spiritual practice. Among Catholics, the number expressing these beliefs is 28 percent and 27 percent respectively.
Poll numbers are fascinating things. They can tell you a great deal about what people think, believe, and do. What they cannot do is tell you what the truth is. Let’s say that Boorstein is correct, that Johnson’s approach to religion puts “her in the mainstream.” So what? What has that got to do with Catholic sacramental practice? Last time I checked, Rome doesn’t consult with Pew before deciding how it should order the church’s sacramental life.
In fact, this seems to be something about Catholicism–and Christianity in general, properly understood–that American journalists don’t seem to get. It doesn’t matter what a majority think about Christian faith and practice. What matters is what God, Scripture, and (if one is Roman Catholic) what the magisterium of the church says.
Johnson’s depiction of her faith mirrors that even of some clergy, including famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton who embraced and deeply studied Buddhism before his death in the 1960s. More recently, two Episcopal priests — including a bishop — described themselves as followers of Christianity and other faiths, one of Zen Buddhism and one of Islam.
I’ll get back to Merton in a moment. As for the other two, Boorstein bringing them in is a real joke. You’ll remember Ann Holmes Redding, the Islamopalian priest from Seattle, and Kevin Thew Forrester, the Buddhapalian priest who was a candidate for the episcopacy for the diocese of
Western Northern Michigan. Even within an ecclesiastical organization as corrupt and shot through with apostacy as the Episcopal Church, these two were over the line. Forrester was the first candidate for ECUSA’s episcopacy since 1930 to be defeated, while Holmes Redding was defrocked by her bishop. Using them to demonstrate how “mainstream” Johnson is is like using mold as an example of vegetables because it’s green.
As for Merton, there are many things that could be said about his relationships to Buddhism. He respected it, he learned from it, he understood it, he wrote about it, he valued it for its true insights, he engaged in dialogue with Buddhists–but “embrace” usually suggests conversion, and that was a step he never took, nor, I suspect, would his Trappist order have been pleased if he had, given that Buddhism is atheistic and sees salvation as individual extinction rather than as personal deliverance from sin into the eternal presence of the living God. In fact, this article from Thomas Merton Society–which is glowingly positive about the interactions the monk had with Buddhism–would be appropriately quoted here:
Thus, religious dialogue for Merton was not a syncretism or an eclectic accumulation that ignored real differences in an attempt to create a universal religion (without specific roots).
Boorstein goes on to describe Johnson’s approach to Catholicism:
In her 20s, Johnson remembers her growing doubt about Catholic institutions as she wrestled with accepting her sexuality, and later as she watched the clergy sex abuse crisis unfold. She went to services in other Christian churches: Unitarian, Baptist, Episcopalian.
“During that time I found a lot of answers in Buddhist teachings and texts,” she said
Johnson says she never stopped seeing herself as a Catholic, and never stopped attended [sic] Mass or taking Communion – albeit not very regularly.
But no doubt orthodox Catholics would see this approach as a violation of their faith and challenge the idea that she could she seek Communion if she also sees herself as a Buddhist.
Well, yeah. Boorstein and Johnson seem to think that Catholicism–or Christianity–is like a rubber nose that one can shape and form as one pleases. Or like a recipe for beef stew–one can throw anything into the pot that tickles one’s palate, and it will still be beef stew as long as there’s a little bit of cow meat mixed in. They can believe that if they want, but there’s no reason I can think of why the Catholic Church should agree.
UPDATE: Forrester was defeated for the Northern Michigan bishop’s seat, not Western. Thanks to Chris Johnson for the heads-up, and for giving us Forrester’s full name in the comments.