July 15, 2008
Much ado about transubstantiation
In the previous post, I suggested that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood, was a fairly bizarre thing to believe in this day and age and raised the possibility that perhaps even Catholics did not really believe in it but were just humoring the church by going along with a doctrine that came into being a long time ago.
I wrote that post some time ago but late last week brought to my attention a news item that suggested that there are many Catholics who not only believe it literally but for whom it is a very big deal indeed.
Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, went to mass on his campus but instead of immediately, as is the custom, eating the wafer (which is the modern day substitute for bread), he tried to take it back to his pew. And that was when the trouble started.
Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.
"When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him," Cook said. "I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they'd leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth."
A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that's why he brought it home with him.
"She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand," Cook said, adding she wouldn't immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.
He did manage to take it back to his dorm. But when word of his action got around, a major-league hoo-hah ensued. A spokesperson for the local diocese said that this act should be considered a 'hate crime' and called upon the university authorities to punish the student severely enough to discourage future such acts. The church also demanded that Cook return the wafer.
Of course, William Donohue (head of the Catholic League and founder member of The Church of Perpetual Outrage in Order to Get Publicity) seized another golden opportunity to get himself in the media and issued a statement saying that the act went 'beyond hate speech' and called for the student's expulsion. He said that the wafer was being held 'hostage'. Carol Brinati, with the Diocese of Orlando, is reported to have said that the Catholic community was "concerned about the possible desecration of the Eucharist," and pleaded for its 'safe return'. The parallel to a hostage taking popped up everywhere. Father Miguel Gonzalez of the Diocese was quoted as saying, "Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family."
In fact, Gonzalez says that treating the blessed bread with anything less than the highest respect is considered a 'mortal sin'. This is the worst class of sin, pretty much guaranteeing a lifetime in hell.
After Cook started receiving death threats and learned of attempts to break into his dorm room to 'rescue' the wafer, he eventually returned it to the church in a Ziploc bag.
The fuss over this matter was taken so seriously that the university even sent armed uniformed guards to watch over the next mass to make sure another such 'hostage taking' did not occur. The diocese also dispatched a nun to stand guard. There was no mention of whether she was also armed.
As a coda to this story, University of Minnesota evolutionary biologist and staunch foe of religion P. Z. Myers had some fun with this episode over at his blog Pharyngula, which is where I got most of the links. Since Cook had returned the wafer seemingly undesecrated, Myers requested his readers to obtain a consecrated wafer and send it to him, so that he could personally desecrate it.
This naturally moved the outrage meter of Donohue even further into the deep red zone and he has started a letter writing campaign against Myers to the university president, trustees, and Minnesota state legislators.
There is a curious thing about the overheated rhetoric on this matter. True, Myers may have gone overboard in causing offense in order to emphasize his sense that the whole incident was ridiculous, but I would have thought that the most one could say is that he acted in bad taste, like those Danish newspaper that published cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed or the US soldier accused of shooting the Koran.
These kinds of insults are like those silly "Your mama is . . ." taunts that one can hear on children's playgrounds or among immature athletes in competition, trying to goad the other person into doing something stupid. The mature thing to do is to ignore such taunts. But it is usually the case that the more fragile a belief is, the more vehement and angry the defense, in order to discourage other people from questioning it.
Donohue takes the bait put out by Myers and stretches credulity by saying in response that, "It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ". Really? He can't think of anything viler than fooling around with a wafer that has had some words said over it? What about murder? Rape? Genocide? Slavery? Child abuse? Those things are lesser evils than violating some ancient and esoteric church doctrine?
And what exactly constitutes desecration? If you eat the wafer, as required by the Church, the 'Body of Christ' gets digested in the stomach and intestines and eventually emerges as excrement to be flushed down the toilet. That's pretty serious desecration, you would think, unless the wafer somehow ceases to be the 'Body of Christ' as soon as it passes from the mouth into the throat and reverts to becoming an ordinary food item. I have no idea if that also is part of the doctrine of transubstantiation. No doubt the Vatican has a crack team of senior theologians on its Transubstantiation Task Force studying this very question.
But it is an example of the kind of never-ending increasing complications and contradictions that arise when you elevate ritual and symbolism into something more or try to make sense out of religious dogma.
POST SCRIPT: Childhood religious indoctrination
Irish comedian Dave Allen described his own experience with learning Christian doctrine as a child at the hands of nuns.
(Thanks to OneGoodMove.)