Happy Advent, friends!
In the spirit of giving thanks, we will pause in our investigation of the latest Oprah book scandal to answer an even more troubling question: “Are Catholics cannibals?”
Much attention was given recently to a Pew Forum survey of Americans’ religious knowledge – or, rather, total ignorance. One headline went:
“More than four-in-10 Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually become the body and blood of Christ!” [exclamation added!]
Forget that most Protestants don’t know Martin Luther started their heresy, um,Reformation. It’s the spectacle of millions of Catholics gnawing bloody-mouthed on the cold flesh of a dead man that really got the blogs atwittering.
Turns out, the quiz was wrong. Ten-in-10 Catholics deserve to be regraded. Why?
Reminds me of when I took my test to become a citizen of this free-speaking nation in the 1990’s, and my evaluator gave me a 15-question oral exam that included the question: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” Hmm. “Well,” I began, “historians are divided, but the preponderance of evidence points to the South’s belief in the primacy of state’s rights over….”
Noticing my evaluators’ bug-eyed confusion, I stopped. “Slavery,” I lied. Correct!
Pew’s quiz refers to the doctrine of “transubtantiation,” formulated in 1215, sharpened in 1551, and widened slightly in the 1960’s. It’s perhaps the single most confusing doctrine in Catholicism – which is, frankly, saying a lot.
Here goes: Catholics do indeed believe the bread and wine are transformed during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Into what? According to the Council of Trent (1551): “A change is brought about of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ….”
Key word here is “substance.” It’s not what you think. It’s an Aristotelean distinction, formulated most clearly by Thomas Aquinas, between the “accidents” (what we can see, feel and taste) and the “substance” (what we can’t see). The “thing” we’re swallowing is still bread, even if its “essence” is somehow Christ’s body. So we’re not really cannibals. Whew.
This doctrine has always bothered Catholics for the simple reason that it doesn’t make sense. Descartes said it wasn’t any more odd than digestion itself, which involves bread dissolving into bodies, right? Huh?
And in fact, by 1965, Pope Paul VI had watered down the eucharist into not much more than a symbol, or pointer, to the unholy, hideous blood lusts of the undead who walk the Mall of America by night and feast on the flesh of the – oh, wait, I mean the risen Christ.