Saturday, July 12, 2008

First Ammendment Rights and Eucharistic Sacrilege

PZ Meyers author of the blog Pharyngula

There are days, and then there are other days. This is one of those other days. Here's a story that I'm not sure what to make of, but it's caused a lot of stress for a lot of people. First you need to read the original story: It's about a college student at the University of Central Florida who kept a Consecrated Host in a baggy in protest of student fees being used at a public university to support religious services. He did return it after one week, unharmed. By then he had received numerous death threats, not to mention other acts of harassment and vilification.

This article caught the attention of science blogger PZ Meyers. Mr Meyers is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota's biology department, and maintains a personal blog on a science website not affiliated with the University. He has an international reputation in his field of study. It's an interesting blog written with a great deal of sarcasm on current events from the point of view of a 'godless liberal---a most irreverent godless liberal at that, but this time his sarcasm caught the attention of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League. Here's the original post by Mr. Meyers:

It's too bad that Mr. Meyers didn't make his points a little less vehemently, with a little more class, but given his perspective I'm sure the theology behind transubstantiation makes very little rational sense, but then neither do the responses he's been getting from Donahue's supporters, and like the student at UCF these have included death threats. But the Catholic League itself is going after PZ Meyer's job, which in turn prompted them to be deluged with email supporting Dr. Meyer's. Which brings us to yesterdays article on the Catholic League website:


Yesterday, Catholic League president Bill Donohue issued a news release calling attention to the plea that Paul Zachary Myers made on his blog: he solicited the Communion Host for the express purpose of desecrating it. Donohue now responds to the reaction he has received from the University of Minnesota Morris professor, as well as others:

“Myers went on Houston radio station KPFT last night saying that Bill Donohue has ‘declared a fatwa’ against him. He should know better—I don’t need others to do the fighting for me. I’m quite good at it myself. But he’d better be careful what he says, because if I get any death threats, it won’t be hard to connect the dots. {I guess turn about is not fair play.}
“Myers, who claims expertise in studying zebrafish, has quite a following among the King Kong Theory of Creation gang. Indeed, we’ve been inundated with hate mail from all over the world, and it all stems from those whose alleged god is reason. { This is a statement dripping with class.}

“As a result of the hysteria that Myers’ ilk have promoted, at least one public official is taking it seriously. Thomas E. Foley is chairman of Virginia’s First Congressional District Republican Committee, a delegate to the Republican National Convention and one of two Republican at large nominees for Virginia’s Electoral College. His concern is for the safety of Catholics attending this year’s Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Myers’ backyard. Accordingly, Foley has asked the top GOP brass to provide additional security while in the Twin Cities so that Catholics can worship without fear of violence. Given the vitriol we have experienced for simply exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, we support Foley’s request. {I guess it's only OK for God's self appointed warriors to engage in vitriol, attacks on a person's employment, and inciting your followers to harass another person for exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.}

“We already know that Myers lost one round: the university has removed the link to his blog from his faculty page. He should be prepared to lose a few more rounds. By the way, Myers says he is delighted to have finally garnered my attention. Too bad I can’t say the same—I never heard of the guy until yesterday.”

This latest salvo ends with the email address for the president of the University of Minnesota in case more Catholics want to load his email box. I feel sorry for this man because both sides are loading his email box. He has to be hitting the 'delete all' button. Just in case you think Tom Foley is being a little paranoid, keep in mind that right now at UCF, all Masses have armed campus security guards in attendance.

I'd like to think this is all just a tempest in a teapot, but it's not. It's become personal, and resulted in death threats and reams of hate mail. PZ Meyers has had to close a number of threads because of the volume of email and it's effect on the rest of the Scienceblog site. His position at UofM is seriously being threatened. Minnesota legislators are also experiencing their share of emails from Donohue supporters with the intent of forcing Mr. Meyer's ouster.

If Mr Cook, the UCF student, wanted to make a point with his act of stealing a host, it seems he certainly did. Unfortunately for him, his original intent, which was to draw attention to the issue of using student funding to support religious services has been lost in all the subsequent rhetoric. I doubt Mr. Cook thought of his act as a kidnapping or a hate crime, both of which were positions taken by the diocese of Central Florida. I know I don't. Is this a sacrilege, yes, I can see that, but a hate crime or a kidnapping. I don't think so because as Dr. Meyers points out in his own initial response, Mathew Sheppard, and Lawrence King's murders were hate crimes.

In essence what the Church response seems to be is that a Consecrated Host should be treated exactly as a real flesh and blood person. I'd be curious as to how many Catholics would agree with this position. For Catholics, this really is an issue of just what one believes about one of the core faith dogmas of the Church. For atheists like Dr. Meyers, or most non Catholics for that matter, it's sheer insanity. But in Dr. Meyer's case it's an insanity with a lot of political bite, and it just might cost him his living.


  1. When you said "one of those other days", you were expressing the mother of all understatement. Every aspect of this situation is deplorable.

    Desecration is deplorable.
    Assault and battery is deplorable.
    Death threats are deplorable.

    I do not approve of desecration, by anyone of anything religiously signifcant to any religious affiliation. There is never a legitimate justification for it. It is deplorable and it is cowardly.

    I do not approve of assault and battery, especially in church. The sacrement of communion is sacred. The church leader who assaulted Mr. Cook may have thought they acted nobly, but in effect, they defiled not only the sanctity of the sacrement with their actions, but also the sanctity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

    Do we really believe that Jesus could in any way be defiled? Did it ever occur to those who are making this such a spectacle, that PERHAPS Jesus simply withdrew his spirit from that particular wafer, that PERHAPS by the time these events were unfolding, there was nothing left but a meaningless piece of bread, that PERHAPS there was nothing left to desecrate. I doubt it. They are probably still basking in their self-righteous sanctiomony for their courageous actions.

    Now for the truth of the matter. The actions of the church leader desecrated the sacrement of communion and everything it stands for. The church leader desecretated the “heart” of the sacrement. The actions of the church leader are singularly responsible for this travesty of hate that is now unfolding? YES, this is a travesty, this is hate in action and the church leader is responsible for creating it. Assault and battery during communion, death threats, hate mail, hateful rhetoric flowing both ways … the concepts of Mercy, Love and Forgiveness, are conspicuously absent in this debacle.

    Nothing like witnessing another shining example …

    I wonder if it has occurred to any of those involved that this was a test? That Jesus allowed this as a way of examining his “faithful” to see if they would be truly faithful to His teachings of non-violence. What letter grade does one give to - failed MISERABLY.

    I pray that saner, calmer minds intervene to bring an appropriate end to the insanity on all sides.

  2. Another thought:

    The recent NCR posts on communion police take on a whole new meaning now ... perhaps those posts were more prophetic than any of us realized ... I wonder how long before we will see that in general practice?

  3. Carl, I still can't get my head around this one. You hit on two thoughts I had but didn't post. Mr. Cook was confronted at Mass by someone who had some percieved authority and they used physical attempts to retrieve the Host. Emotion can overcome the best of us, but it didn't over come the real flesh and blood Christ when they laid hands on him. In fact he healed the ear of a man assaulted with a sword by Peter.

    And then, I too figured if Jesus felt the need to defend Himself he just would have vacated the premises--so to speak. That Mr. Cook returned the Host says to me that Mr. Cook is either a Catholic or someone who is intuitive and intelligent enough to realize he was messing around with something he shouldn't have been.

    As to the Catholic League and Mr. Donohue, I think he's in love with fighting. That's a position someone made on the NCR cafe awhile ago in reference to something else. Except love in this case refers to addiction.

    Reason is not in his vocabulary and because it isn't, I don't think we've begun to see the last of this fiasco. Donohue is too addicted to fighting to let this one drop and it gives him all the justification in the world to keep it up. This is about the sacred nature of the Host.

  4. Colleen, you've made my Sunday morning. You can find the dangdest articles--and ones that have really important implications, even when the story appears to be off the wall.

    As you say, the truly disturbing dark heart of this story is the attempt to intimidate someone, up to the point of death threats. And that attempt presumably by Christians....

    I'm not sure if Mr. Cook is Catholic or not. To my way of thinking, his action takes on a different significance depending on his own personal belief in the Eucharist.

    Here's what I'm getting at: years ago, I remember being shocked by something Schillebeeckx wrote in a book where he explores the feasibility of shifting from a theology of transubstantiation to one of transsymbolization.

    Do you remember that discussion? It got squashed by the Vatican.

    It made an important point, though. To think of the real presence in totally "substantial" terms can lead to a magical mentality that moves on to such bizarre ideas that you shouldn't chew the bread of the host, for fear it will bleed.

    Schillebeeckx wrote that we can maintain a theology of the real presence if we shift our understanding of what happens in the consecration away from change of substance to change of symbol.

    And here's the observation that shocked me, and also taught me to understand what he was saying. He says that if a mouse eats the host, its not eating the body of Christ, because that understanding is not part of the mouse's world.

    So, to my way of thinking, the "desecration" here has a lot to do with how the person holding the host thinks/believes. What worries me even more is the blatant magical superstition of those who imagine that this act is akin to keeping a person captive.

    This is the same kind of thinking that led to attempts to withdraw intrusive means of keeping alive a woman whose brain had long since died. It's the same kind of thinking that leads people to imagine that anything remotely resembling a human life IS a human life--no distinction between full personhood and potential human life, which has not yet reached personal status.

    It's easier to abolish all distinctions and rage and bully. But surely that's not what the church should be about--even though this mentality has been fostered right from the top for years now in our church.

    (Are we going to revert to the idea that we have to bury an amputated arm because it's a human being? That's where this crude magical thinking is leading.)

  5. Bill, your transubstantiation thoughts have my mind kind of swirling. Especially your quote from Schillebeeckx.

    One of the biggest differences between Native American thinking and Western Spirituality is in 'intent' and whether something is being done in a 'good way'.

    They would probably see Mr. Cook's taking of the Eucharist as indicative of his intent with regards to the sacred nature of the host. They most likely would not see his taking of the host for a political statement as using a sacred object in a 'good' way and therefor his intent would not mesh with the sacramental. The host would return to inert status.

    The Church doesn't give much credence to the intent of the receiver in establishing the sacredness of the host. Therefor transubstantiation is a product of the special 'magic' of the priest.
    This doesn't make much sense to the Native mind. For them the power is in the correct use of the sacred object and intent of the user and those around him.

    They are very specific about asking those who don't believe in the power of what will transpire to leave. Generally they will say if you are neutral or not sure, you can stay but do so in a 'good' way. Essentially they are requesting that everyone be on the same page so as to insure everyone's intent will mesh with the energy of the given ceremony. In this request they respect both believers and non believers.

    On a different note, medicine people will also say that if you disrespect a sacred object, say a ceremonial pipe, the spirits associated with the object will make your life a living hell. I've seen this in action. It can be very much like Poltergeist activity and usually happens around pipes and other sacramentals which have a long history of use.

    There are many a pipe carrier who have had to bury their pipe because they used it with deceptive intent or in a 'bad' way and got tired of all the weird things happening around them.

    I've actually been given a pipe, and been recognized as a pipe carrier, but have never activated it. When asked why I tell them, I'm waiting for Jesus to take up residence because if I screw up he won't get vindicative! That always get a laugh, and many comments on my questionable courage.

  6. Starting at the beginning of the miserable tale, if the Vatican picks up on the abstraction of the host from the communion line and its retention so unlawfully, they'll have more grounds for restricting the delivery of the Host to the receipient's tongue, and forbidding reception in the hand.

    Not what I want

  7. Except that won't stop anyone either because Mr. Cook did put the host in his mouth, and then took it out, but you're right, this could very well be just another reason to return to reception on the tongue.

  8. Colleen, this is about hysteria along the same lines as "protecting the faith" by denying Communion for people like Gov Sebalias and Fr Bozek & Sr Louise. It is from the same mindset of people. That is the first observation that I derive from this theological fiasco. This is more politicalization of the sacrament from what I can discern.

    First, from the first link you provide about what originally happened "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." This seems to be an innocent gesture on his part since his original intent was not about desecration or hatred of any kind, but in sharing his faith with a fellow student senator he brought to Mass with him.

    Then he (Cook) was man-handled by someone in the Church who presupposed he was desecrating the wafer. Cook then in response to what he thought was political, became political with the sacrament too.

    If they really thought that Jesus was present in the Eucharist - and that Jesus is truly Resurrected from the dead - and that there is no power on earth that can destroy Him - then why resort to these types of actions? I suppose it is to make a political and theological point.

    I agree with you Colleen about Donahue in that he loves to fight. Behind all of his fighting is his theology and politics of inquisition. We can learn from him what theology is NOT supposed to be. Donahue, after all, saw no point in looking into Rev. Hagee's theology and accepted his apology for calling the Catholic Church the "whore of Babylon" in his sermons and books for years and years, but doesn't give a second thought, like many Catholic fundamentalist, to denial of Communion to those they deem "unworthy." Donahue accepted Hagee into communion with the Church along political lines. How revealing their actions and all that we can learn from it.

    When I think about the Holy Eucharist and the presence of the Lord I know that He has more power than me and that my actions do not protect Him in the least. The Lord does not need protection from me or anyone. If I were to think that I could protect Jesus, then I would be making myself greater than God and this would be a distorted theology of Christ to believe that way. Donahue's theology, like that of the fundamentalists, seems to be anathema to the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ in that it causes fighting and violence and death threats.