Saturday, June 12, 2010

The root of the Catholic difference

The Crescat posted on Thursday (June 10) about her best friend, who “is fond of referring to Catholics as private club members. … Maybe she just doesn’t understand the intrinsic nature that Catholicism enmeshes itself into your very core. It’s not something to do on a Sunday or simply a preference for liturgical styles. Catholicism is so much more than just another denomination to chose from in the spiritual gumbo of religions.”


On one level, many Catholics do seem to treat Catholicism as a “religion of choice”, as if their attendance at Mass were simply one of convenience and social connections. They blush, shudder, wail or become irritated whenever the Pope or some prominent bishop insists on some doctrinal point that, within the modern cultural context, seems hopelessly outdated or unfriendly. When they feel compelled to worship, they do so at a Catholic church because that’s what they’re used to; fortunately, there’s still quite a few parishes where the priest avoids preaching on the hard topics and chooses to emphasize love and forgiveness so as not to offend.

Others, as Ambrose Bierce once phrased it, are of the faith chiefly in the sense that the church they currently don’t attend is Catholic. When polled by the government or by various opinion-research factories, they identify themselves as Catholic almost as a knee jerk; even if they know the term “lapsed”, they don’t use it, and the Gallup pollster wouldn’t record it anyway. But it’s hard to get them in the door even for Christmas and Easter. They believe God exists, for what it’s worth, but that belief doesn’t prompt anything within them. It’s an open question whether they’re religiously insensitive or just indifferent.

Then there are those who view the Church through ideological glasses. So far as they serve the Church in some apostolate or ministry—and many do—they do so with the sometimes-admitted view of subverting the heathen liberals/intolerant conservatives who are “running and ruining the Church”. If they don’t, then they occupy some exterior position from which they can publicly criticize the Church, with the initial belief that they do so in the spirit of making the Bride of Christ beautiful for the Groom. (Of course, the initial motive eventually wears down to a spirit of disgruntled, disenchanted and disappointed carping. But they can no more leave off considering themselves Catholic than they could stop with the kvetching.)

But there is a difference among people who attend Mass regularly and participate in parish life, even those who seek to change the Church for politically-motivated reasons. Many people who come from Protestant or other non-Catholic backgrounds can’t quite articulate the signs of that difference, but it makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome even when the people greeting them are warm and open to their presence. And that difference becomes manifest especially at special celebrations—Christmas, Easter, weddings, First Communions, et cetera—when they’re informed that, as much as we welcome people of different faith backgrounds, they can’t participate in Communion with us.

The fact that the Catholic Eucharistic celebration is a “closed table” is upsetting to many people, especially to those who think in terms of “the invisible unity of believers”. What better time to make that unity visible than in engaging in one of Christianity’s two most singular and evocative rituals? They can’t understand why orthodox Catholics get so upset by a pro-choice public figure getting his ration of crackers and wine on TV, or demand the formal excommunication of notorious dissidents. It’s as if we seem to think that Communion is something more than a ritual.

First, I should point out that the “invisible unity of the Church”—that is, of Christianity as a whole rather than the Catholic Church in specific—is heavily compromised if not negated entirely by the too-visible disunity and divisions among us. It’s nothing less than a scandal, an obstacle to faith that secularists gleefully point to as justification for their irreligiosity. The importance of unity of belief is stressed not only throughout the New Testament but also in the writings of the Church Fathers. The Church—again, the Christian Church—must be dogmatic because a church that has no dogma teaches nothing, and teaching the commandments of Christ is the central mission of the Church. You’re free to deny the dogmas, and to deny the possibility of Hell as a result of that denial, just as you’re free to believe that drinking alcohol makes you a better driver. But don’t for a second think that some fuzzy-minded “invisible unity” makes up for a visible, empirical unity.

Second, the Eucharist is something more to us than a ritual and a symbol. In maintaining the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox confessions sharply define themselves in contradistinction to the rest of the Christian world. It is not only a Sacrament—a visible sign of grace which effects the grace it signifies,[1] revealing the hidden operation of God’s salvation in the world[2]—but the Sacrament towards which the other six Sacraments are oriented. Contrary to what many Evangelicals and fundamentalists believe, the Eucharist was the center of Christian worship right from the beginning; Christians believed in the literal partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in the bread and wine long before the term “transubstantiation” was coined to describe the change. (The Lutheran belief in “consubstantiation”, where Christ’s presence temporarily suffuses the elements without changing them, is a rather poor substitute.) That many people regard such a belief as superstitious and magical is indicative of the extent to which secular materialism[3] has infected modern Christian thought.

The importance of this belief can’t be stressed enough. Saint Paul declared sternly, “Whoever … eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body [of Christ] eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:27-30; italics mine). Saint Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to his martyrdom, railed against the Docetist heretics because “[t]hey abstain from the Eucharist … because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 7). And St. Justin Martyr, writing openly to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, explained:

“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who [has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology, 66).
In the Catholic worldview, the miraculous is not limited simply to exceptional, dramatic interruptions in the mechanical workings of a dead, God-abandoned universe, but rather is part of the warp and woof of life. To reduce it to mere symbolism and ritual is to rob it of its very evocative power, which is why many churches stemming from the Anabaptist tradition practice it only sporadically, if ever. Saint Paul declared that, in the Eucharistic meal, “we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes”; apparently, they’d rather just mention it in passing.

Communion, then, is the root of the Catholic difference … that difference that gives practicing Catholics that disturbing air of standing in two realities simultaneously. The Catholic’s encounter with the Lord is not only a spiritual or psychological event, but also a physical event around which his religious life is organized. Encounter through Scripture is mediated; encounter through the Eucharist is direct. It ties us to that terrible Friday, when Divinity was offered up to Divinity, when God completed the sacrifice from which He stopped Abraham (Gen 22:1-19). By no means is it esoteric, for its meaning has been explained and proclaimed through a hundred generations. It’s meant for all humanity.

But it’s also meant to be taken seriously.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1084.
[2] CCC 774.
[3] Materialism, in this context, means the philosophical belief that there is no spiritual or immaterial level to being. While science deals with material reality by default, the assumption that there is no immaterial dimension to the universe is strictly a matter of secularist faith; it isn’t necessary to the scientific method, and may even be a hindrance.