I was six years old when I was inducted into the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist with my first Holy Communion. After that traditional rite of passage, I was then entitled to participate in communion at all subsequent Catholic services. I was twenty-eight when I suddenly realized that I was no longer willing even to go through the motions. I was actually on my way to church at the time. Instead of attending mass, I walked past the church, stopped at a news rack to pick up a copy of the combined Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, and paged through it while having breakfast at the counter of a nearby restaurant. Scrambled eggs and bacon replaced my Sunday morning snack of tasteless communion wafer.
As the dutiful son of a devotedly Catholic family—and, significantly, a person who falls naturally into a routine—I had picked up the habit of weekly mass attendance and reception of communion. When I was young, communion was the only opportunity to stick your tongue out at Monsignor. In those pre-Vatican II days, receiving the host on your tongue was the only permissible way to take communion.
I wasn't rigorous about it, but I certainly received communion at most of the masses I attended. With 52 Sundays in each of 22 years, I undoubtedly came close to consuming a thousand communion hosts, ranging from the dry wafers of my childhood to the torn bread loaves of the trendy Newman chapel where I went to grad school. (I'm not even trying to factor in the additional six “holy days of obligation” observed in the United States or the miscellaneous family weddings.) I've eaten a lot of Jesus.
No one will be particularly surprised to hear that Catholics have a smug attitude toward other Christian sects. How can one not feel superior to the tens of thousands of constantly splitting denominations of those parvenu Protestants? I suspect this attitude makes it a lot easier for Catholics to accept or ignore the Church's centuries of accumulated excrescences. Quite apart from the faith in things unseen (e.g., gods, angels, and demons), which is the legacy of virtually all religions, Catholics have a generous collection of traditions, some of which are officially sanctioned by the hierarchy and many others that survive as robust folklore. What Catholic kid hasn't heard one of the stories (there are several) from some priest, nun, or maiden aunt about the communion host that bled real blood, grotesque testimony to the honest-to-God real flesh-and-blood transubstantiation of the wafer into a scrap of Christ's body?
For Catholic youngsters, the ritual cannibalism of the eucharist ceremony is one of the creepy-cool aspects of the religion. Protestants, after all, think the communion bread is just symbolic. How lame! If the bread is only symbolic, then the communion service is not the intimate connection with Jesus that it is for Catholics. That's God himself you're noshing on, so don't anybody go messing with it!
It happens, though. Webster Cook of the University of Central Florida took advantage of the current Catholic practice of receiving communion in the hand, instead of on the tongue, to pocket a consecrated communion wafer and take it back to his seat to show to a curious friend. His failure to consume the host was observed, and he suddenly found himself under physical assault.
As Cook explained it in a comment posted on the Orlando Sentinel blog:
I was going to show it to my non-Catholic friend and then consume it. Although my friend attended the mass, non-Catholics are prohibited from receiving communion, explaining the need to delay consumption. According to the organization, the Catholic Church mandates this policy of using physical intervention against people who fail to immediately consume the holy wafer. Therefore, the individuals who attacked me were enforcing the policies of their organization.Getting roughed up at mass was not the end of Cook's travails. He made his escape with the wafer still in his possession and held it captive for a while in a Ziploc bag.
Webster Cook learned to his dismay that the incident would not be quickly forgotten. Shrieks of outrage came from many Catholic quarters, including demands for his expulsion from the University of Central Florida and the occasional death threat. Professional Catholic advocate and thug Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights declared Cook's action was “beyond hate speech.” Thoroughly lacking in imagination, Donohue opines that “It is hard to think of anything more vile” than deliberately desecrating a wafer. A minor infraction, apparently involving neither ill intent nor actual defacement of the communion wafer, had now become a heinous crime, a sacrilegious assault on all that is holy. Cook later returned the host and is now hunkered down in the hopes that his assailants will manage to remember their ostensible Christianity.
Piling Pelion on Ossa
The reaction to Webster Cook's eucharistic faux pas strikes me as second-order irrationality. The first irrationality is religion itself, treating as real something that has failed time and again in all of its aspects to deliver any tangible results. If you pile the null hypothesis atop Occam's razor, it might occur to you to conclude that the best reason for a lack of compelling evidence for God is a lack of God. The most efficient explanation of why the world rolls along as if there is no God is that the world is right.
When religious people take the shaky foundations of their faith and build huge structures on top of it (the Catholic church being a case in point), heroic efforts are needed to keep things from toppling over. Doubt must not be permitted to enter the sanctuary. The wafer looks like bread and is bread, but it's the actual flesh of Jesus Christ, so death to those who don't worship it! Although it may sit like a scrap of food in a Ziploc bag, don't be fooled. It's God in there!
The overreaction begs for mockery, but it's dangerous territory. Ever willing to stick his thumb in the eye of those who believe without evidence, PZ Myers suggested on his blog Pharyngula that he might like to have fun with a few communion wafers of his own. Silly Professor Myers! Now he's getting his own deluge of abuse and death threats from hyper-religious correspondents who actually believe PZ has nothing better to do than perform rituals of desecration on tiny bits of dried-out bread. PZ is nothing if not obstreperous, and being treated like a Danish cartoonist has gotten his back up. If people are going ballistic anyway, he might as well go ahead and toss some wafers into one of his zebrafish tanks. Or subject one to DNA testing to see if Jesus was actually an XY male or perhaps a cross-dressing XX female parthenogenetically born of a virgin; that latter case would make more sense than most Bible stories! So many possibilities!
But not going to happen.
It seems likely to me that PZ will, in fact, receive a number of communion wafers in the mail. They're not that difficult to obtain. A slight sleight of hand suffices. But I predict the loony religionists are going to be disappointed that Professor Myers will deny them the opportunity to plunge themselves into a further lip-frothing frenzy by conducting an elaborate public desecration of anything. Don't you get it? In his own special undiplomatic way, PZ has been expressing his utter contempt for people who attack and threaten living human beings on behalf of stale food fragments. If you're in this category, you are the target. Not your holy bread. Sheesh!
My recommendation to the offended faithful is simple:
- Act like the Christians you purport to be and follow the teachings of your ever-loving messiah, who told Peter in Matthew 18:22 to forgive his brother not seven times, but seventy times seven times. So get with it and obey Jesus.
- Get on your knees and pray ceaselessly to God to save the soul of Paul Zachary Myers. Pray for me, too, while you're at it. Why the hell not?
- Keep praying. I'm very much in favor of prayer by the devout. You don't cause anyone else any trouble while you keep praying. It lets the rest of us go about our business without your interference. Pray more. Prey less.