Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is it a Sacrilege for a Non-Catholic to Take the Host?

Strange question, isn't it? You would naturally think the answer would be a resounding YES!!! Of course it is a sacrilege for someone outside the Catholic faith (someone who does not believe) to partake of the host. And such is the position of the rather conservative group, the Catholic League.

But, according to Catholic scholar, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, a friend of mine by the way, it is not. He comments on Sally Quinn's partaking of the host at Tim Russert's funeral. Tim was Catholic, and so it was a Catholic funeral. Sally is not. In fact, she is agnostic, if not atheist. The Catholic League was upset by this. According to Stevens-Arroyo, their logic is as follows:

Now, every believing Catholic must be vigilant against intentional desecration of the host. Presumably, the ire directed against Sally Quinn is sparked by the requirement that reception of the sacrament be motivated by faith in Christ. Quinn says she has none; ergo, such logic runs, her reception disrespects both Catholics and Catholicism. The Catholic League certainly uses its considerable resources to attack people and events like this, but most Catholics do not belong to the League or do not agree with all its statements. And then there is the teaching of Aquinas.
So, this is one position, but what is this position of Aquinas? I will let Stevens-Arroyo explain:

Writing in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas responded to a question about a mouse that found its way into the tabernacle and had eaten the Host. Since the bread had become the Body of Christ, it was supposed, the mouse had committed a sacrilege. Aquinas responded that one receives Holy Communion in faith and since the mouse in the tabernacle had no faith, there was no sacrilege. Were we to apply this teaching of the Angelic Doctor to the Tim Russert funeral, we might conclude that Sally Quinn is like the mouse in the tabernacle.
Thus according to the great (if not the greatest) Doctor of the Church in the Middle Ages, you have to have faith in order to desecrate. If you do not believe in it, you cannot desecrate it (or, one might say, you do not have the ability to desecrate it). You can only desecrate it if you believe in it--and that will mean, you can probably only desecrate it if you're Catholic! For the whole discussion see here.

I must say that I had no idea about this doctrine. I do know that the doctrine of transubstantion did not become official until fairly late, and that the issue had been debated among academics for a while whether the bread and wine were symbols of body and blood or the actual body and blood. The early figures of the debate were Ratramnus and Radbertus; both were Theologians and both came from the same monastery at Corbie in the ninth century. In short, Radbertus argued that the bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Christ. Ratramnus, his colleague, claimed this was too crude and simplistic. Part of the debate centers around the terms figura (symbol) and veritas (truth). Radbertus argued that the figura is what the senses perceive (bread and wine) and veritas is what the church teaches (body and blood). Ratramnus took the opposite line: they are in truth (veritas) bread and wine and in symbol (figura) body and blood. In the ninth century, there was no consensus and no clear winner in the debate, but the majority seemed to favor Ratramnus's position--bread and wine in truth and body and blood symbolically. Also note that this means both sides were considered within the fold and both positions could be held in the Church by different figures. Both positions were held by people who held the Eucharist in high regard. But the coin had flipped by the eleventh century, when Radbertus's position had slowly gained ascendancy. This position increased the mystery of the Eucharist, and, because it is a greater miracle, increased the position of the priest. Eventually, this position would move from its "crude" beginnings, become justified with Aristotelian distinction between essential and accidental qualities: the bread and wine would be accidental qualities and body and blood would be the essence after, and this is the new term, transubstantion. This position then became official at the Fourth Lateran under Pope Innocent III.

It is, at the very least, good to know that according to medieval theology, I cannot desecrate the host even if I wanted to do so.

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