The original Ethics Alarms post, one of two this month implicitly critical of the Catholic Church, has spawned several remarkable and thoughtful discussions, as well as so many candidates for Comment of The Day that any choice among them is somewhat arbitrary. In the case of Ryan Harkins, I’m not even certain this is the best of his comments on the post, so many excellent ones did I have to choose from. Thus I urge readers to read the entire array, which, I regret to say, is impressive and educational even though it does not include my old friend Patrice, Catholic, theologian, and Church employee who has commented here frequently in the past.
I decided to pair two of Ryan’s comments, the first an overview providing context for my original post’s topic, the Church’s insistence that that the bread and wafers used in Communion include gluten. The second, a response to a series of queries from another commenter, delves into an eternal ethics debate topic, the nexus between God and ethics.
Here is Ryan Harkins’ Dual Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Headline Of The Month: “Vatican: The Body of Christ Is Not Gluten Free”
Where to begin? The challenge of trying to explain some of the odder details of the Catholic faith is that many of those details don’t make sense without the context of the faith as a whole. So please forgive me if I seem to natter on about tangential matters.
So, let’s begin with a few definitions to make discussion a little easier. A Sacrament is a visible sign, established by Jesus himself, through which God conveys grace upon mankind. A Sacrament is composed of two parts, one spiritual and one material. The reason it possess both qualities is because Sacraments are designed for us, and a human person is a body/spirit composite. We are not purely material beings, nor are we ghosts in a shell. We are not a complete person without our bodies. Now, to have a sign that is purely spiritual would neglect the physical aspect of our existence. To have a sign that is purely physical would neglect the spiritual dimension of our existence.
The Eucharist is one of the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Catholics really, truly believe Jesus was serious when he said repeatedly, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have eternal life.” When at the Last Supper, he blesses bread and wine and says, “Take this and eat. This is my body, given for you” and “This is the cup of my blood, which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”, Catholics believe that yes, Jesus truly held himself in his hands and gave himself to his apostles to consume. So the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus, the fullness of his body, blood, soul, and divinity. When a priest says Mass and confects the Eucharist, Catholics believe that the bread and wine on the altar are transsubstantiated into Jesus. The accidents of bread and wine remain (so yes, consuming Jesus is problematic for anyone who has issues with the accidents of bread and wine), but the substance is entirely Jesus. The smallest drop from the chalice and the tiniest crumb of the loaf contains the fullness of Jesus.
Okay, so a Sacrament has a spiritual and a physical dimension, and the Eucharist obviously uses bread and wine for the physical dimension. Why bread and wine? In just reference to food and drink, we understand the Eucharist as a meal, and historically the greatest communal activity is the sharing together of a meal. In earliest Christianity, the Eucharistic celebration was in the context of the agape feasts, which eventually St. Paul instructed to tone down because people would become drunk and riotous at these feasts. The point, though, is that eating together is sign of communion (which is in part why the Eucharist is also called Communion). Jesus had prayed that “they may all be one, Father, as I am in you and you are in me,” and the Eucharist is the Sacrament Jesus instituted to make that possible. By consuming Jesus himself, we bring him into ourselves and are in turn incorporated into him. (You are what you eat, right?)
Now we turn to matter. Catholics believe that matter matters. Our bodies matter, because our bodies integral to who we are individually. The whole material world has a teleological value, and the matter used for the Sacraments is deliberately chosen. It is not a valid baptism if one does not use water. Why? Water is both necessary for life and it is pretty ubiquitously used for cleansing. So water is required for baptism, which restores us to life spiritually and cleans us from our sins. The water itself points to what the Sacrament is about. If you tried to baptize with Pepsi, or beer, you really lose the physical meaning of the Sacrament, because neither of those are typically seen as cleansing agents. (Ever see someone try use Newcastle Brown to mop a floor?)
What about bread and wine? Catholics do take Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist as guidance. Jesus used bread and wine, and said “Do this in remembrance of me.” But the importance of bread and wine run through the entirety of the Bible. Melchizedek offered bread and wine for Abraham, and Jesus is a priest forever of the line of Melchizedek. At the first Passover, the Israelites consumed unleavened bread with the sacrificial lamb. In the desert, the Israelites ate manna, the Bread from Heaven. When the Law was promulgated, among the sacrifices listed were not only animal sacrifices, but also sacrifices that included bread and wine. Also included in the Law was the making of the showbread, the Bread of the Presence, which was held in the tabernacle.
The Eucharist, in addition to being a meal and being Jesus and being the means of bringing people into communion, is a sacrifice. In fact, it is the same sacrifice of Calvary, made present to all people in all places in all times. The sacrifice of Calvary is what wrought salvation for all of mankind. Thus the matter of the Eucharist should be matter that points to the sacrifice at Calvary, and more fundamentally, to Calvary as the summation of salvation history. The theme of bread and wine continually crops up throughout salvation history, so bread and wine are especially fitting.
Why wheat bread? Why grape wine? I don’t have the clearest of answers to this. They are the substance Jesus used, and that sets a precedent. But is a doctrinal or disciplinary precedent? For example, we are fairly sure that Jesus used unleavened bread at the Last Supper, but the Catholic Church only holds the use of unleavened bread as disciplinary. The Latin Rite (what most people call the Roman Catholic Church) as a discipline uses unleavened bread, but the Eastern Rites use leavened bread. Yet the Catholic Church insists on wheat bread in all its Rites. One of the most telling passages in the Bible about this is that at the time of the plagues in Egypt, we’re told that the other grains were destroyed, but the wheat was left unspoiled. Thus wheat more than any other grain seems to point best across salvation history.
Two thoughts that I do have regarding the Catholic intransigence about wheat are private thoughts, not ones that I’ve learned from any other resource. First, we’re upset about wheat because of the various forms of gluten intolerance that cropping up around the world. But we neglect that there are allergies pretty much to any type of food out there, so what substance is chosen, there will be people who feel excluded because of that substance. It may also be that in the future, gluten intolerance becomes less prominent than some other form of grain. To go about changing the matter of the Sacrament willy-nilly because someone might be excluded really seems irrational, especially given the deep appreciation Catholics have to the matter involved in the Sacraments.
Second, offering the Eucharist under a variety of options to accommodate those who can’t eat gluten really breaks the communal breaking of bread that the Eucharist symbolizes. Instead of breaking bread together, I have my meal, you have your meal, and while we’re sitting close to each other, we’re not sharing a meal. So in the attempt to bring everyone together by making this exception, we essentially start down the path of everyone going their own way doing their own thing. I don’t know about anyone else, but it is really hard for a family to prepare two meals (or three, in the case of some friends I know). To me at least, it seems more uniting if we are all eating the same thing.
Last thought, and then I’ll finish this post and reap whirlwind that is bound to follow. The Catholic Church holds that under normal circumstances, the letter of the law needs to be obeyed. But we are not held accountable in abnormal circumstances. Someone who desires to be baptized but doesn’t have the opportunity, through his desire receives the effects of baptism. Someone who cannot take communion because they can neither drink wine nor eat gluten is not barred from the graces of the Sacrament, because that is an extraordinary circumstance.
“Why do people assert that the character of this supposed deity is perfectly good, while simultaneously asserting that its true nature is beyond human comprehension?”
You make a lot of good points as you expound on the problems you have with this particular question. You’re absolutely right that in one sense this is contradictory. I would phrase it this way. We postulate an entity E with a set of properties P such for all properties p in P, p is unknowable to a finite mind. But the assertion that all properties p of E are unknowable to is itself a property p0 of E. If p0 is in P, then it is unknowable that the properties of E are unknowable, but we know that the properties of E are unknowable, a contradiction. If p0 is not in P, we right away contradiction the notion that the properties of E are unknowable.
However, there is another sense in which we can talk about the nature of God being beyond human comprehension, and I’ll use prime numbers since you used the brain-cramping example of the illogical question “is infinity a prime number?”.
The entirety of prime numbers, I will assert, is beyond human comprehension, because we can only maintain a finite amount of knowledge and there are an infinite number of primes. There are certain patterns in primes that we can observe (such as Mersenne primes and twin primes, the relative distribution of primes, etc) and there are certain conjectures we can make and questions we can ask (are there only finitely many Mersenne primes, are there an infinite number of twin primes?) As we study and write theorems and other patterns emerge, we get to know more and more about prime numbers. We can find incredibly large prime numbers by using Mersenne numbers, or other techniques that are a far cry better than the Sieve of Erastothenes. We even learn more about solutions to other mathematical problems through what we discover through the study of prime numbers. But we will never exhaust what we can find out about prime numbers, and so the entirety of the nature of primes is beyond our comprehension.
As a side note, one of the things that really influenced my return to faith was Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem which states essentially for any sufficiently complex formal system of axioms, there are true statements in that system that cannot be proven true. What I gleaned from it is that we humans are fundamentally incapable of proving true everything that is true. Some truths, of course, are not well-contained in any formal, axiomatic system, and some truths can be argued informally, but there do exist truths that we cannot prove true. That, to me, was stunning.
Back to the problem. I would say that the true way to understand that idea that God is unknowable is that there is too much about God for a finite understanding, and there are things about God that we could never reason to ourselves. However, that does not mean we cannot reason about God, learn quite a bit about God and his attributes (the Greeks did so thousands of years ago), or receive from God knowledge about him that we would not otherwise acquire from ourselves.
“Perhaps the most bizarre aspect is when people assert reason a) above and say that the deity needed to make a bad thing needed to happen in order for a good thing to happen later. We’re dealing with a supposed deity that, by some people’s definition, has no limitations other than those self-imposed, and that includes logic. It can eat its cake and have it, too. It doesn’t need to do anything to make anything else happen.”
I will agree that there are difficulties in addressing this issue (more broadly the problem of evil or the problem of suffering). Part of it is admittedly our limitations as finite beings. We do not see and comprehend the entirety of history. We cannot see the sum flow of events from the present forward to entirely determine all the outcomes of a particular action. This limitation on our part means we will, unfortunately, always have to aver to not knowing fully, or not being able to explain fully why God would allow this particular suffering. This is frustrating. I think it has to be doubly frustrating when an atheist argues with a theist, and the theist continually dodges an uncomfortable situation by referring solely to the ineffable knowledge of God. I’m sure you’ve been through lengthy discussions on various topics, like why God permitted the Fall of man, and each question leads to answers that lead to more questions, and the answers start to become more speculative and ad hoc. I’m not going to chase that question here, but I would submit that first, it is dishonest of the theist to pose as though he has all the answers, and second, it should be okay for the theist to admit, “I don’t have the answer to that.”
“Side note: What do Catholics say about how the Original Sin propagated throughout all of humanity? Were all human souls present at the time of the Original Sin, and thus they became tainted when it was committed? Or do new souls get created at the time of each human’s conception, and become tainted then? Heads up: neither option implies good things about the supreme being.”
Catholics believe that the human soul is created immediately at the time of conception. The soul, according to Catholic teaching, is the unifying and vivifying principle of a material being, so even plants and animals have souls. Humans have a spiritual soul, which is what endows us with intellect and will, and which survives the separation of soul and body (whereas the material souls of plants and animals cease to exist when they die). But the soul doesn’t make sense without the body (which is why the Resurrection is also a pretty important part of Catholic theology), so a human spirit pre-existing its incarnate life likewise doesn’t make sense from the Catholic viewpoint. So no, it was not that the case that all human souls were present at the Fall.
To be clear on Original Sin, we can either be talking about the actual first sin which brought about the Fall, or we can be talking about the fallen condition inherited from our ultimate parents. The first is an actual act, the second is a state of being. Catholic teaching on Original Sin is that God created Man in a state of perfect innocence and perfect harmony as a grace. At the Fall, Man forfeited that grace. He lost his original innocence, and his perfect harmony was lost to himself and to his progeny. The analogy used to describe how Original Sin is transmitted is that of a millionaire who squandered his riches. If he had been wise, he would have had wealth to pass on to his children. But since he squandered it all, he had nothing to pass on to them, and so his children are born into a state of penury. So yes, all human beings, at the time of conception (unless saved at that time by a special grace) inherit the fallen state known as Original Sin.
I know you say that doesn’t imply good things about God, but that will have to be a topic for some other time.
“Other side note: As I understand it, Mormons believe that humans are ultimately supposed to ascend to the level of Jesus and God, which makes sense to me as an extension of the idea that humans are children of God. Children have to grow up, after all. If we’re just sheep, I’d expect to get eaten at some point.”
“What do you think?”
The LDS theology posits an eternal progression in which God was once a human being who lived an exemplary life in his mortal existence, following the commands of his God (who had also been a human being who lived an exemplary life…) and being rewarded by being exalted and given a universe to rule over. He then begat a host of spirit children, the first of which was Jesus, and through the plan of salvation that Jesus proposed, the spirit children go through the process of incarnation. In the mortal life, they can choose to live according to God’s laws, and if they are exemplary, they can likewise reach exaltation, and the process continues. So there is a very organic connection between God and man in the LDS view, and there is a very appealing sense to it.
I think it fails on several accounts. First, the eternal progression requires an infinite chain of contingencies, and I personally accept the logic that says there cannot be an infinite chain of contingencies. There has to be a first cause, a necessary being, else nothing could exist. The arguments about necessity, and the properties of the necessary being, can be quite lengthy, so I won’t delve into them here. But simply put, the fact that there is an infinite gulf between a necessary being and contingent being means that humans being children of God comes either from analogy or adoption. (Jews understood God as Father by analogy; Christians understand God as Father by adoption, which was made possible through the Incarnation of Jesus.)
As for your statement about getting eaten at some point, and to tie this back into the original thread, note that Jesus is called the Lamb of God, and in the Eucharist, we do eat his body and drink his blood. But the reference to humans as sheep is supposed to allude to care-taking attitude of the shepherd to his flock, not to every aspect of a sheep. For example, we don’t grow wool, and we’re not sheared on a regular basis to produce clothing from our hair.