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August 23, 2004

Of Men and Rice

Maybe it's being a convert with so much left to learn, or maybe it's the place in the religious discussion in which I'm called to stand, but it still tends to surprise me when people feel compelled to comment on the narrow doctrinal/ritual practices of other Churches, as Jeremiah Lewis has done here:

Given that [eight-year-old Haley Waldman] does know what Communion means and believes that Christ has saved her, what is the difference between a wheat wafer or a rice wafer? Is one clean and the other not? Is one more holy than the other? The Church has made it about the bread, not the body--exactly as the Pharisees had done with their Corban rules of holy washing, of clean and unclean foods, of daily life, of spiritual life.

When Jesus said "Do this in remembrance of me," somehow I doubt he was thinking "gluten-only bread, please". The Pharisees in the Catholic Church would do well to consider that.

Although Haley's mother is apparently mounting a campaign against the requirement that the Eucharist contain some measure of wheat, I'm not sure what makes this story worth the Associated Press's time to begin with. Perhaps both Jeremiah's conclusion that the recipe ought to be a non-issue and the self-assurance of religious insight by which he allows himself to cluck his tongue about the matter are so pervasive throughout our society, including in the media, that the story is salable.

For lack of time, I'm not going to pursue the thorough research necessary to trace the doctrinal conclusion about wheaten bread through history, but two points are relatively obvious to make. The first is that, even accepting that legitimate arguments could be made against the tradition, Jeremiah hasn't found them. The specific lesson of the passage from Mark 7 that Jeremiah cites has to do with spiritual cleanliness's being an internal quality, not something that can be ingested through a lapse in physical cleanliness. Jesus' other example, corban (or "qorban"), is something set apart for God, so the warning is against human rules that offer loopholes from Commandments. The reality that calling dibs for God, so to speak, isn't a legitimate way to avoid helping one's parents doesn't mean that nothing can be put aside for Him.

On the general matter that human traditions oughtn't supplant divine doctrine, well, the fact that one can teach "as doctrines human precepts" does not mean that all taught doctrines are human precepts. As Jeff Miller put it, those who invoke the Pharisees in attacks against the Church "tend to forget about the opposite of the Pharisees -the Sadducees who followed no rules but whatever suited them." Could a legitimate Mass be celebrated with popcorn and beer?

That leads to the second point: this is a doctrine that the Church takes very seriously. There are a variety of direct reasons for this; there are scriptural foundations, such as Jesus' use of wheat as a representation of the spiritual yield of one person's death (e.g., His); there are related historical ties to the Church, such as St. Ignatius's acceptance of martyrdom on the grounds that he was "the wheat of God." (The author of Pontifications suggests that the answer is as simple as recognizing that Jesus spoke the words "this is my body" over wheaten bread at the Last Supper and links to further discussion on Jimmy Akin's blog.)

Underscoring all of the reasons, however, is the belief in transubstantiation. If one believes that God is literally present in the bread — a God who, as man, declared himself to be the "bread of life" — and if, further, one believes in the divinely sanctioned necessity of an institutional Church that collects and passes along the wisdom of thousands of years, under the direct guidance of God, then one ought to be very reluctant to force or demand changes to satisfy personal difficulties. (Especially when there is a ready accommodation, such as receiving communion through the other species in which it is offered, wine.)

Many people, including (I gather) Jeremiah, don't hold such beliefs, and they are perfectly free not to. Nonetheless, in such cases, it seems to me that attacking the practice is really just a way to avoid discussing the weightier matters that reach our core beliefs about God and our place in relation to Him. Raising those weightier matters exposes, of course, the great many extremely personal conclusions, behaviors, and emotions that grow from our religious faith, so there is an understandable aversion to doing so, especially in the breezy medium of blogs. But in our secularized, deeply corrupted society, aren't we Christians more alike than different? If so, don't we owe each other the respect — the concern for each other's soul — of addressing the beliefs, and not the practices that follow from them?

Posted by Justin Katz at August 23, 2004 11:37 AM
Religion
Comments

You've got a good point on the secularists' urge to redefine and reduce everyone else's traditions: Communion bread can be anything that looks vaguely bread-like. Marriage can be any coupling of two human beings. We can recognize no distinction between adoptive parents and biological parents. Procreation means maximum numbers of babies. Homosexuality must not only be tolerated, but normalized.

Wasn't there a story a few months back where either California or the feds were trying to punish Catholic churches or hospitals for refusing to provide employee benefits that include birth control? And wasn't there a story about the State of New York trying to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions?

There's a common thread here, but I can't quite articulate it properly.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 23, 2004 2:32 PM

I agree with Justin. This is a story mainly because it supports the premise of 'bad Church, mean Church'. It is about the persecution of a religious institution by trying to point out how insensitive they are being towards this little girl.

The plight of this girl is horribly unfair but to blame the Church is also unfair. As Justin said, the wheat rule is important to the Church based on scripture. They didn't randomly make it up. And more importantly, it is the core belief as the source of the rule that is more important than the specific practice.

Almost all rules can are unfair when applied *in some circumstances*. That in no way means that the rule is wholly unfair or that the institution making the rule is unfair.

Ben,

"Marriage can be any coupling of two human beings. We can recognize no distinction between adoptive parents and biological parents. Procreation means maximum numbers of babies. Homosexuality must not only be tolerated, but normalized."
—--- Only you could make a link between this story as it applies to the SSM debate - and make it sound good.

"Wasn't there a story a few months back where either California or the feds were trying to punish Catholic churches or hospitals for refusing to provide employee benefits that include birth control? And wasn't there a story about the State of New York trying to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions?"
—----- This is news to you ? It's happening all time. I don't think hospitals should be forced to perform abortions or employee benefits forced to include birth control. Nor do I feel these pursuits will be successful. In my view, it's right up there to me with banning flag burning.

Posted by: Mark Miller at August 23, 2004 4:09 PM

Thanks for bringing this up. I plan on responding tonight, when I have some time to lay out a little firmer foundation for the point I was trying to make, which I feel was somewhat lost in this response.

I am by no means suggesting that wheat bread has no significance to the church - it may even be valid in terms of scripture, though I confess I have never seen any scripture remotely specifying that wheat must be an ingredient.

I was more commenting on the significance of Communion from the standpoint of salvation - that it appears the Church has made Communion more ceremonially important than spiritually important is something I'm concerned about.

I won't get into this too much now since I'm at work, but I'll redress this later. Thanks!

Posted by: Jeremiah at August 23, 2004 4:31 PM

I have posted a couple of comments over there.

Posted by: ELC at August 23, 2004 8:51 PM

Mark: "Only you could make a link between this story as it applies to the SSM debate - and make it sound good."

Thank you, Mark!

Mark: (On moves to force Catholics to provide birth control and perform abortions) "This is news to you ? It's happening all time."

You're right. I didn't even mention the Boy Scouts.

"Nor do I feel these pursuits will be successful."

I hope you're right.

"In my view, it's right up there to me with banning flag burning."

I see that as the opposite. There's no tradition of flag-burning that's under attack. The urge to prevent flag-burning goes the other way: It's an ancient idea that a nation can't survive for long without loyal, patriotic citizens. And one shows patriotism in part by reverence towards the country's flag.

Opposition to flag-burning seems based on the idea that this is such a strong country that we can withstand a couple thousand citizens who open hate the country. (Or these days, make that tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands.)

No country could have imagined such a thing over 500 years ago. Governments just weren't that stable back then. A single traitorous citizen could alter the course of an entire war. Ephialtes and the battle of Thermopylae comes to mind. I vaguely recall other incidents in ancient Greek history where a single traitor within the city opened the gates and ended the seige. That happened a few times in the Old Testament, too, IIRC.

I'm not passionate about flag-burning, because we have much bigger problems in that area right now. My point is just that a ban on flag-burning would be the preservation of tradition--the tradition of a country demanding loyalty from its citizens. The others are the reverse of that: destroying tradition to bring about Utopia.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 23, 2004 10:11 PM

If she can't take communion, then it isn't important for her to take it. Theologically, God doesn't expect us to do what we are physically incapable of. However, if the implication is that grace is withheld, then it is no longer a God of infinite grace, but of limited grace, of grace toward only those who can eat wheat gluten.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at August 23, 2004 11:15 PM

I see that as the opposite. There's no tradition of flag-burning that's under attack.
—---- It's not the tradition of flag-burning, it's the tradition of protest.

The urge to prevent flag-burning goes the other way: It's an ancient idea that a nation can't survive for long without loyal, patriotic citizens.
—---- I don't even know where to start. So, in your world view, it should be illegal to be unloyal and unpatriotic. So you were against the American Revolution ?

And one shows patriotism IN PART by reverence towards the country's flag.
—---- Yes, IN PART. But you still think it should be illegal to not show reverence towards the flag ? How far does that go ? Should one be allowed to protest against the elected President ?

Opposition to flag-burning seems based on the idea that this is such a strong country that we can withstand a couple thousand citizens who open hate the country. (Or these days, make that tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands.)
—---- I absolutely agree. And your idea is that a strong country cannot withstand any citizens who openly protest against the government. Or is your view based on numbers ? Can it withstand 1000 citizens ? 10000 ? 100000 ?

No country could have imagined such a thing over 500 years ago. Governments just weren't that stable back then. A single traitorous citizen could alter the course of an entire war.
—----- True. Are you saying that someone who burns the flag is analogous to someone who is a traitor in time of war ? Wow. Those are the views of governments like Cuba or China.

I'm not passionate about flag-burning, because we have much bigger problems in that area right now. My point is just that a ban on flag-burning would be the preservation of tradition--the tradition of a country demanding loyalty from its citizens. The others are the reverse of that: destroying tradition to bring about Utopia.
—---- I couldn't agree less. All the ban on flag burning does is it sends the message that protest will not be tolerated. It is the exact opposite of freedom and sends a message of weakness due to fear of criticism not a message of confidence and strength. Loyalty and patriotism is not shown by reverence towards a flag or any object. Well, maybe in Castro's Cuba, Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy.

We're way off the subject. Maybe Justin will do a specific post on this subject for us to begin a new long thread. Or maybe not.

Posted by: Mark Miller at August 24, 2004 9:34 AM

"If she can't take communion, then it isn't important for her to take it." I don't disagree with your analysis. She could, however, receive Holy Communion under the form of wine only. Her mother seems not to cotton to that. That tells me her mother really wants something other than Holy Communion for her daughter.

Posted by: ELC at August 24, 2004 9:54 AM

Someone mentioned something about the mother not wanting communion under the species of wine. I don't know if the girl is intolerant of alcohol or not, but the absolutely miniscule amount of wine one takes at communion cannot have an effect.

This mum is just a wee bit oversensitive.

Posted by: c matt at August 24, 2004 1:37 PM