7/10/2008

IS THE WHOLE WORLD CRACKERS?

The world has truly gone mad when people will threaten somebody over a symbol.
For you Catholics out there, let me point out that if someone doesn't literally believe that the Host becomes the Body of Christ, then they can't really be guilty of a mortal sin, right? It becomes mortal only to those who are invested in the whole bit.

21 comments:

Peter said...

"[I]f someone doesn't literally believe . . . then they can't really be guilty of a mortal sin, right?"

You would think so, but when I suggested that in the comment sections of my and my brother's blogs, the resistance from Catholics and self-appointed guardians of tolerance astonished me in both its tenacity and its unreasonableness. It even came from people who prefaced their remarks with things like, "I'm not Catholic but..." or "I'm Catholic, but I'm not looney like those people, but..."

Sometimes I am excited to live in the most informed, enlightened age in the history of our species. Not today.

Theo Bromine said...

Even when I was an evangelical Christian, I never did understand why so many other Christians felt the need to defend God against such things. Was the (metaphorical) skin of the Almighty really so thin that s/he would be offended at the slightest insult? And was God really so powerless as to need humans to defend his/her honour?

Ian H Spedding said...

I don't know. Believing that stealing a car is not a crime but a socially-justified redistribution of wealth does not make it any the less an offence in the eyes of the majority and will not stop them from sending the offender to the slammer if caught.

Peter said...

That's not really analogous, though.

If Catholics wrestle someone to the ground because they believe he has violated a rule required by their beliefs, then they, the punishing parties, are imposing a belief on that person.

But in your example, the punishing parties are not imposing a "belief" that unlawfully taking possession of another's property is "criminal." They are enforcing a socially-constructed category designed to protect possession, which holders of property tend to feel regardless of whether they agree that taking someone else's stuff should be categorized as a "crime."

That is, a sense of possession arises naturally and universally, without becoming a "belief," while a theory of "socially-justified redistribution of wealth" is an ideological "belief" that is far from universal.

By saying that the sense of possession isn't a belief, I mean that, by way of example, if you try to take a toy from a baby and the baby resists and says, "No! Mine!", I don't think you can reasonably say that the baby believes she has a right to possession, without being told about theories of ownership. Maybe a more grown-up, theoretical approach to possession could cross the line into "belief," but I don't think the root of the sense is belief-based. And I don't think categorizing violations of possession as "criminal" is belief-based, either.

On the other hand, the idea that violations of possession—depriving someone of possession without consent—can be "socially justified" as a valid "redistribution of wealth" arises at a much higher level of abstraction. There may be a natural inclination to share, but sharing is by definition voluntary and consensual, so forced sharing through "redistribution of wealth" is not really the same thing.

Going back to the cracker/host situation, the naturally and universally arising observation would be that the "host" is a wafer or a cracker, which does not rise to the level of "belief," while the assertion that the wafer is actually the flesh of Christ is a theological "belief" that is far from universal. Also, it doesn't arise naturally; no one who is unfamiliar with the doctrine of transubstantiation would look at a communion wafer and think, "That's the body of Christ." That assertion must be superimposed by theological training.

Anonymous said...

Pardon a random, wandering Internet commentator for intruding, but I have to wonder if Peter's statement,

"If Catholics wrestle someone to the ground because they believe he has violated a rule required by their beliefs, then they, the punishing parties, are imposing a belief on that person."

Is entirely accurate in this situation. A Catholic just wandering around outside wrestling/otherwise physically harassing people for not being Catholic would obviously be imposing his beliefs on other people.

However, leaving aside the fact that this wasn't actually what happened (according to Cook's account here, a woman grabbed his wrist and attempted to extricate the cracker--not exactly wrestling him to the ground, huh?), I wonder if Catholics--or any other religious group--has the right to enforce their beliefs within the grounds of their buildings of worship. From what I understand, nobody forced Mr. Cook to attend that particular Mass--he didn't own the group that was attending services at the time. Catholics have no right to keep people from expressing their disrespect of hatred of Catholic traditions, and they have no right to expect everyone to respect their rules everywhere, but shouldn't they have the right to expect that their rules and rituals will be respected within the confines of their own places of worship?

Theo Bromine said...

So:
1) a person enters the premises of a Catholic church.

2) he is freely given a communion wafer (ie he does not steal it, nor does he obtain it under false pretenses)

3) he does not obey the rules/conventions about what a person is supposed to to with said wafer

4) physical force is used on him in "defence" of the wafer (Anonymous: having someone grab you by the arm and try to pry your hand open is *assault*. Though there are cases in which it would be an appropriate response - perhaps if he had grabbed a handful of wafers, or taken a wafer from another communicant, in this case the woman who grabbed him was trying to take away something that was his.)

5) he receives threats of further harm to his person, including threats of death

I am at a loss to understand how, in this day and age, anyone can think that physical force (however minor) and the threat of further physical force up to and including *murder* can be an appropriate or acceptable response, even to the worst kind of blasphemy and sacrilege. One might think that the threat of divine retribution ought to satisfy them - if it was so important to God, why didn't s/he smite the miscreant right in the middle of the church? (Or, they could console themselves with the thought of his eternal damnation.)

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Wow. This issue must really touch a nerve. I haven't posted regularly for three weeks, and I alluded to this, and...BAM! I get a whole bunch of new comments, and pretty thoughtful ones at that. Thanks for sharing, folks!

John Pieret said...

Theo:

Point 2) is not correct. He was not "freely given" the eucharist. He had to ask for one as part of a ceremony the rules of which included consumming the wafer on the premises, a condition which was both obvious and, in any case, was known to the young man, since he was raised Catholic. Property or the use of it can be, and frequently is, given with strings attached.

If the young man had no intention of following the rules of the ceremony or later changed his mind, his taking the property or refusing to give it back was misappropriation of the property, a form of theft.

Defense of property is permissible but the force used must be appropriate to the threat, a difficult line to draw. Of course, your point 5) is absolutley correct and death threats are criminal acts that are not justified by any defense of property.

Peter said...

Wait, so once it's consecrated, is it still property, or is it "the Body of Christ"?

Wouldn't the transubstantiation that occurs upon consecration irrevocably alter the substance of the cracker and put it beyond the reach of property law, from the believer's perspective?

Eamon Knight said...

John's the lawyer here, but in the unlikely event it went to court, I imagine they would decline to rule on the status of the wafer being Jesus, and focus on whether it remains the property of the Church, to be handled in accordance with their rules. And I can very much see a court taking the position he outlines: technically, it is some form of theft or abuse of trust or something (but that might require that the Church attempt to argue that, just to establish that an offense had been committed for which they could legitimately appeal to the secular authorities, as opposed to imposing strictly ecclesiastical penalties).

Peter said...

I don't see why a court would necessarily find that failing to swallow the wafer on the premises in accordance with the ritual is theft or embezzlement or conversion. Finding a conditional gift of a communion wafer based on implicit theological propositions seems to me just as far beyond the authority of a secular court as ruling on the nature of the wafer. I would argue that the conditions on the property transfer would have to arise without reliance on the theological propositions, so that the church's have to argue only that it should be clear to any observer without knowledge of Catholic theology that people who receive the wafer must either swallow it on the premises or give it back. That seems like a stretch to me because common sense would probably tell this neutral observer that once you put a food item into another person's mouth, you're not getting it back.

On the other hand, relying on the knowledge of the person who fails to swallow the wafer that the underlying theological propositions dictate consumption on the premises, then enforcing that knowledge seems to me either beyond the jurisdiction of a secular court or a violation of the Establishment Clause.

And characterizing the act as a property offense seems disingenuous because, as I alluded to in a previous comment, the church is not really trying to protect a property interest, but a theological interest. A creative defendant might even try to argue that allowing the church to characterize as a property offense what is clearly a theological offense would violate the Establishment Clause. That argument probably wouldn't fly, though.

And if did get to a trial, somebody would have to make one of those arguments, or arguments to the same effect.

At any rate, it's certainly an interesting problem to think about. :-)

Peter said...

Argh. Typo.

Middle of first paragraph should say ". . . so that the church could argue only . . ."

Anonymous said...

"common sense would probably tell this neutral observer that once you put a food item into another person's mouth,"

I dunno, common sense tells *me* that if someone allows something to be put into their mouth, especially something like a cracker, they expect to swallow it and it's fair for others to expect them to swallow it.

If a neutral observer (one without any particular axe to grind against Catholicism or even religion in general) completely ignorant of Catholic theology--in fact, someone who didn't even know what Catholicism was--saw someone putting a food object into another person's mouth, and then the other person surreptitiously took it out of his mouth and placed it into a baggie or something, I'd say it's more likely than not that the observer would figure out something fishy was going on.

John Pieret said...

... the church's have to argue only that it should be clear to any observer without knowledge of Catholic theology that people who receive the wafer must either swallow it on the premises or give it back

First, in this particular case, the young man was familiar with Catholic ritual, so ignorance would truly not be a defense. In any event, the nature of the ceremony is such that, absent some circumstance not involved here, there is little chance that anyone would wind up in possession of an eucharist without knowing that it was part of a religious ceremony and intended for use in that ceremony. Thus, the person is on notice that there is some ceremonial use it is intended for and cannot thereafter claim ignorance of receiving it under a condition on their use of it. In that circumstance they are under an obligation to either make a reasonable inquiry as to the condition and/or to return the item and withdraw from the ceremony.

... enforcing that knowledge seems to me either beyond the jurisdiction of a secular court or a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The point is more about the nature of the act than enforcement (it's still theft even if there is some other bar to punishing the thief). But there is no inherent Establishment clause prohibition of enforcing the property rights of churches, i.e. ejecting trespassers from their premises, punishing thieves of more conventional property, such as money or silverware, or enforcing contracts of sale for church premises. I know of no particular bar to having the state protect religious items from misappropriation.

And, of course, the wonderful thing about the medieval scholasticism of transubstantiation is that the state can protect the physical accidents of the host without having to consider its (supposedly) altered substance, exactly paralleling the separation of church and state.

Ian H Spedding said...

John Pieret wrote:
Point 2) is not correct. He was not "freely given" the eucharist. He had to ask for one as part of a ceremony the rules of which included consumming the wafer on the premises, a condition which was both obvious and, in any case, was known to the young man, since he was raised Catholic. Property or the use of it can be, and frequently is, given with strings attached.

If the young man had no intention of following the rules of the ceremony or later changed his mind, his taking the property or refusing to give it back was misappropriation of the property, a form of theft.


Okay, but I would argue that a church is not just the buildings and clergy, it is the whole body of communicants which, apparently, includes Mr Cook. If Eucharists are held to be property of the Catholic church then they are as much Mr Cook's property as any other Catholic, to dispose of as he chooses.

John Pieret said...

Okay, but I would argue that a church is not just the buildings and clergy, it is the whole body of communicants which, apparently, includes Mr Cook. If Eucharists are held to be property of the Catholic church then they are as much Mr Cook's property as any other Catholic, to dispose of as he chooses.

But the same could be said of society as a whole. Can I say my tax dollars are, therefore, as much my property as any other member's of society, so I can refuse to pay my taxes and, instead, dispose of them as I choose?

Not unless I can dispose of them in prison.

Ownership vests either in a natural or corporate "person" and a corporate person can only act as an organization, not by the individuals who make it up. A single stockholder of a public corporation can't sell the corporate assets and one congregant can't dispose of the property of the church without the other congregants' consent.

Ian H Spedding said...

John Pieret wrote:
Ownership vests either in a natural or corporate "person" and a corporate person can only act as an organization, not by the individuals who make it up. A single stockholder of a public corporation can't sell the corporate assets and one congregant can't dispose of the property of the church without the other congregants' consent.

So, if I understand you correctly, for the purposes of the law, the church is a corporation and the clergy are its appointed agents who are authorized to dispose of its property under specified conditions? Individual congregants have no right of ownership over church property?

Point 2) is not correct. He was not "freely given" the eucharist. He had to ask for one as part of a ceremony the rules of which included consumming the wafer on the premises, a condition which was both obvious and, in any case, was known to the young man, since he was raised Catholic. Property or the use of it can be, and frequently is, given with strings attached.

Okay, let me try a different tack.

I would argue that the wafer could be held to be "freely given" for three reasons:

1) There is no actual or implied agreement to a temporary transfer of ownership under specified conditions such as an agreement to rent or hire the wafer.

2) There is no coercion involved since the priest is free to refuse to give the wafer to a communicant if he so chooses.

3) It is true that the terms of the ceremony require that the wafer be consumed but the fact remains that there is no expectation by the church that the wafer, once given to the communicant, shall ever be returned. Whether the wafer is destroyed by being consumed or simply taken away, makes no difference. The communicant cannot be compelled by law to eat the wafer any more than a customer in a store can be compelled to eat a free sample of a new food product given by a salesperson for promotional purposes.

John Pieret said...

... for the purposes of the law, the church is a corporation and the clergy are its appointed agents who are authorized to dispose of its property under specified conditions?

Almost certainly the local church is owned by a corporation, which, depending on where it is incorporated, can take many forms. The specific people authorized to act on the church's behalf will vary with each corporation, though the local bishop will probably have overall control of any diocesan church.

Individual congregants have no right of ownership over church property?

In the case of Catholic churches, almost certainly not. Other churches may have different arrangements.

The communicant cannot be compelled by law to eat the wafer any more than a customer in a store can be compelled to eat a free sample of a new food product given by a salesperson for promotional purposes.

The difference is in the intent with which the property is "transferred." The sample is given for commercial purposes to encourage sales. While the giver might prefer if the samples are consumed (assuming they taste good), the very act of passing them out (label prominently displayed) is accomplishing part of their aim of advertising. Any "wasted" samples are recognized as a "cost of business."

To Catholics, sharing and consuming the bread is both a solemn act of worship and an act of joining together in a community (literally, "communion") with each other and their God. Consuming the host together in the ceremony is the sole purpose and rationale for giving the host to congregants. No one is supposed to carry it away. If communion needs to be given to someone in hospital or who otherwise cannot get to church, either a priest will be dispatched or some lay person will be given special permission to carry it to them.

Sure, some naïf could violate those rules unwittingly and, no doubt, the church's reaction would be tolerant. In fact, some non-Catholics apparently took communion at Tim Russert's funeral, which is not permitted, but no brouhaha broke out because the act, if theologically improper, was intended as an act of respect to both Russert and the ceremony. What set this case off was that the kid involved was at least raised a Catholic and couldn't claim ignorance; there is some "backstory" of a preexisting dispute between the kid and the use of student activities funds to support the church and his refusal to return the host.

Peter said...

The only way to get to a theft theory is to first assume there was a conditional transfer of property, which requires, at the most basic level, a transfer. The transfer is the easiest thing to prove because it clearly occurs when the wafer is placed into the parishioner's mouth. Then, to negate the transfer on a breach of condition, the church would have the burden of proving the condition.

In this case, the conditions are defined by the theological content of the ritual, regardless of whether the participant knew of them. I think a court would be (or could be, when faced with the argument) hesitant to enforce those conditions for the same reasons courts recognize a "ministerial exception" in employment law, under which they will decline to decide an employment discrimination case that is grounded on religious tenets. The ministerial exception typically protects churches from discrimination claims when they make employment decisions on theological grounds, but I think the same principal could be used here by a defendant, to prevent a finding of theologically-grounded conditions on a transfer.

I do think that such a case taken to trial and well-argued on both sides would certainly not be an "easy" question.

John Pieret said...

I think a court would be (or could be, when faced with the argument) hesitant to enforce those conditions for the same reasons courts recognize a "ministerial exception" in employment law, under which they will decline to decide an employment discrimination case that is grounded on religious tenets.

That's a clever try. Extra points! But I don't think it works. While I won't claim much expertise in discriminatrion cases, the present case does not really turn on issues of theology. The theology just sets the stage for the nature of the ceremony and the giving of the host. The real issue is the intent on making the conditional transfer. While the religious nature also lends seriousness to the transaction, in that the recipient cannot credibly claim he thought being given the host was a joke or that nobody cared what he did with it, the courts can avoid the entanglement of "valuing" the property, since a charge of theft of property "of no monetary value" is permissible.

However, the receiver of the host would have to either know the rules; they would have to be obvious from the context of the ceremony and/or (as I would argue) the court would have to find a duty on the part of someone entering a private church and joining in a ceremony to make reasonable inquiry as to the rules.

sapphoq said...

It is my understanding that Webster Cook has claimed that he was wanting to show the host to a non-Catholic friend ?also attending the Mass? in an effort to explain what the wafer meant to Catholics. It is also my understanding that Webster Cook has alternately claimed that he was upset with ?student activities monies? were used to obtain Catholic Masses to be said on campus.

The first explanation does not excuse Webster Cook from finding some other way to explain things to a non-Catholic friend (images from Google for example, or even making an appointment for his friend to talk to a priest and get a tour of the chapel or church along with talk of the rituals involved in a Mass).

The second explanation does not excuse Webster Cook from finding some other less flamboyant, more effective way of protesting the presence of the ministry on Campus (contacting Americans United for example).

College students, even smart ones, do make errors in judgment just like other humans can and do. Unfortunately, this particular lapse in judgment is having far-reaching implications and repercussions in a society which is ridden with theocracy.

The heated exchange involved in the reactions of various factions of the public is astonishing to me personally. I wrote my e-mails to the University of Central Florida and to P.Z.'s bosses. I can only hope that the outcomes of all of this will be sane and that cooler heads will prevail.

As far as court involvement, my own hope is that the courts of the land will refuse to involve themselves in the question of ownership of a religious item that is designed to melt in the mouth.

spike