Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Doubt that, Douthat

Really, this blog is not going to degenerate into one focused on a branch of the Church to which I no longer belong, but our friend Ross Douthat does keep making it hard to quit him:
It’s a very specific debate about whether conversion and repentance are necessary, not for community, but for communion: The reception of the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, during the central act of Catholic worship, the sacrifice of the mass. And by claiming — or at least very strongly implying —that Jesus’s meals with sinners are the template for how the church should think about communion, Father Martin is effectively rejecting the entire sweep of our church’s tradition on this question.

This tradition is rooted in the gospels themselves, where the Last Supper is emphatically not a feeding of the five thousand moment or a meal with a tax collector: Those encounters are arguably prefigurations of the Last Supper, but the actual eucharist itself is instituted in an intimate encounter between Jesus and his closest followers, held in a private upstairs room far from the crowds and hangers-on.

The tradition is also rooted in the New Testament more broadly, and particularly in Saint Paul’s admonition that “a man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily.” (Which doesn’t sound like a “community first, conversion second” admonition to me.)

And then it’s rooted in the ancient, millennia-spanning practice of the church itself, in which the idea that communion follows conversion is part of the chain of experience that binds the earliest Christians to their medieval and modern Catholic heirs.

So treating the eucharist as a form of outreach instead would represent a revolution, not a mere pastoral tweak, in the way the church thinks about that sacrament (and not only that one). That’s because there’s no clear way to confine Father Martin’s logic to the narrow cases at issue in this debate. If community precedes conversion in the reception of communion, why should only remarried Catholics (or gay Catholics, or polygamous Catholics) have the benefits of being welcomed at the altar? The same welcoming logic would surely apply to any unshriven sinner in need of conversion. And not just any sinner who happened to be baptized Catholic: If the template is Jesus’s meals with the unconverted, then it would apply to any human being, period, since who wouldn’t Jesus have dined with? Why should Protestants not be welcomed to communion? Why shouldn’t Jews? (We know Jesus liked to dine with Jews!) Why shouldn’t Muslims and Mormons, agnostics and atheists? If the eucharist is basically a form of food-based Christian fellowship, a means to outreach and welcome and hospitality rather than a sacred mystery for believers to approach with reverence and not a little fear, then forget the divorced and remarried; barring anyone from receiving makes no sense at all.

And indeed there are many Christian churches that take exactly this attitude toward communion. But they are also, not coincidentally, generally churches that don’t have Catholicism’s view of transsubstantiation, confession, or the sacramental economy writ large. They are always Protestant, frequently liberal, and emphatically not the Roman Catholic Church in which both myself and Father Martin were confirmed.
Long quote; sorry. But I don't want to be accused of taking him out of context.

A few points:

1. To Douthat's purity principle, pointing at the Last Supper, might I point out that one Judas Iscariot was present; indeed, he was singled out for special attention:
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
So, clearly, only the pure in heart and converted should be allowed at our commemoration of the Last Supper. Don't get me wrong; I respect the right of the Roman Catholic Church to make whatever rules it holds to be required by God and the service of God. But this line of argumentation is distinctly poor--

2. But that's hardly surprising; Douthat argues like a high school debater. "[E]mphatically not the Roman Catholic Church in which both myself and Father Martin were confirmed," Ross? You were born in late 1979 and converted (and I'll assume confirmed) at 17. By my poor math, that means you've been a Catholic for about as long as South Park has been on the air. Your adherence to Roman Catholicism has just about tied the original run of Cats



See, sometimes change is better.

Kidding aside, My point is that this is a juvenile argument--you don't get to pull that O tempera, o mores routine based on an 18 year run.

3. He's also stone-cold ignorant about the liberal churches who do allow communion to all or to all the baptized: "there are many Christian churches that take exactly this attitude toward communion. But they are also, not coincidentally, generally churches that don’t have Catholicism’s view of transsubstantiation, confession, or the sacramental economy writ large. They are always Protestant, frequently liberal," and, as we covered earlier, not the Church he was confirmed in back in that distant era when Bill Clinton was serving his second term. Which doesn't explain his complete unfamiliarity with Anglo-Catholicism, in either its English or American forms. Short version: From its conservative, indeed reactionary, origins with John Henry Newman and the Tractarians, it had a second wave, the so-called "Second Oxford Movement", led by Charles Gore and the "Holy Party." Both variants flourish to this day, disagreeing quite often--though not always--on questions such as women's ordination and same sex marriage, while sharing a firm conviction to what Gore described as "sacramental religion." [A first rate book on the English context is N.P. Williams's Northern Catholicism (1933), and, for the American context, George DeMille's The Catholic Movement in the Episcopal Church (1941).] So, yes, many liberal protestants believe in Real Presence in the Eucharist, some in Transubstantiation, quite a few in confession, and plenty in the Atonement. (I mean, there's a whole chapter on the Atonement in Lux Mundi (1889), the founding text of liberal Anglo-Catholicism.It's by Arthur Lyttleton, and quite good.)

Oh--and that we share so precious a sacrament so widely is not because we do not value it, but because, in the words of a wise priest I know, it isn't ours to keep, but to give away. It's a vision captured in that most wonderful of hymns--which we sang at my ordination, "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy." We really believe these words:


5 comments:

rick allen said...

“So, clearly, only the pure in heart and converted should be allowed at our commemoration of the Last Supper. Don't get me wrong; I respect the right of the Roman Catholic Church to make whatever rules it holds to be required by God and the service of God. But this line of argumentation is distinctly poor—“

Not that I’m any particular fan of Douthat, but this “line of argumentation” has hardly been unique to Catholics. I think Protestants have, historically, been considerably more adamant about warning, in the heart of the liturgy, of the dangers of unworthy reception:

“Dearly beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord's Body; we kindle God's wrath against us; we provoke him to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kinds of death.”

As a convert to Catholicism myself I well remember, from my Presbyterian childhood, the rather solemn warning in the communion service against the unregenerate communing and thereby eating and drinking judgment on themselves.

Now I have no idea whether these admonitions are still used in Protestant services. But if this “purity principle,” as you call it, has become a Catholic peculiarity, it is so only because it has not there been discarded.

Anglocat said...

Hi Rick,

First, always glad to hear from you, and thanks for the comment.

Yes, the 39 Articles say this, and no, they are no longer regarded as binding--though I and many Anglicans would agree with the core of this provision, that we should come to the Holy Table seeking God's love, His forgiveness, His Grace, and intending amendment of life. Yes.

But that's not what Douthat is saying. And, as I hope I made clear, it's not the doctrine I'm deploring--though Douthat defines it more narrowly than would an Anglican, and of course confession is not mandatory among us--it's Douthat's frankly juvenile argumentation for his position: that since the Last Supper was for the Twelve (1 of whom would betray Jesus, and intended to leave the meal to do just that, and another who would deny him that very night), clearly only those in a state of Grace can approach the altar.

You can get there, but his argument is spectatcularly unimpressive, and Calloway made as if it's self-evident.

Anglocat said...

Callowly. Though one of my my spiritual directors would have a laugh at that, as his name is Calloway.

William R. MacKaye said...

I didn't happen across this rebuttal to Douthat till Oct. 27, but I want to speak up and encourage you not to desist from using him as foil whenever you are inclined to. I delight in reading your ongoing rumination about Catholicism Anglo and Roman, and am enriched by it. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have far more in common than Douthat imagines, and it goes far back. One of the treasures or the rare book collection of Catholic University in Washington, a treasure shown me some years ago by a female Episcopal priest who at the time was CU's rare book librarian, is Archbishop John Carroll's Book of Common Prayer, filled with personal annotation that makes it clear he used it for devotional purposes. Carroll, of course, was the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

Anglocat said...

Thank you so much for this comment, William MacKaye; you've made my evening. I am delighted to read your comment about Abp. Carroll's Prayer Book, and, yes, I agree that Roman and Anglo Catholics share a great deal.

I'm thinking of doing a more detailed piece on the connections and especially the Second Oxford Movement's contribution, but haven't quite found my approach yet.

Thanks again for your kind and gracious comment.