God’s body

David Frum wrote a pretty good piece defending the right to blaspheme, but he got one part wrong.

In 1989, the AIDS activist group ACT UP disrupted services in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. One protester grabbed a consecrated communion wafer, broke it, and tossed it to the floor. He and some 100 others were arrested. A few of the protesters were sentenced to community service. None went to prison. Needless to say, none was burned at the stake.

From a Catholic perspective, defiling a consecrated communion wafer does violence to the body of God. It would be hard to imagine a more brutal affront to the most cherished beliefs of faithful Catholics.

Hmm. Is that really what it is? Do they think of it as like taking a machete to God’s arm?

I wouldn’t think so. I don’t think even from a Catholic perspective it’s like doing violence to anyone’s body. How can you do any kind of violence to a god anyway? It doesn’t bleed or feel pain or lose the use of the body part. I think it’s the sacrilege that burns, not an idea of doing violence to a body.

Anyway. Everyone was shocked and went tut, no one said it was blasphemy and a police matter.

The right to blaspheme is not a right most of us make much use of these days, and for excellent reason. In modern Western free societies, we take it absolutely for granted that nobody can enforce religious dogma on anybody else.

Ohhhhhhhh no we don’t – at least not if we’re paying attention we don’t. Hobby Lobby anyone?

No, we don’t take that for granted at all, because we can’t. If only we could. Nope; the USCCB enforces religious dogma on anyone who uses a Catholic hospital, emphatically including non-Catholics. Religious phrases and symbols are forced on all of us all over the place – on the money, in “the pledge,” in and around many public buildings, in airports, and on and on.

Expect more blasphemy over the coming years.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Actually, in this case (as with Pussy Riot), I think that the cathedral could have a case if they wanted to prosecute to deter these sorts of protests in the future. It’s just that the charge should be some form of trespassing, and the punishment should be maybe a few weeks of community service — not the incredibly draconian sentence that Putin got against the band.

  2. says

    Excellent reference re: Catholic hospitals. A few years ago when it became apparent that secular hospitals in Washington were slowly being bought and merged into Catholic hospitals, I lamented that fact to a friend who happens to be Catholic. He asked me why I thought it was bad, and I pointed out the official stance of the USCCB and that they would most likely begin restricting fair & straightforward access to contraception and abortions. He laughed at the suggestion as if it were totally absurd, “they would never do that!”

    And guess what? That is exactly what started happening.

  3. pixiedust says

    Often, when I point out absurdities as you have here (“violence to the body of God”), I get criticized for being literal. “Body of God”, I’m told, doesn’t mean an actual body. And when I ask what it does mean, I get nothing. Or “Christians are the body of God”. And when I ask about that, I get nothing.

    It is interesting how they won’t even defend their own statements.

  4. iknklast says

    Mr Fancy Pants – I had almost the exact same conversation with a Catholic friend. She claimed they would never refuse an abortion to a woman who needed it to save her life. I pointed her to a couple of cases. She practically accused me of lying.

  5. screechymonkey says

    Ophelia, I think PZ could probably share with you some of the hate mail from the Great Communion Wafer Desecration that might change your mind on exactly how literally some Catholics take that “body of Christ” stuff.

  6. Bluntnose says

    Hmm. Is that really what it is? Do they think of it as like taking a machete to God’s arm? … I wouldn’t think so. I don’t think even from a Catholic perspective it’s like doing violence to anyone’s body.

    Yes, it really is. Roman Catholic doctrine is quite clear that this is the literal body of Christ. Quite a lot of blood was spilled over that issue. The communion wafer does not stand in for Christ, or symbolically represent him, it transforms into his actual body. That is why no crumb must be dropped. Of course, this is the body of a god so it is unlike other bodies, but nonetheless. Never underestimate the strangeness of religious belief.

  7. hbuttle says

    I don’t think even from a Catholic perspective it’s like doing violence to anyone’s body

    Close to were i was born, next to a walkway and an hospital building, and about 100 meters from the local church, there is a strange 3 meter tall stone monument. I never gave it much attention. One day, puzzled by the fact that its strange position impairs valuable parking space, i stopped and read the inscription. I was expecting some dedication to fallen soldiers, or to someone who died there for some violent crime, or something like that. But no: back in the early XX century a thief had stolen from the local church, and on his way out he discarded the consecrated bread. They built a frigging monument on the exact spot where the bread fell, as if somewone was martyred there.

    But that was a century ago. At the climax of the sex abuse scandal a bishop went on a tv program, and claimed that the church takes abuse reports very seriously, because now child molestation was a crime of the highest order, second only to the desecration of the body of Christ and manslaughter. In that order. That was supposed to be a reassurance. I’m not sure how to check this, in canonical law desecration and blasfemy appear in title 1 as crimes against the religion itself, killing the pope appears in title 2 because it is a crime against the church, killing anybody else including abortion is in title 6 as a crime against the person. Sex abuse on minors appears in title 5 because of special obligations, so i don’t know if this was the source of his claim. Anyway that bishop is now a cardinal (he once claimed that a blasfemous joke told by the then right wing prime minister needed “contextualization” or something like that. Don’t ever think that cardinals don’t earn their grade on the field…).

    So i would say that yes, the catholic perspective even now requires a proper catholic to be as concerned about a wafer desecration as about the cutting of a man to pieces with a machete, or possibly more, and if he isn’t there’s a good argument to be made that he’s not a proper catholic. Curiously, due to the magical power of priests being maintained even after apostasy, the worst possible thing imaginable by a proper catholic is an apostate priest entering a bakery or wine making facility and saying the magic words: that would be equivalent to genocide or something like that. The lesson is: never underestimate the weirdness of the catholic perspective.

    Oh, just for the sake of completeness, that public hospital isn’t (yet) a private religious one (the pattern of catholics institutions taking over secular schools and hospitals to impose their morals is actually their global response to secularization) but doesn’t perform abortions, and doesn’t even allow emergency hormonal contraception, but is chock full of crucifixes and is known to fly statues of Mary with its helicopter. Please make that first amendment work at least for you.

  8. says

    I’m not saying [“devout” or “fanatical”] Catholics don’t consider messing with the cracker an extreme crime, I’m just expressing doubt that they see it as literally an attack on a literal physical body that feels pain and suffers damage. I’m not saying they don’t officially consider the cracker to be the body, I’m well aware that officially they do; I’m just expressing doubt that they consider that body to be like mortal bodies. They see it as sacrilege rather than a crime of violence. Don’t get me wrong; they see sacrilege as infinitely worse. I’m just saying the crime isn’t similar to assault.

    People were tortured for not agreeing that the cracker is the body – that’s how those priorities work. Fucked uppedly.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    Actually Ophelia, there is a definition of violence that includes profanation. Here from Merriam-Webster.com:

    Definition of VIOLENCE
    : injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation : outrage

    So Frum’s statement is valid.

  10. says

    Sigh. Really? Is this really about what it says in the dictionary? Did I ever say Frum’s “statement” isn’t “valid”?

    I did perhaps mislead by saying he got something wrong and then mentioning the violence to god’s body first. That wasn’t the thing he got wrong – what he got wrong was the claim that “in modern Western free societies, we take it absolutely for granted that nobody can enforce religious dogma on anybody else.” That rests on a plain factual error, and that’s what I meant when I said he got something wrong.

    The part about the violence to god’s body is about interpretation, and about what believers actually believe about god’s body. It’s fuzzier. I didn’t say what he said is invalid, and I don’t care what a dictionary says.

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