Much ado about transubstantiation

In the previous post, I suggested that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood, was a fairly bizarre thing to believe in this day and age and raised the possibility that perhaps even Catholics did not really believe in it but were just humoring the church by going along with a doctrine that came into being a long time ago.

I wrote that post some time ago but late last week brought to my attention a news item that suggested that there are many Catholics who not only believe it literally but for whom it is a very big deal indeed.

Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, went to mass on his campus but instead of immediately, as is the custom, eating the wafer (which is the modern day substitute for bread), he tried to take it back to his pew. And that was when the trouble started.

Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.

“When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him,” Cook said. “I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they’d leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth.”

A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that’s why he brought it home with him.

“She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand,” Cook said, adding she wouldn’t immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.

He did manage to take it back to his dorm. But when word of his action got around, a major-league hoo-hah ensued. A spokesperson for the local diocese said that this act should be considered a ‘hate crime’ and called upon the university authorities to punish the student severely enough to discourage future such acts. The church also demanded that Cook return the wafer.

Of course, William Donohue (head of the Catholic League and founder member of The Church of Perpetual Outrage in Order to Get Publicity) seized another golden opportunity to get himself in the media and issued a statement saying that the act went ‘beyond hate speech’ and called for the student’s expulsion. He said that the wafer was being held ‘hostage’. Carol Brinati, with the Diocese of Orlando, is reported to have said that the Catholic community was “concerned about the possible desecration of the Eucharist,” and pleaded for its ‘safe return’. The parallel to a hostage taking popped up everywhere. Father Miguel Gonzalez of the Diocese was quoted as saying, “Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family.”

In fact, Gonzalez says that treating the blessed bread with anything less than the highest respect is considered a ‘mortal sin’. This is the worst class of sin, pretty much guaranteeing a lifetime in hell.

After Cook started receiving death threats and learned of attempts to break into his dorm room to ‘rescue’ the wafer, he eventually returned it to the church in a Ziploc bag.

The fuss over this matter was taken so seriously that the university even sent armed uniformed guards to watch over the next mass to make sure another such ‘hostage taking’ did not occur. The diocese also dispatched a nun to stand guard. There was no mention of whether she was also armed.

As a coda to this story, University of Minnesota evolutionary biologist and staunch foe of religion P. Z. Myers had some fun with this episode over at his blog Pharyngula, which is where I got most of the links. Since Cook had returned the wafer seemingly undesecrated, Myers requested his readers to obtain a consecrated wafer and send it to him, so that he could personally desecrate it.

This naturally moved the outrage meter of Donohue even further into the deep red zone and he has started a letter writing campaign against Myers to the university president, trustees, and Minnesota state legislators.

There is a curious thing about the overheated rhetoric on this matter. True, Myers may have gone overboard in causing offense in order to emphasize his sense that the whole incident was ridiculous, but I would have thought that the most one could say is that he acted in bad taste, like those Danish newspaper that published cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed or the US soldier accused of shooting the Koran.

These kinds of insults are like those silly “Your mama is . . .” taunts that one can hear on children’s playgrounds or among immature athletes in competition, trying to goad the other person into doing something stupid. The mature thing to do is to ignore such taunts. But it is usually the case that the more fragile a belief is, the more vehement and angry the defense, in order to discourage other people from questioning it.

Donohue takes the bait put out by Myers and stretches credulity by saying in response that, “It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ”. Really? He can’t think of anything viler than fooling around with a wafer that has had some words said over it? What about murder? Rape? Genocide? Slavery? Child abuse? Those things are lesser evils than violating some ancient and esoteric church doctrine?

And what exactly constitutes desecration? If you eat the wafer, as required by the Church, the ‘Body of Christ’ gets digested in the stomach and intestines and eventually emerges as excrement to be flushed down the toilet. That’s pretty serious desecration, you would think, unless the wafer somehow ceases to be the ‘Body of Christ’ as soon as it passes from the mouth into the throat and reverts to becoming an ordinary food item. I have no idea if that also is part of the doctrine of transubstantiation. No doubt the Vatican has a crack team of senior theologians on its Transubstantiation Task Force studying this very question.

But it is an example of the kind of never-ending increasing complications and contradictions that arise when you elevate ritual and symbolism into something more or try to make sense out of religious dogma.

POST SCRIPT: Childhood religious indoctrination

Irish comedian Dave Allen described his own experience with learning Christian doctrine as a child at the hands of nuns.

(Thanks to OneGoodMove.)


  1. Alex says

    I love this post! I wish I knew your thoughts on these topics while I was in your classes, and I wish you were more vocal about this stuff back then!

  2. says


    When I am teaching, I take care not to stray too far from the topics that are relevant to the course. Also, I am mindful that in a classroom, I occupy a position of authority and so must be much more circumspect about expressing my views. On a blog, I am much freer since no one is dependent on me for grades, etc. If they dislike what I say, they can easily say so.

  3. says

    For all you heathens out there — you can order your very own Communion Wafers on-line at I like them best with hummus and guacamole 🙂

    Desecrate at will!

  4. says

    “the more fragile a belief is, the more vehement and angry the defense, in order to discourage other people from questioning it.”

    I think this pretty much sums it up. I also wonder if some of these people see the irony in sending death threats?

  5. says

    Greetings! Saw your post in Google Blogsearch and came to read.

    >”What about murder? Rape? Genocide? Slavery? Child abuse? Those things are lesser evils than violating some ancient and esoteric church doctrine?”

    Yes, if the host is actually the body of Christ, God incarnate as the Church proclaims, then murder, rape, genocide slavery and child abuse, as horrific as they all are, would be lessor evils. However, even a lessor evil is still evil and must be opposed.

    >”unless the wafer somehow ceases to be the ‘Body of Christ’ as soon as it passes from the mouth into the throat and reverts to becoming an ordinary food item. I have no idea if that also is part of the doctrine of transubstantiation.”

    You might consider researching the question first and then writing second. There is no desecration in your hypothetical case. It doesn’t cease being the body of Christ when it enters the throat. It also does not revert to being an ordinary food item.

    Once the digestion process starts and the Blessed Sacrament ceases to have the accidents of bread, the Sacrament and the Real Presence are no longer there. (This answer presupposes that you have some understanding Aristotle and Aquinas regarding the concepts of accidents and substances.)

    If you looking for something interesting to post on the Eucharist, you might consider Lanciano. Pretty wild that the “wafer”, as you call it, turned into a complete human heart and the wine into human blood of the universal AB type.

    God bless…


  6. says

    Hi Tim,

    Have you got any links that indicate who Odoardo Linoli or Ruggero Bertelli actually are/were? I’ve been unable find any references to these two let alone their work outside of catholic sources. (except for a Professor Ruggero Bertelli (an economist) in Siena who was born in 1959)

    Unfortunately I can only see this story as a hoax and a lie created in an attempt to silence sceptics in the 8th century. Had any real scientist performed analysis on this surely there would be easily accessible scientific documents on the matter?

  7. Jared says

    Timothy said that if you actually believe that the communion is the body of God, then “desecrating” it is worse than anything else.

    If I was God, and I made pieces of bread and wine turn into pieces of my body when my followers consumed it after saying a few words in my honor, I’m not sure that I would really care if people did whatever to it. I mean, if it meant that much to me that they did it, I might be miffed that they didn’t do my special ritual that I like so much. But presumably if my divine body can handle the rigors of digestion, I won’t be too put out by a little man handling. So I don’t think it would bother me so much as say… I don’t know… KILLING SOMEONE.

  8. says

    Why have all these miracles seem to have dried up here in the 21st century? Its like a darkened room, where for the longest time all the religions of the world claimed there were dragons. And then suddenly in 21st century these scientists come along with the a flashlight. and…suddenly there are no more dragons.

    wonder why. 🙂

  9. Fr. Terry Donahue, CC says

    Have you got any links that indicate who Odoardo Linoli or Ruggero Bertelli actually are/were? I’ve been unable find any references to these two let alone their work outside of catholic sources.

    Here is a link with some excerpts of a fairly recent interview of Professor Odoardo Linoli:

    Zenit is a Catholic organization, but I think it is reasonable to accept that Prof. Linoli is a real scientist who was interviewed there, and that a scientific investigation did take place.

    You can also check out photographs of various documents that were produced following the investigation in the Photos and Documents section of the following Wikipedia article:

  10. Anonymous says

    Why have all these miracles seem to have dried up here in the 21st century?

    Here is a list of the 67 Cures at Lourdes recognized by the Catholic Church as miraculous:

    I will grant you the fact that none of them occurred in the 21st century (i.e. 2001-2008), but you will note several in the 20th century.

    Granted, a PDF file listing them won’t change anyone’s mind -- that requires more serious investigation. But the cases are there to investigate: the medical documentation for these cures at Lourdes is very extensive. For those interested, I’d recommend checking out The Healing Fire of Christ: Reflections on Modern Miracles (available at Amazon).

  11. says


    You can’t seriously think I’m going to believe that “most illustrious scientist Prof. Odoardo Linoli, eminent Professor in Anatomy and Pathological Histology and in Chemistry and Clinical Microscopy” is real because there is an “interview” with him on a catholic site?

    Interestingly enough, this supposedly took place in 2005. So Linoli is still alive and well yet only the church knows where he is hiding.

    Yes I saw the photos… what are you expecting me to see? Anything different from these other dubious sources?

    Did you manage to get any information from your other source? I tried and only found “No abstract available.” I’m not 100% aware what this means but I interpret it as “No document available” I also can’t seem to get hold of any other document of this Linoli O. or any way to view his work.

    Do you ever wonder at people and their justification of lying for their religion? What happens to a scientist who lies and gets caught? Take a look at Hwang Woo-suk. Does religion indirectly teach people that its OK to lie as long as it benefits from it? Why turn a blind eye to it? I’m absolutely in awe at the lack of chastising by other religious groups at this.

    Regardless of the questionable existance of this Prof… I suggest you read the follow-up article “Cloning god” where Mano brilliantly dissects the story of the eucharist and reveals some inescapable contradictions and flaws with it.

    The most illustrious Engineer Mr. Greg K, eminent IT Manager in Microsoft and Technological Topology and in Electronic and Critical Active Directory.

  12. Fr. Terry Donahue, CC says

    most illustrious
    I admit that the website’s use of the phrase “most illustrious” is is over the top.

    So Linoli is still alive and well yet only the church knows where he is hiding.

    Obviously many people outside the Church know where he lives, but they haven’t posted that information to the internet. Not all that surprising. Perhaps he is retired now, I’m not sure.

    I also can’t seem to get hold of any other document of this Linoli O. or any way to view his work.

    The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website database seems to only have the title and author information available for me as well. It appears that the database only has abstracts and full text for some of its entries.

    I just managed to track down a hardcopy of the journal the article is in (Quaderni Sclavo di diagnostica clinica e di laboratorio) at the National Research Council’s Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (CISTI catalogue) here:

    It is available for ordering from there, and I’m sure it is available in other major scientific/medical libraries. I plan to go to the NRC tomorrow to get a copy of it, since it is local for me.

    I did manage to pull up a list of 48 other titles with Prof. Linoli as the author, by selecting Search: PubMed for: “Linoli O” The latest couple of entries (in 1994) have an abstract, the rest are just titles.

    Do you ever wonder at people and their justification of lying for their religion?

    Personally, it saddens and sickens me that some people would lie in order to promote a religion. The pursuit of truth is what motivates me to use all means of rational investigation for claims of the miraculous.

  13. says

    Hi Terry,

    Sorry about my overly defensive reply. I guess I should stay away from FSTDT before posting here.

    Even though I disagree with the validity of miracles, I do thank you for been polite in your posts.

  14. Fr. Terry Donahue, CC says

    I did manage to get a copy of the entire article from O. Linoli on the flesh and blood from Lanciano (~12 pages of text in Italian, plus 12 b/w pictures). Now I’m work on getting it translated into English. It’s an interesting read so far.

  15. says

    To Fr. Terry Donahue

    I have been trying to get my hands on that paper, if you could send me a copy or anything you have translated yet, I would be very happy. I want to check the various claims made by these catholic websites on this supposed miracle.

    Thank you,

  16. says

    Dear Fr. Terry Donahue,

    I have also been curious to read that paper for a long time, and would appreciate a copy if you have a chance to send one my way. May the Lord bless and protect you all the days of your life!

    Pax et bonum,


  17. Anthony says

    Greg, Terry, Eric,

    I’ve also been trying to find info on that study. I read that it was validated by the World Health Organization, but I can’t find anything from them either. I am planning to contact them and see if they can produce anything to substantiate this claim.

    I’ll share what I find out if you will!


  18. Michael says

    So, I found myself not being able to stop laughing.
    For 32 years I set in Catholic pews and took the wafer. I went to confession, earnestly seeking some spiritual meaning to my life. I went to catholic gradeschool for six years at Our Lady of Greenwood Catholic School in In. I can honestly say now that I did not know God at all as long as I was involved in the Catholic Church ritualism. I now believe that a person who has studied the Catholic faith and remains in it is either gullable, dishonest, or has a motive that will keep them from knowing Christ. In 32 years not one person told me to read and believe the Bible. The truth of God’s word has made me free from external religious observances. The truth of God and his word looks on the inward man, God wants to cleanup our character and thought processes, calling us to firmly take hold of the promises he has given us.
    I have never heard of a “St. Abraham’s Catholic Church”,(although some may exist) Why! God chose Abraham to show how we are justified by faith alone. Romans 3-4, Galatians 4, Genesis 15 etc. Consequently, Abraham did not need a Church.
    The entire Roman Catholic Mass is in error, not just the host. In fact, the RCC claims that the mass is a resacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. The Church thereby violates the scriptural teaching of the “Epistle to the Hebrews” 10:10-12, “By that will we have been sanctified through the the offering of the body of Jesus Christ ONCE for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin. But this man, after He had offered ONE sacrifice for sins forever,sat down at the right hand of God,”
    The RCC contradicts the very premise by which it claims to have gotten its foundation. The Word of God. There is a website that teaches the Apostacy of the Catholic Church; “Holy Family Monestary.something” This group teaches the traditional view of the Church while proving undeniably that the modern RCC Church is false. If a person were to study this website honestly with a sincere heart. They would have to reject all forms of Catholicism. Why? Because the traditional Church took religious freedom away from the people and enforced its views through state governments. This is contradictory to the teachings of Christ, who said, “My kingdom is not of this world”.
    Someone once said, “Power corupts, and absolute power corupts absolutely”. If you are a catholic person reading this and other material pertaining to it, and are not moved to reconsider your allegiance to the RCC. SHAME ON YOU!

  19. Eric says

    Hello Michael,

    I read your comment and was not moved to reconsider my beliefs. Why? Because I’ve heard your complaints before, and they can all be addressed. Come home to the faith. Try --just read over their articles a bit.

    God bless you,


  20. MB says

    Michael or Anthony: If Catholics are so bad, why was Mother Theresa loved and admired by so many people in the world? You can’t tell me that she was corrupted by Catholic Ritual and history and belief in transubstantiation. You shall know them by their fruits. Matthew 7 If the tree is bad, so will the fruit be bad. There are other Catholics who do good works, who must have heard the Word inwardly as you claim you have. If it weren’t fo r the Catholic Church, you wouldn’t have the Word of God to rely on.

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