Robert Blair Kaiser has taken issue with the excommunication of an Austrian couple, Martha and Gert Heizer, because they held Eucharistic celebrations without a priest. Kaiser’s column is one of the most muddled, ill-considered articles I have read in a long time and it warrants a response.
It is worth noting that, despite Kaiser’s claim, the Bishop of Innsbruck, Austria and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not excommunicate the Heizers. They excommunicated themselves. The bishop and the CDF merely pronounced the decree of self-excommunication, acknowledging a fact that was entirely of the Heizer’s own doing. I have not been shy about criticizing an excessive legalism in the life of the Church, but I am not, like young Roper in “A Man for All Seasons,” inalert to the necessity and the human value of law. Does Kaiser think a more libertarian ecclesial culture is the ticket? Would the work of the Church benefit from an ecclesial culture that resembles Wall Street’s financial culture circa early 2008? Or Somalia today? I am as allergic to libertarianism in the life of the Church as I am to it in the life of politics.
Kaiser invokes the early Church to defend the Heizers. After all, most early Christian communities worshipped in homes, and a defined, ordained presbyterate took a few years to emerge, although the idea of apostolic succession is found in the Acts of the Apostles. Primitivism is a strange argument coming from a Catholic. Indeed, the great reformers Luther and Calvin recognized its limits soon enough. At a lecture at Kesher Israel synagogue earlier this year, Leon Weiseltier noted that while he sometimes enjoys reading biblical scholarship, that scholarship always comes at the rabbinic tradition at a ninety-degree angle, and it is the rabbinic tradition that is normative. So, you do not need a CDF to recognize the limits of primitivism.
After all, if we are to justify our actions and beliefs based on invocations of the life of the primitive Church, are we to abandon the Creed? It took a few centuries for the Church to answer the question: Who is Jesus Christ? Or, if the primitive Church is to be the criterion for decisions made by Catholics today, what argument would Mr. Kaiser produce against a modern day slave trader? The primitive Church tolerated slavery after all. Mr. Kaiser should look in the mirror today and he will not see a first century Mediterranean Christian staring back at him.
The issue of celebrating the Eucharist without a priest is no mere legal technicality. The U.S. government spends a great deal of time, money and effort trying to combat counterfeit currency, and that is only money. If I take bread and wine tonight, and say the words of consecration over them, they will remain bread and wine. If I pretend that they are otherwise, I am committing a fraud, a counterfeit. I am not only violating the Commandment against false witness (pesky legalism), I am deluded in thinking otherwise and no historical argument based on the primitive Church’s practice will make me other than deluded.
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The Eucharist is the most vital reality in the life of a Catholic Christian. The Second Vatican Council, which Kaiser here and elsewhere treats as a harlot he can pick up off the street and drop off a block later, stated that the Eucharist was the “source and summit” of the Christian life. It is our food for the journey and it is the object of the journey, the foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem. It may not matter to Kaiser and it may not matter to the Heizers, but the Church is right to be concerned about any attempt to substitute a fakery for the real thing in a matter so important.
I have previously recalled a conversation with a non-Catholic friend who said, with great skepticism and incredulity, that surely I did not believe that the bread and the wine at Mass were really transformed into the body and blood of Christ. He assured me that a chemical analysis of the Eucharistic species would prove his point. I asked him what a chemical analysis of our own bodies would prove. If both of us were to submit to such a chemical analysis, we would learn what we already knew, that we are both human beings, that we might have a certain blood type or a predisposition to a certain disease. But, the chemical analysis would tell us nothing about what was important and what had brought us together that day at a midtown restaurant in New York City. The chemical analysis would not disclose that we had met when a mutual friend was dying a slow, painful death. It would not tell us about my visits to his house, the joy I shared in the birth of his son, the friends we had introduced the other to over the years, making them mutual friends. That, to me at least, is what is most real about our friendship and, I believe, mutatis mutandi, the same holds for the Eucharist.
A couple of years ago, I heard a sermon on the Eucharist from a priest in Connecticut. At one point, he observed that if we do not recognize the Lord in the Eucharist, we will never recognize Him in the poor, and if we do not recognize Him in the poor, we will never recognize Him in the Eucharist. I believe that is true.
The Church’s understanding of the Eucharist has developed over the years, as has our understanding of ordination, social justice, etc. As questions are raised, and answers are debated, the Church – the whole Church – comes to conclusions about what is true. Our Eucharistic theology is rich and varied, but it is not capricious. Eucharistic theology is not the stuff of Wild, Wild West ecclesiology, not is it deepened by an excessive rubricism. Both tend to distract from the reality of the Eucharist. But, that reality is, well, real, and making a counterfeit of it is properly considered a grave offense. What has happened to the Heizers is regrettable all around. I wish they had seen the profound error of their ways. I do not fault the Church for calling an error an error. The big, bad CDF meme is getting tired and, in this case, seems wildly inappropriate. If Mr. Kaiser thinks otherwise, he needs some better arguments.