Getting what for on the wafer
At his Boston Globe blog, Articles of Faith, Michael Paulson reports getting some blowback for using the word “wafer” instead of “host” (or “Host”) in this story on the return of perpetual adoration at a eucharistic shrine in Boston. The most extensive criticism came from Terry Mattingly at his GetReligion blog.
To which Michael responds:
Just to be clear: multiple mainstream dictionaries identify the altar bread most commonly used in Catholic churches as a wafer. Here, from Dictionary.com, is the second definition of wafer: “a thin disk of unleavened bread, used in the Eucharist, as in the Roman Catholic Church.” Although some of the commenters complained that the word is pejorative, so far as I can tell dictionaries do not describe it that way, and a quick Google search suggests that the word is widely used in the Catholic context.
Furthermore, I need to be clear about how I see my role here: I’m a religion writer for a secular newspaper; I am not an apologist or an evangelist for Catholicism or any other religion. Part of my job is to try to describe what is going on in the world of religion using language that is clear, descriptive, and understandable, to readers of a variety of faiths and to readers of no faith. It is not my job to stake out, or to state, a position on what takes place metaphysically during a Catholic Mass or any other religious rite — in this story I described, to the best of my ability, what the Catholic Church says takes place, but it is not my role to simply assert, as some readers suggested I should have, that God is present in the consecrated bread. That is a belief, and one that I respect, but when I am describing a religious practice I am attempting to describe the tangible and visible aspects of that practice in language that readers can clearly understand, and I rely on worshipers, religious leaders, and academics to describe what believers understand to be happening spiritually or supernaturally.
I must admit I winced reflexively at the use of “wafer” in the lead. But it is not a simple question. Or is it? One could argue he should describe it as the Body of Christ if he is going to call it anything. Anyway, nothing could be more fraught than describing the eucharist–and we don’t have to resort to the “wafer wars” uproar.
This is a matter of professional interest to me, as well, so I am interested in feedback. I have written so many stories referring to the eucharist yet I can’t recall exactly what I’ve done, or if I’ve had a set policy, or what newspapers follow. Probably the AP Stylebook–and I’m not sure what AP style is, actually.
I would probably describe it as the host, on first reference (“Mr. Host” thereafter?), with an explainer thereafter as to why Catholics refer to the wafer that way. In other words, try to finesse it a bit.
PS: This also echoes the issue of whether the pronoun referring to Jesus should be capitalized.