A Deeper Disaffiliation

A response to Peter Steinfels’s “Separate Challenges”
The Eucharist rests on a paten on the altar in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington, Delaware, May 27, 2021 (CNS photo/Chaz Muth).

Peter Steinfels’ article, “Separate Challenges: The Bishops, the Eucharist, and abortion” (Commonweal September), poses a challenge not merely to the bishops, but to the whole people of God. It is the challenge to appropriate and to realize our Eucharistic identity as the Body of Christ. Indeed, Steinfels endorses Timothy O’Malley’s claim that “the whole Church is a Eucharistic reality.”

The proximate occasion of Steinfels’s article is the proposed document on “Eucharistic coherence” being drafted by the Doctrinal Committee of the United States Bishops Conference. Steinfels proposes that what Catholics need is not a document on the Eucharist, but rather “a pastoral strategy on the Eucharist.” In support of this stance, Steinfels cites a 2019 Pew survey that found that only 31 percent of Catholics believe that at Mass the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” To his great credit Steinfels takes this sobering fact seriously. Hence his contention that “what is needed is not another doctrinal statement on Real Presence but a strategy that would reverse the decades-long decline in weekly worship.”

This is where he finds O’Malley’s insights helpful. Among those insights is the imperative that “every aspect of our lives become Eucharistic.” Hence the need to create “a Eucharistic culture of affiliation” that moves beyond liturgical worship to embrace the entirety of the believer’s life, personal, social, and political. Moreover, an examination of conscience regarding Eucharistic coherence is incumbent not only on the individual believer, but upon parish and diocese as well. Eucharistic celebration and Eucharistic reception are not private, but public and corporate: the privileged manifestation of the Body of Christ.

I fully endorse all these principles. Indeed, over the years I have maintained that, as a constitutive dimension of Christian faith, one can and must become, with God’s grace, a “Eucharistic self”: one who embodies a Eucharistic consciousness and practice. Hence the following observations are intended not to counter Steinfels’s proposal, but to press it further, to suggest the magnitude of the challenge and the commitment required.

To speak of “declining belief in the Real Presence” or “disaffiliation” from Church does not yet meet the full seriousness of what we face. There is a yet deeper disaffiliation. It may be broached by posing the question: Whose “real presence” are we talking about? If the Eucharist is an encounter with the living person of Jesus Christ, then disaffiliation from the Eucharistic liturgy is defection from Jesus Christ himself.

Decades of theological and cultural questioning of the salvific uniqueness of Christ have conspired to promote a de facto “apostasy”—a turning away from Jesus Christ as Savior of the world. If the stark term “apostasy” seems excessive, one need only attend to the unsentimental witness of the New Testament itself. The Gospel of John speaks of those who turned back because of Jesus’ “hard saying” (John 6:66), while the Letter to the Hebrews sadly laments those who “forsake the assembly” (Hebrews 10:25).

If Jesus Christ is merely an exemplary human being from a remote era, then claiming to encounter him really present in the Eucharist is wishful thinking and liturgical pretense.

Thus, “who do you say I am?” remains the crucial question antecedent to any meaningful examination of belief in the Real Presence or participation in Sunday Eucharist. For one’s response to that question will determine the importance attached to the sacrament. If Jesus Christ is merely an exemplary human being from a remote era, then claiming to encounter him really present in the Eucharist is wishful thinking and liturgical pretense.

A second point follows. Uplifting terms like “Eucharistic selfhood” or “holistic Eucharistic formation” must not camouflage the true cost of discipleship, the price of transformation. As (the Anglo-Catholic) T. S. Eliot put it, “the cost is not less than everything.” But here Eliot is only recapitulating centuries of spiritual classics from Augustine through John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). And they, in turn, are rooted in Paul’s inspired recognition of the radical consequences of transformation in Christ. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you which you have from God? You are not your own, you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Note that the “your” in both cases is plural, indicating the corporate nature of the new reality Paul is describing.

“You are not your own, you belong to Christ.” By giving his body for us, Christ has incorporated us into the new reality that is his ecclesial body. And the Eucharist is the privileged sacrament of incorporation. We must be expropriated of the “old self” so that we may be appropriated into Christ: beginning with Paul, this is the constant teaching of the great mystics—those who have perceived most acutely the implications of belonging to Christ. They all testify that the movement toward the new Eucharistic self passes through the crucified heart of the Lord. It is ineluctably paschal in shape, but its fruit is the new creation. And this paschal logic must govern all efforts to create and sustain a “Eucharistic culture.”

This leads to a third observation. Although Steinfels makes passing reference to believers being “formed or malformed by cultural liturgies”—the various cultural activities to which we devote much more time than to the ecclesial liturgy—he gives little attention to the anti-Eucharistic nature of the culture in which Christians are immersed and “malformed.” This is understandable in a programmatic article, but a pastoral strategy on the Eucharist would also need to consider what Eugene McCarraher calls “the Enchantments of Mammon”—the title of his recent book on the conflict between capitalism and Christianity. (David Bentley Hart wrote an appreciative review of it for Commonweal.)

I am not suggesting that McCarraher’s eight-hundred-page tome be assigned reading for all Catholics, but its concerns need to figure in any realistic attempt to work towards a Eucharistic culture of affiliation on the multiple levels Steinfels indicates.

I would, however, strongly recommend as required reading chapter three of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si’: “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” Here the pope severely criticizes the reductive anthropology of secular modernity. Its rampant individualism, which wreaks havoc upon both the human community and the natural environment, manifests itself in a “disordered desire to consume” (123), resulting in what the pope calls “a throwaway culture.” He argues there can be “no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118). Such an anthropology would insist on humanity’s relational nature. As Francis puts it: “it cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected” (138).

In this regard I find myself in strong disagreement with one assertion in Steinfels’s article. Commenting on the two topics of the Eucharist and abortion, Steinfels writes: “at one narrow point they overlap.” I would argue that the point is not “narrow,” for it concerns the essence of Eucharistic selfhood and culture. Factors like fear and despair may diminish subjective culpability for abortion; objectively, however, abortion is the very icon of an anti-Eucharistic attitude. It is the radical contra-diction of the generative Eucharistic word: “my body for you.” Pope Francis is unambiguous on this point: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (120). Eucharistic coherence is “catholic”—that is, comprehensive—because all is interconnected.

In the last chapter of Laudato si’ Pope Francis issues an urgent appeal for an “ecological conversion.” As he develops this, it becomes ever clearer that, at its deepest, ecological conversion is Eucharistic conversion. He summons his readers to embody attitudes of “gratitude and generosity,” as we realize our participation in a “universal communion” (220). Such conversion culminates in, and is sustained by, the Eucharistic sacrifice itself, which is “the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life” (236). The Eucharist is the Real Presence of the living Lord where, “in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation,” Jesus Christ chooses “to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter…. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth, it embraces and penetrates all creation” (236).

May such Eucharistic faith and imagination inspire all Catholics as they write documents, create strategies, or advocate policies. Let the epigraph for each of these undertakings be the apostolic exhortation: “I beseech you, brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:1–2).

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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