Jul 15, 2008

Wafers of Mass Destruction

There is a near-consensus among reasonable people that the people in the church and the Catholic League overreacted insanely in the cracker-kidnapping case. A lot of people, whether they like PZ Myers or not, agree that his job, let alone his physical well-being, should not be threatened because of his commentary of the case. But it seems to me that most people would still chide the student whose refusal to eat the Communion wafer started the incident. Several people with whom I talked or corresponded have described the student's action as unethical and disrespectful, and therefore deserving some condemnation, although not anywhere on the scale of threats and attacks to which he was subjected.

I think this is an important issue: was the student "wrong" at some level? Not wrong in the sense of violating the internal rules of his religion, which he obviously did, and for which the Catholic Church may discipline him (without breaking laws) however it wants, perhaps even excommunicate him. But was he ethically wrong from a secular point of view? Did he do anything harmful to people, rather than just to a god or gods? Let me go through a list of complaints people have typically raised over his actions:

1. He stole the wafer, and there has to be something wrong with that. No, he didn't. The wafer was already his when he "abused" it. It was given to him as part of the Eucharist and he was supposed to eat it, not return it. He couldn't steal it once it was his.

You may wonder if the Church, nevertheless, retains ownership of the wafers it hands out, as software manufacturers retain ownership of the programs you buy from them, whereby you only buy a license to do certain things with the software. But the software license agreement is a legal contract, and no such contract exists here. (Church rules may apply, but I've already disclaimed any discussion of internal church issues.) There is no property contract that complicates the case; no theft could have occurred. (If it had, I wonder what the value of the stolen item would have been. A nickel?)

2. He disrupted a solemn and peaceful ceremony. People have compared his action to yelling "Bullshit!" during church service or preaching about salvation through Jesus at a Wiccan gathering. I think those analogies fall flat. Yelling "Bullshit!" (or even "Hallelujah!", for that matter) while the rest of the congregation is praying or listening to a solemn sermon is objectively disruptive---the yeller temporarily prevents others from doing what they gathered to do, and they can't easily ignore his noise. But all the student did was take the wafer out of his mouth as he walked away from the altar. One would not expect others to even notice it, unless they are more interested in looking over and policing their fellow parishioners than in receiving the Body of Christ (or whatever other spiritual benefit they get from the Mass).

3. He acted disrespectfully toward a sacred object. Some people have compared it to defecating on the Bible or the Qur'an. Besides the analogy being grossly disproportional, I think it misses the point of deliberately offensive acts: they only mean something if somebody knows about them. A provocateur who uses the Qur'an as toilet paper will do it in such a way that somebody (a Muslim, he hopes) will notice: he'll probably use a public rest room, he might not flush, or he might leave a damaged copy on the rest room floor. If he does it secretly, it will not insult anyone and, consequently, it will be ethically irrelevant. "Desecration" of an object cannot be unethical in itself, but only through the anguish it brings to people who hold the object sacred. That brings us back to the previous point---disruptiveness. Provided that the student tried to save his wafer discreetly (which nobody seems to dispute), neither disruption nor desecration should be an issue.

4. He acted in bad faith by participating in the ritual if he knew he was going to break its rules. There are several versions of this argument. One---that he wasn't entitled to receive the Eucharist in the first place---is easy to dismiss. All parties agree that he is, in fact, a Roman Catholic and can take Communion. The reason he was saving the wafer was to show it to his non-Catholic friend who was curious about it, which also implies that the friend did not pose as a Catholic to get to the wafer. Perhaps they even considered the possibilities and decided that the way they eventually chose was more honest (or less risking to become disruptive)?

The version of the "bad faith" argument worth considering is that, while he was entitled to participate in the ritual, by such participation he implied a guarantee that he would complete the ritual properly. Put this way, it is not just about church rules, but about general trust. If I host a party at my house raising funds for Obama, and you show up, it is reasonable to assume that you will not try to persuade other guests to vote for McCain or Nader, and that you will not drive the guests away by some persistent misbehavior. This kind of trust is important because it enables us to deal with a lot more people than just our families and best friends, and not be constantly on a lookout for those who would take advantage of our hospitality or outreach. Therefore, a breach of trust by not following implicit agreements on behavior can be a secular ethical issue. But, before we conclude that it always is an ethical issue, does the breach need to be serious enough? Are perhaps some minor breaches immaterial?

In the fundraising party example, suppose a guest behaves fine, but doesn't give a contribution (or gives less than the suggested minimum)? If it was explicitly announced that contributions would be voluntary, but most people understand they are expected, would this be unethical behavior? What if a guest is boring and somewhat annoying, although not doing anything that can be identified as inappropriate? While I'd expect the guests to be helpful to the cause, I also shouldn't have unreasonable expectations. Or, what if the party is in a very backwards, redneck community (yes, there are redneck Democrats, and the candidate does not want them written off) and a guest shows up with his or her gay partner? At some point "trust" can degenerate into a community's intrusion into individuals' basic rights.

There is no doubt that the student did violate the trust of the Church when he went to take Communion. But was the breach material, and were the requirements for trust reasonable? I am not sure I can answer those questions until I ask informed Catholics to educate me. Here are some questions I have for Catholics:

1. Many people are only outwardly religious---they want to fit in their religious community, but don't actually believe in God. Should a person who is formally Catholic, but really a non-believer, take Communion? Is such person's partaking in the Eucharist a breach of trust?

2. How about Catholics who do believe in God, but don't believe in the real presence of the Christ in the Eucharist? I am sure that millions of Catholics think of the "Body of Christ" as a symbol, a metaphor, although that clearly contradicts the Church dogma. Are those people partaking in the Eucharist in bad faith and desecrating it?

As I said, I don't know the answers for sure, but I expect that the answers are that neither group should be taking Communion, that both are "cheating" the Church in doing so, and that they are, from the Catholic Church's point of view, at least not paying due respect to the sacrament, and probably desecrating it as well.

If it is so, then I would like to know how the student's "kidnapping" of the wafer is any different from those people's participation in the sacrament. And I wouldn't be surprised if those two groups made up half the people who were taking Communion together with the student. If bad faith was his only transgression, he probably has abundant company in every Mass.

If anything, his stated goal was more honest and socially useful: he was satisfying a friend's curiosity. Curiosity is a noble goal in itself, and a lack of curiosity should be considered an ethical failing. I would expect that most Christians whose churches have a regular Communion ritual do something to examine the Communion wafer at least once, presumably at a young age. It seems like a healthy child's or teenager's thing to do. Not exactly a behavior to be encouraged, but whom is it ever going to hurt? And satisfying a friend's curiosity ought to rank higher than satisfying one's own. Of course, in this case, the curiosity seems frivolous, and perhaps not age-appropriate, but even so it compares favorably to concealment of one's true beliefs.

Admittedly, the student almost certainly also belonged to one of the two "wrong belief" groups, otherwise he probably wouldn't have kept "God" in a Ziploc. So he double-cheated! But what is the difference? If either bad-faith issue meant he shouldn't have taken Communion, two of them have the exact same effect as one: he abused the trust and entered the ritual he wasn't supposed to. There is no further increase in harm from his second breach, the saving of the wafer.

So I would conclude that the student committed the same kind of unethical act that millions of Catholics commit weekly - a bad-faith partaking in the Eucharist. I can't see that the Church suffers any harm from those millions, so I doubt that this one caused any harm, either. That would make the unethical act minimal and negligible, barely deserving as much as a friendly admonishment.

He also may be guilty of clumsiness to the extent that he wasn't discreet enough and other parishioners saw him taking the wafer out of his mouth. From the news report it is only clear that one person saw him, and made a scene; other people might not have noticed anything without the ruckus. It is possible that his behavior was somewhat reckless and indiscreet, but I would need some evidence of that before jumping to such conclusions. In the article, there aren't even allegations of him flaunting his wafer or something like that.

OK, so much for his behavior during Mass, but what about the next several days? The student himself cited as one of the reasons for returning the wafer that he realized some people were upset, even pained, because he was holding on to the wafer. Doesn't this mean that what he was doing was causing pain to others, and was therefore unethical?

I think that such notions have to be firmly rejected. If we accepted that one person's "desecration" of the Eucharist was causing pain to other people because it offended their beliefs or their sense of sacred, and that the person's acts were therefore unethical, then we would also have to accept the same argument against abortions, homosexuality (with or without marriage), atheism, or even religious diversity. And that is just the beginning of the list. I know some people would be quite happy with that conclusion, but I would not want those people's ethical principles anywhere near me. In fact, I eat a lot of garlic to keep them away.

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