In a New York Times blog post today, Ross Douthat takes a break from lobbing accusations of corruption and conspiracy at Pope Francis to explain anew his belief that the church cannot change the way it relates to lesbians and gays, the re-married, and the polygamous. In particular, he takes issue with Fr. James Martin’s claim that Jesus’ wildly promiscuous practice of table fellowship ought to inform our approach to debates about contemporary Eucharistic comportment.  Although the connection between the Last Supper and Jesus’ practice of table fellowship has been widely accepted by Catholic theologians, Douthat strongly wants to sever this link.  Re-directing our attention to the Last Supper alone, he contends:

No: It’s a very specific debate about whether conversion and repentance are necessary, not for community, but for communion: The reception of the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, during the central act of Catholic worship, the sacrifice of the mass. And by claiming — or at least very strongly implying —that Jesus’s meals with sinners are the template for how the church should think about communion, Father Martin is effectively rejecting the entire sweep of our church’s tradition on this question.

This tradition is rooted in the gospels themselves, where the Last Supper is emphatically not a feeding of the five thousand moment or a meal with a tax collector: Those encounters are arguably prefigurations of the Last Supper, but the actual eucharist itself is instituted in an intimate encounter between Jesus and his closest followers, held in a private upstairs room far from the crowds and hangers-on.

But I have some questions.

  1. When did the Gospels ever portray the eleven disciples gathered together at the Last Supper as sinless or particularly repentant? Did not Jesus call Peter “satan?” Did not Jesus invite Peter to this Very Important Gathering even though he knew Peter would deny him three times just a few hours later?
  2. More importantly, how do we know that Jesus decided to share his body and blood with those eleven because of their repentance for sins of any kind, as Douthat’s arguments against Fr. Martin imply? Put another way, where lies the evidence that Jesus considered their refraining from and repenting of sexual sin a prerequisite for their inclusion in this sacred meal?
  3. Douthat contends that “by claiming—or at least very strongly implying—that Jesus’s meals with sinners are the template for how the church should think about communion, Father Martin is effectively rejecting the entire sweep of our church’s tradition on this question.” But what about those earliest Christian communities that celebrated a Eucharist of fish and loaves? Are these communities that drew inspiration not from the friends-only dinner party that Jesus held before he died but from his condition-less feeding of the masses not a part of the tradition? What is the hermeneutic of tradition that Douthat employs when he seemingly casts the earliest Christians out of the tradition?
  4. If the Last Supper alone provides the template for Eucharistic discipline, then how can women be allowed to take Christ’s body into their own? Put another way, why does Jesus’s including only men in his inner circle evidence that women cannot be priests but not that they cannot receive the Eucharist?

Douthat, like other Catholics, exhibits a selective sacramental literalism. Certain aspects of the Lord’s Supper, such as the masculinity of the assembled guests or the literal meaning of the words Jesus spoke, possess a seemingly self-evident inviolability. It must be today, exactly, as it was then. But other elements of the feast, such as the fact that it transpired as a real meal that filled the belly rather than simply dissolving on the tongue, on the other hand, can be discarded. Bodies matter but only sometimes.

If the Last Supper alone provides the blueprint for the Eucharist as Douthat insists it does, then we must either allow women ordination or refuse them sacramental encounter with Christ’s body and blood. Indeed, the fact that the church has admitted women to this feast while denying them official ordination indicates that the church has always recognized the connection between Jesus’ wildly promiscuous practice of table fellowship and the sacrament of Eucharist, even if it has yet to realize the full implications of this understanding.

21 thoughts

  1. He certainly does not understand the anamnetic aspect of the Eucharist, which stresses that it is not a memorial of a past event, but a making present of that event today as if we were there, or they were here.

    Failing to understand this aspect of the Eucharist is … well, very Reformed. As in ‘Reformed-before-everyone-calmed-down-and-realized-the-problem-wasn’t-the-sacraments-but-the-corrupt-people.’

  2. Scripture records that the participants in the last supper were all sinners at the event. Judas had already agreed to betray Jesus but was still welcomed and present and, according to St Augustine and other patristic fathers, received Holy Communion. Peter was about to deny even knowing Jesus. They were all arguing for positions of power and leadership after Jesus was dead. And at Gethsemane they all ran away. All sinners and none in full communion with either Jesus or with each other.

    Speaks volumes to participation in the Holy Eucharist.

    As the Eucharistic prayer puts it, let us continue to pray and work to bring the Church to the fulness of charity.

    A good point about women’s partcipation and ordination. We did once ordain women, at least as deacons.

    God Bless

  3. Douthat’s appeal to tradition reminds me of every feminist’s favourite theologian (!), Fr Joseph Ratzinger, who distinguished between the authentic tradition coming from Christ and the distorting, corrupting “tradition” whose origins are in human sin and power struggles.

    God Bless

      1. Why only “feminist” principles ? Why this exclusion of others, why this egoism and bigotry ? What about Jewish principles, or Protestant ones ? Or atheist principles or the ones of the sodomites ? “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” means ‘scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites’ were present at the Last Supper and an early Protestant and an atheist or two as well. The sodomites must have been there too and also some murderers and a rapists. The same goes for early communists and anarchists, there have always been people who believed that material property and women should be equally shared, that there should not be marriages and private property of goods. In fact the origins of the feminism lie in the communistic beliefs that a woman belongs sexually to all men and not just to one man, that an institution of ‘union of one man and one woman’ should be abolished, that a child should not know his or her father and that children should be raised by a ‘commune’ and not by their fathers. [ K. Marx and F. Engels : ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ ]
        Let us not be mean and advocate access to the Communion only to feminists. As Sr. Elizabeth Johnson wisely pointed out all kind of individuals could have been present at the Last Supper and therefore the Communion should be open to all regardless of their beliefs or behavior. The feminists and their allies should make sure that this passage : “Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord.” [ 1 Corinthians 11:27] is removed from the New testament.

      2. Quote : “nobody on this blog thinks the eucharist should be reserved for feminists.”
        Lady, the talk was about the ‘feminist principles’. From these ‘principles’ follow progressive convictions, for instance the conviction that the Eucharist should be available to all people regardless of what they believe and regadless of how they behave. That’s what progressive people,feminists included, claim to believe and fight for.
        I correctly pointed out why limit the human experience, in regard to practice of a religion, only to the feminist mental state ? Don’t feminists want to liberate all people ? Do they want to hog freedom only for themselves ? You should tell us something about this schizophrenic mode of thinking inside the headquarters of the feminism.
        The ‘scribes’ of feminism talk about equality but at the same time the words like ‘feminist principles’ betray beliefs of exclusivity and of specialness of the feminist dogmas. Other groups of people also have their own dogmas but those do not seem to count in the great scheme of building a utopia. This is contrary to the often stated objective of ‘liberation” of all from “patriarchal religion”. It hints at the ulterior motive of creating a New Church in which the Eucharist would be accessible only to those who have feminist beliefs.
        So are you a real libertarian or not ?

      3. I’m sorry, but I do not follow your logic here and so cannot offer a worthwhile response.

        I will re-state my original answer: no, I do not think that non-feminists should be barred from the Eucharist. One can advocate for a certain political philosophy without thinking that people who do not share this philosophy should be kept from Our Lord’s Table.

  4. Another pressing question, based on Douthat’s interpretation, is whether non-ordained men should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. If the apostles are the only ones to receive the Eucharist, and the apostles were all ordained priests, then how can we justify non-priests receiving the Eucharist?

  5. “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.” _the Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day

    I will go with Dorothy Day.

  6. Since none of the other commenters here seem interested in giving Mr Douthat a fair reading, I’ll give it a try. The question he appears to me to be raising is “where should the church draw the line” on reception of the Eucharist.

    Ms. Grimes quotes a long passage from Douthat’s blog post, but leaves out his major concern: if the church allows Catholics in a state of unrepentant sexual sin to receive communion, how can we deny those unrepentant of other sins, like cruelty, greed, racial hatred, or blasphemy. If we conclude that Christ’s outreach to sinners, Samaritans, tax collectors, and others outside his regular followers is the model the Church should follow with regard to the Eucharist, then how can we justify limiting any Catholic sacrament just to Catholics? Should this “field hospital” church (as Pope Francis describes us) indiscriminately dispense the spiritual medicine of Christ’s Body and Blood to patients who reject the diagnosis of sin in the first place?

    I think these are valid questions.

    As for the idea that The Last Supper is an inadequate teacher of Christ’s intent for the Eucharist because it didn’t include women, or only included his “ordained priests”, I find it specious. Ms. Grimes and others her know full well that Douthat wasn’t making a literal interpretation of the events in the Upper Room. He was pointing out the special spiritual state the persons in that room at the moment of the institution. Neither Judas not Peter had yet committed their sins of betrayal and denial. Arguably, the Twelve had never been spiritually closer to Jesus then in that most intimate gathering, in which he described His sacrifice and asked them to remember Him by purpetuating it in the Eucharist. If closeness to God is a definition of holiness, the Apostles were as holy as ever in that moment.

    You or I may not attain that level of worthiness every Sunday as we approach the altar for Communion, but to insist that the Church should openly encourage sinners who haven’t even tried to make themselves worthy raises deep questions about what Catholisism means, and whether this church can continue to fulfill the mission given to it by Christ on that most holy night.

      1. they all very worthy question with very complex answers. christians of various denominations have been discussing and debating these issues for centuries. to answer them adequately would require a very lengthy article on my point. it would be irresponsible of me to try to give an accurate answer to them in the comments’ section of a blog post.

        why don’t you all answer the question I posed in my original post: if the eucharist comes solely from the Last Supper, and if the all-maleness of the disciples gathered there is a reason why women can’t be priests, how can women receive the eucharist?

  7. Really great post and terrific blog. I have often wondered about your #4 (If the Last Supper alone provides the template for Eucharistic discipline, then how can women be allowed to take Christ’s body into their own? Put another way, why does Jesus’s including only men in his inner circle evidence that women cannot be priests but not that they cannot receive the Eucharist?). Now I have to start being annoyed again. Thanks.

  8. I find it fascinating that it also leaves out John’s gospel entirely, in which the main event in the upper room was a foot washing and a lengthy discourse and prayer, whereas the “words of institution” – eat my body, drink my blood – come as commentary and explanation on the feeding of the 5000 in John 6.

  9. According to the Didache, essentially an early Christian training manual from the first century, the significance of the Eucharist originally was related to the ritual of a (at least) weekly meal shared by members of the Christian community. The meal itself WAS revolutionary, as it was intended to disregard the boundaries of gender or class; communion was an activity the group engaged in together. Only centuries later did Christians connect the ritual of taking communion to Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper. So, history, anyway, suggests that the origins of this sacrament are broader than we typically understand.

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