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The central question in the two-thousand-year-old Catholic cannibalism debate is whether Roman Catholics or any other sect of Christians deserve to be called cannibals. The simplest way of defining the word cannibal is “a person who eats the flesh of other human beings”.
We can trace the roots of the Catholic cannibalism accusation back to the “The Last Supper”. That was Jesus’s last meal with his disciples before he was arrested. The Gospel writers depicted Jesus as saying of the dinner bread, “Take and eat; this is my body”, then, referring to the wine, he said “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins”. (Matthew 26)
Ever since someone wrote those verses, followers of Jesus Christ have been symbolically eating his body and drinking his blood. From those words, allegedly spoken by Jesus, the Eucharist, or Communion, was born. The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”.
The Eucharist is the holiest and most intimate sacrament of Christianity. Catholics have taken those words of Jesus so literally and profoundly seriously that there were times in history when denying the strict interpretation of eating Jesus’s body and drinking his blood, could result in a death sentence.
The average person must have surely considered this flesh-eating and blood-drinking a symbolic gesture. But, even if it is only symbolism, it’s still kind of bizarre. I mean, it’s natural for people to worship the god they love and respect, and even try to emulate that god. But eating your god? That’s something much more bizarre. As I mentioned, most Christian sects consider this a symbolic ritual. But the Roman Catholic Church is different. I couldn’t find another Christian denomination that interprets this act the same way Catholics do.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that in the Eucharist, the bread or wafer miraculously turns into the body of Jesus, and the wine or grape juice turns into his blood. They gave this process the name transubstantiation, meaning “change from one substance to another”, and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed it as Church doctrine.
But, over a millennium before the Fourth Lateran Council met, many pagans thought Christians were weird because of this seemingly cannibalistic doctrine.
In Catholic tradition, the radical change in substance from bread to the “essence” of the Savior is said to occur when the priest consecrates the bread, or the host. The word host is derived from the Latin hostia, meaning “sacrificial victim”. Catholics defend themselves from the charge of cannibalism by saying that what they eat is only bread, not human flesh, which seems like a reasonable statement.
Transubstantiation is a very mystical concept. No matter how or where the bread is made, it must be “made of wheat, be unleavened, and be recently made and unspoiled” The wine must be “any unspoiled natural wine made only with grapes” to satisfy the requirements of transubstantiation.
The Catholic explanation
Some Catholics fend off the charge of cannibalism by saying that in true cannibalism, someone consumes only part of the body, but in the Eucharist, they consume the “entire” body of Jesus—body, blood, soul, and divinity.
They say that no one tears or cuts flesh during the administration of the sacrament. And they only consume the “body”, not the “person”. Another point of distinction is that one receives not only temporary nourishment from this “food”, but everlasting life. Catholic spokesmen say that even after the ritual of Eucharist, Christ is still present and alive, so he is not eaten and digested.
Really? What ordinary person can make sense of some of the statements that theologians decided a thousand or more years ago? Still, you must give them credit for trying. Those early theologians had the monumental task of interpreting and understanding their god from the scant and confusing information which was available to them. There were hundreds of writings, in many languages, from many cultures, and using words that many of those theologians didn’t understand thoroughly because languages change over the centuries.
It seems unfortunate that Catholics must go to the trouble of showing why the Eucharist is not cannibalism. In a way, the Eucharist is only a form of “spiritual cannibalism”, not “physical cannibalism”.
The burdensome weight of Church tradition
The traditions the Catholic Church developed over the last two thousand years are grudgingly hard to modify, and no longer subject to rational inquiry. Catholics must take their traditions at face value and to do that, they must trust the decisions of ancient and often poorly-educated theologians. That’s another debate that I’ll have to put on hold—as to whether the ancients knew more or less about spirituality and truth than we do today. My guess is no, they probably didn’t know more and maybe knew a lot less.
I don’t believe Catholics are cannibals and I can sympathize with them if they’ve had to defend themselves from that accusation for the last twenty centuries. Although I’m sure it hasn’t been one of their front-burner items to defend. Modern Catholics are burdened with the weight of Church tradition and that weight tends to be impossible to unload.
An example of actual cannibalism
In 1972, a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes Mountains of South America. The conditions were as bad as anyone can imagine. After enduring sub-zero temperatures for 69 days without adequate food or clothing, the survivors were forced to resort to eating their dead to stay alive.
For them, this was the hardest decision they’d ever had to make. The idea eating their friends and relatives came down to a debate between intelligent people over morality and survival. Due to their seemingly superhuman efforts and their compassionate treatment of each other, rescuers saved sixteen out of the original forty-five passengers and crew.
Word eventually leaked out through the media that the survivors had eaten parts of their dead companions. After that, many people no longer saw them as heroes. Instead, they turned the survivors into ghouls and condemned. Those who were critical must have thought that the survivors should have died rather than become “cannibals”.
Most unexpectedly, it was the Catholic Church that came to their rescue. Since the survivors were all Roman Catholics, a Church spokesman addressed the issue, saying, “A person is permitted to eat dead human flesh if there is no feasible alternative for survival.” So, the Church did the respectable thing and publicly deflected the vilification of the survivors.
This does not mean the Catholic Church endorses cannibalism. But, it did show that some of the clergy were more compassionate than critical.
I don’t see Catholics as cannibals because of some strange theology stemming from the Gospels’ depiction of the Last Supper. I see only a doctrine that might need to be restated in terms that modern people can understand.