200. Who is Afraid of “Liquid” Roman Catholicism?

April 1st, 2022
Since the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the expression Liquid Modernity (2000), the adjective “liquid” has been applied to almost all phenomena, e.g. liquid society, liquid family, liquid love, etc. In our world, liquidity seems to describe well the vacillating, uncertain, fluid and volatile feature of contemporary life. Everything is mobile, plastic and soft; nothing can be put into solid, stable and lasting casts.

To the already wide range of associations, liquidity has been added as a descriptor for a specific religious tradition, i.e. liquid Roman Catholicism. George Weigel, a conservative American intellectual, talks about it in a worried tone in his article “Liquid Catholicism and the German Synodal Path” (First Things, 16th February 2022).

For some time, Weigel and other exponents of US Roman Catholic traditionalism have expressed their frustration (to put it mildly) at the massive injection of liquidity into Roman Catholicism by Pope Francis. The uncertain teaching on doctrinal and moral subjects of primary importance; a kind of intolerance towards the pre-conciliar liturgy; the constant pickaxing of the Roman Catholic institution with repeated criticism of clericalism; the ways the pope acts outside the box that destabilize customs; the welcoming and merciful message at the expense of the doctrinal and moral requirements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc. All this makes Francis a “liquid” pope who is liquifying an institution that has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.

In addition to Francis, Weigel sees other troubling sources of liquidity in the Roman Catholic church. The article indicates Weigel’s alarm at the requests that are emerging from the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church, including a series of conferences of the Catholic Church in Germany to discuss a range of contemporary theological and organizational questions. Supported by the majority of German bishops, these requests include celibacy becoming optional for clergy (married life being the other option), opening ministries to women (the diaconate first, then one day the priesthood perhaps), recognition (with ecclesiastical blessing) of homosexual unions… these are just some of the proposals that are about to arrive at the Vatican and that have the strength to detonate a bomb in the Roman Catholic Church. There are growing concerns all over the Roman Catholic world about the German “Synodal Path.” In this regard, Francis’ liquidity is just a pale version of the turbo-liquidity that is coming from Catholic Germany.

Weigel and the circles of US Catholic traditionalism witness these processes of liquefaction horrified. For them, Roman Catholicism is a canonically compact religion, sacramentally coherent, institutionally stable, doctrinally integrated. They have in mind a Roman Catholicism that is more “Roman” than “Catholic”, anchored to its unchangeable dogmas, tied to its consolidated tradition, characterized by fidelity and obedience on the part of the faithful, and centered on its ecclesiastical hierarchies. Liquid Roman Catholicism, for them, is a pathology of catholicity that runs the risk of Protestantizing Rome and dispersing its uniqueness in the bewildering contemporary age.

It is interesting to observe these internal conflict dynamics in Roman Catholicism from the outside. Often, in the past, Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted evangelical fragmentation with Roman Catholic solidity, denigrating the former and exalting the latter. It was not a credible argument in the past, but it is even less so today. Roman Catholicism is as divided internally as any other religious movement of global reach. Moreover, traditional Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted the stability of Rome with the volatility of the Reformation. This argument too was superficial and one-sided and it is even more so now. Roman Catholicism goes through significant transformation processes. The fact that Rome is deemed to be “semper eadem” (always the same) needs to be seen in light of its ongoing updating and development.

The key elements to come to terms with in this issue are twofold. First, one needs to consider the dual nature of Roman Catholicism which is, at the same time, “Catholic” (liquid) and “Roman” (solid). Its genius has always been to combine the two faces in order to make them coexist and reinforce each other. Today it is its liquidity that seems to be prevalent, but its solidity will not fail as Roman Catholicism is both. The second key element is the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which fostered change, as a recent article by Shaun Blanchard has reminded us (Commoweal, 14th March 2022). Vatican II has given Roman Catholicism such an injection of liquidity that today it is impacting the solid structures of Rome as never before. Will the long term outcomes of Vatican II be able to liquefy them completely? Unlikely. 

Rome will remain liquid and solid, perhaps in a different arrangement than their present-day combination, but still “Catholic” and, at the same time, “Roman.” Weigel and other Roman Catholic traditionalists dream of a return to a more “Roman” Catholicism: but have they not yet understood that their religion is also increasingly “Catholic” at the same time?

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199.  Eating God? A History of the Eucharist and a Glimpse of Roman Catholicism

At first glance, it seems like a cannibalistic gesture, even if it is addressed to God and not to a human being. Yet it is the quintessence of Roman Catholicism. We are talking about “eating God,” an act that is at the heart of the Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Can Roman Catholicism really be thought of as the religion of “eating God”? Matteo Al-Kalak, professor of modern history at the University of Modena-Reggio, explores this question is in his latest book, Mangiare Dio. Una storia dell’eucarestia (Turin: Einaudi, 2021; Eating God. A History of the Eucharist).

The book is a history of the Eucharist from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) onwards in the Italian context and focuses on how the Eucharist has been elevated to a primary identity-marker: practiced, taught, protected, abused, and used for various purposes, including extra-religious ones. Using “a mosaic technique” (p.xiv), he analyzes some pieces of the history of the Eucharist.
 
It is not surprising that facing the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation (in all its Eucharistic variants, from the German Lutheran version to the Calvinian-Zwinglian Swiss version), the Council of Trent emphasized the sacrificial character of the Mass and made the Eucharist the symbolic pivot of the Counter-Reformation. Al-Kalak’s book is a collection of micro-stories aimed at forming a mosaic that reflects the crucial importance of the Eucharist in the construction of the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic imagination and strongly Eucharistic emphasis.
 
After reviewing the biblical data, the book summarizes the medieval debates starting from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which intertwined three pillars: who was to dedicate (in Roman Catholic language: consacrate) the bread and the wine (i.e. only the clergy), the confession to be preceded, and the true and proper Eucharist. One of the outcomes of the Council was the institution of the feast of Corpus Domini (The Body of the Lord, 1247). This Lateran synthesis was contested both before and after the Reformation. The pages on the heretical movements of the 16th century give voice to the “doctrinal fluidity of Italian heterodoxy” on the Lord’s Supper (p.19). In this regard, the opinion of Natale Andriotti from Modena is reported. Talking to a friend he said, “Do you think that Christ is in that host? It’s just a little dough” (p.149).
 
As pieces of the mosaic, other chapters tell stories of Eucharistic miracles, associated with various prodigies, and the development of a kind of preaching centered around Eucharistic themes (from the model offered by Carlo Borromeo in the 17th  century to the impetus given by Alfonso Maria de Liguori in the 18th century). Al-Kalak touches on the meticulous regulation given to the administration of the Eucharist (from the spaces, to the gestures, to the treatment of abuses) outside and inside the Mass (for example, at the bedside of the sick). Further chapters follow on the Eucharist represented in poetic, pictorial and architectural forms and on the desecrated Eucharist in witchcraft, magic and superstitious practices.
 
The discussion of the Eucharist in the face of the cultural disruption of the French Revolution is also of great interest. The Eucharist was seen as a polemical tool against the rationalism of modernity and for the re-Christianization of society (Pope Leo XIII). In recent years, though, Pope Francis is pushing to loosen the criteria for access to the Eucharist to allow the inclusion of those who are in “irregular” life situations. The book witnesses to the fact that the Eucharistic theologies and practices are not static and given once and for all, but always on the move.
 
The volume ends with an interesting “postscriptum” in which Al-Kalak dwells on the “scandal” of the Eucharist: “only the host is subject to the physiological mechanisms of the human being in such a radical way” (191), yet it is believed as a supernatural act filled with mystery. It combines rational language ​​with sensory ones, opening up to the irrational (p.193). If it is true to say that “the Eucharist – in the regular mass, in Eucharistic adoration, in Eucharistic processions – and fidelity to the pope and to the hierarchy are the two most distinguished features of Roman Catholicism from the Council of Trent onwards” (p.195), then a history of the Roman Catholic practice of “eating God” allows us to enter into the depths of the Roman Catholic religion.
 
Beyond the fascinating stories told by the book, what is of some interest is its title, “Eating God,” and its appropriateness to describe the soul of Roman Catholicism. Already in the early centuries of the church, Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism precisely in relation to the Lord’s Supper. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54)? The meal of bread and wine associated with the memory of the body and blood of Jesus Christ could give rise to misunderstandings. Was it a truly human “body”? Was it the blood of a corpse? Was it then a cannibal meal? Christian apologetics of the early centuries tried to unravel the misunderstandings as much as possible, indignantly rejecting the accusation of cannibalism and, if anything, indicating the biblical parameters of the ordinance instituted by Jesus himself.
 
Yet, already starting from the Fourth Lateran Council, and even more so from the Council of Trent, the church of Rome embraced “transubstantiation,” i.e an understanding of the sacrament according to which, after the consecration of the bread and wine and the transformation of their nature into the body and blood of Christ, there is a sense in which the Roman Catholic Eucharist is a real “eating of God.” If the bread really becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus (the God-man), taking it in some way means “eating God,”
 
Can it really go that far? Evidently yes, according to Rome. While the Reformation insisted on recovering the distinction between Creator and creature, the radical nature of sin and the sufficient mediation of the God-man Jesus Christ for the salvation of those who believe, the Roman Catholic Church instead veered on the analogy between Creator and creature and on the prolongation of Christ’s mediation in the hierarchical and sacramental church, to the point of considering the creature’s “eating God” as possible, even necessary. For Roman Catholicism, man is “capable of God” (capax dei) to the point of having to really “eat” him.
 
Is this the meaning of the meal that the Lord Jesus instituted the night he was betrayed and that he gave to the church as a memorial of him in view of his second coming? The debate on this question in history has been very lively and is still crucial. In the “eating God” of the Eucharist, Roman Catholicism puts all its worldview at work: its view of reality as touched but not marred by sin, the extension of the incarnation in the church, the divinization of man, and the “already” of salvation enjoyed in the fruition of the sacraments without waiting for the “not yet” of the final banquet. If you think about it, as absurd as it appears, “eating God” is a synthesis of Roman Catholicism.

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