A Crisis Of Confidence Within The Catholic Church: The Eucharist And The Latin Mass

Aug 21st, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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At the very heart of Roman Catholic theology and practice is the Eucharist: The sacrificial presence of Jesus Christ in the elements of the Eucharist.  At the prayer of consecration, the bread and the wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus.  [The Church interprets the statements of Jesus, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Mark 14:22, 24), as the literal body and blood of Jesus.  This doctrinal belief is called transubstantiation, which was made part of the official theology of Roman Catholicism in 1215.]  It is His sacrificial presence which the believer receives when partaking of the elements that makes the Eucharist a sacrament, one of the several means by which God conveys salvific grace.  For that reason many devout Catholics partake of the Mass at least weekly, some even daily.  For example, Rose Kennedy, the mother of former president John F. Kennedy, in the last years of her life partook of the Mass daily.

However, in 2021, there is enormous confusion within Catholicism on the subject of the Eucharist.  For that reason, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is now drafting a new document on “Eucharistic coherence,” explaining what the Eucharist is and why it is central to Catholicism.  Why are they doing this?  Attendance at Mass in the US is declining, thereby fostering the bishops’ conclusion that “many Catholics have lost a spiritual connection with the ritual and many not even understand the church’s teaching about it.”  In fact, only about 30% of US Catholics believe the core church teaching of transubstantiation.  Indeed, a Pew Research poll from 2019 indicated that about 70% of US Catholics believe the bread and the wine are mere symbols!

As Michelle Boorstein demonstrates, “Communion, the central ritual of Catholics’ life that connects them to one another and to Jesus, is back at the center of the Catholic culture wars. Tensions over whether politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Communion have been simmering for years, before boiling over with the election of President Biden.  In November, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez characterized the election of Biden — the second-ever Catholic U.S. president and a backer of legal abortion — as a confusing problem for Catholics, who Gomez said, wouldn’t be sure what the church teaches.  As a result, leaders at the bishop’s conference said a document on Communion was urgently needed, and work on a draft began soon after. It will be presented in November at the group’s fall meeting.  Kevin Rhoades of Indiana, who oversees the USCCB’s doctrine committee, tried to shift the focus away from Biden, saying the document’s purpose is to help revitalize the sacrament, not to call out politicians or to single out abortion.  ‘We’re aiming to write a document that will lead to a real revival by highlighting the truth about the amazing gift Jesus gave us,’ he said. The draft will also explain the reasons behind certain canon codes that exclude some Catholics from the sacrament, he said.”

In addition, in July of this year, Pope Francis cracked down on the use of the old Latin Mass by placing restrictions on where and by whom the traditional Latin Mass can be celebrated and required new permissions from local bishops for its use.  Jason Horowitz of the New York Times comments that Francis’ action “was bold and concrete.  He wrote that he believed champions of the old Latin Mass were exploiting it to oppose more recent church reforms and to divide the faithful.  In the 1960s, the church sought to make the faith more accessible with liturgy in living languages that made use of modern idioms in prayer books . . . Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, has relaxed restrictions on the old Latin Mass, also called the Tridentine Mass, in 2007.  In statements released by the Vatican . . . Francis argued that the change, designed to bring unity to the church and its most traditionalist and schismatic corners back into the fold, had become a cause of division and a cudgel for conservative opponents of the Second Vatican Council.”  In effect, the traditionalists, Francis is arguing, were creating a parallel liturgical universe—and this must end.  As Ross Douthat concludes, “Francis is attempting to use centralized authority to complete the revolution of Vatican II, to consign definitively to the past a liturgy that’s often a locus of resistance to the council’s changes.”

What is the significance of these two developments within Catholicism?  Several comments:

  1. The doctrinal importance on the ordinance of communion (or what Catholicism calls the sacrament of the Eucharist) has divided Christianity for two thousand years.  Since at least the Reformation (1517-1648), there have been four primary positions on how to understand Jesus’ words, “This is My Body.”
  • The Catholic teaching of transubstantiation—summarized above.
  • The Lutheran teaching of consubstantiation, that Jesus is present “in, with, and under” (from the Augsburg Confession) the elements and that participation in the sacrament strengthens the believer.
  • The Reformed Theology (aka Calvinist) teaching of the spiritual presence of Jesus in the elements, which nurtures and strengthens the believer spiritually.
  • The memorial view (taught by Ulrich Zwingli during the Reformation) that, because Jesus’ physical body is no longer present on earth, His words must be understood symbolically.  The elements represent Jesus’ body and blood; communion is a remembrance, a memorial.
  1. The current crisis within Catholicism manifests a growing division with the Church between Progressive and Conservative (aka traditionalist) Catholics.    The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought liberalizing change to Catholicism:  Church services were more accessible; the Mass was no longer said only in Latin as the priest faced the congregation; Catholics could now pray and work with other Christians; and Catholics could attend Bible studies, even with non-Catholics.  But not everyone accepted these reforms.  Indeed, there was conservative push back within the Church, causing significant division.  The division within Catholicism can be identified as Progressive Catholics versus Conservative (traditionalist) Catholics.  Progressive Catholics champion immigration reform, race relations, economic inequality and the environment as the core of the Church’s social teaching, but depart with the Church’s historic stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and gender issues.  Progressive Catholics support Pope Francis and the modernization of the Church since Vatican II.  Conservative Catholics are not totally supportive of Vatican II and are more concerned about the moral evils in society that threaten human life and dignity, especially abortion, contraception and matters of marriage and gender.  Some, but not all Conservative Catholics support the use of the old Latin Mass.  As Francis X. Rocca argues, “Catholics on the left and the right . . . agree that their church’s social doctrine is inseparable from its teaching on morals, including sexual and medical ethics.  But they differ forcefully over how much political weight to give what Pope Benedict XVI called nonnegotiable moral issues, especially abortion.”

When one observes Catholicism outside of the United States, one sees even more discord.  For example, in Germany, Catholic leaders have been meeting since last year to consider major changes within the Church, including the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of women.  In addition to the other items discussed in this edition of Issues, what is going on in the German church is causing some to pose the question, “Is Pope Francis leading the church to a schism?”  There is no doubt that disagreements over same-sex relationships, the ordination of women, the issue of abortion and other key issues are heightening tensions among Catholics worldwide.  Although talk of schism is probably extreme, the crisis of confidence within Catholicism is damaging, divisive and harmful.

See Michelle Boorstein, “Bishops’ debate over Communion sparked by Biden seeps into holiest sacrament for Catholics” in the Washington Post (30 July 2021); Elizabeth Diaz and Ruth Graham, “Beyond the Politics of Communion, an Ancient Rite” in the New York Times (27 June 2021); Ross Douthat in the New York Times (29 July 2021); Jason Horowitz in the New York Times (17 July 2021); and Francis X. Rocca in the Wall Street Journal (6-7 February 2021 and 17-18 July 2021).

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