Abuses of the Eucharist: A Western Catholic Confession

Issues concerning the Eucharist played a central role in the conflict that broke out in Bohemia in the first years of the fifteenth century between Jan Hus, a reforming priest, and the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. In fact the reforms advocated by Hus were wider than the Eucharist, but the dispute over communion from the chalice became the top symbolic issue. After the death of Hus, the chalice became a symbol for the Hussites, and often decorated their weapons of war.
However, the theology and the practice of the Eucharist had already suffered various forms of distortion and of narrowing since the close association of imperial and princely power with the power of the Pope and the bishops. Here we encounter one of the most serious abuses of the Eucharist, namely the abuse of power. This abuse of power was especially serious, because it directly contradicts the meaning of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the efficacious memorial of the Lord Messiah’s self-giving and self-emptying which is the direct opposite of imposing the will of authority with the use or threat of violence. We need to pray for light as to the different ways in which the abuse of power affected the Church’s celebration and theology of the Eucharist. Different forms of the abuse of power in this area are indicated below.
The weakened relationships between the Eastern Churches and the Western Church that ended up with the schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople had unfortunate consequences in the sphere of worship.

  • In the Western (Roman) Church, the Roman rite was privileged in a way that did not honour the many other liturgies of equal antiquity. This led during the Middle Ages, for example, to the arrogant attempt to impose the Roman liturgy and hierarchy on the Greeks in and around Constantinople following the Crusader intrusion of 1204. This exaltation of Roman practice and theology over the Eastern patterns of worship and thought had serious consequences for both practice and theology.
  • The later attitudes of Catholics to Protestant celebrations of the Lord’s Supper already had its antecedents in Latin attitudes to the Greek, the Syrian, and other liturgies of the East. These superior and disdainful attitudes were again manifest in India in the 16th and 17th centuries as the Portuguese Catholic missionaries tried to suppress the ancient Syrian liturgies.
  • A major abuse of power occurred regularly over several centuries when excommunication was used as a political weapon, depriving large numbers of people of eucharistic communion, sometimes for prolonged periods.
  • It is important to notice the big difference between the earlier evangelization of Western Europe, in which Celtic monks and Benedictine monasteries played a major role, and the later evangelization of central and Eastern Europe, in which the princes played a much greater part. In the first there were strong links to the monastic culture, and the formative role of the liturgy. With the latter, less attention was paid to the Word of God. This was “power evangelism” of a very different kind. A serious imbalance between the Word and the sacrament developed, both in the practice and in the theology. The standard of preaching was low except for some new reforming and preaching orders/congregations. Attending Mass on Sundays and holy days became a legal obligation, as did communion once a year around Easter. In practice, the liturgy of the Word came to be regarded as less important than the liturgy of the Eucharist, and only a prelude to “the real thing.”
  • With the foundation of the universities and the rise of scholastic theology, theological teaching in the West became less rooted in the Scriptures and gave a major place to Greek and Arab philosophy. In this theology, there was an increasing focus on the moment of consecration, and the transformation of the elements into the body and blood of Christ, with transubstantiation becoming the official term in 1215. In this way, the doctrine of the “real presence” became separated from an understanding of the liturgy. These tendencies had several unfortunate effects: a focus on the power of the priests who alone could effect the Eucharistic transformation; the concentration of the theology of ministry on the powers imparted through ordination; a neglect of the role of the Holy Spirit.
  • The protest of Hus can be seen as a Gospel protest against this priestly power-thinking. Hus did not contest the teaching on transsubstantiation, but he insisted on the chalice being given to the people. This formed part of his emphasis on the Bible and his protest against clericalism in the name of the Gospel. But the Catholic Church refused this protest, and relied on earthly power, when the Council of Constance condemned Hus to be burned at the stake in July 1415. Hus refused the list of errors attributed to him, because he said he had never taught those things.
  • An increased focus on the concept of sacrifice, which led to many attempts to show how the eucharist involved the essential elements of sacrifice; a lack of a proper understanding of the eucharist as memorial; the use of Aristotelian philosophy to resolve every kind of question concerning the real presence, and the sacramental presence of the Lord, separating this issue from the rest of theology.
  • The Lord’s continued presence in the Church came to be seen more and more as his presence in the consecrated elements; this sidelined the role of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s presence in the Word and in the gathered body, and the purpose of communion as feeding the inner life of the Spirit.
  • Reception of the sacrament became rare for lay members of the Church over many centuries.
  • The dying out of concelebration in the Latin Church, and the increasing tendency for the celebration of private Masses, facilitated the multiplication of emphasis on Masses for the dead in the 14th – 16th centuries.
  • The ordination of uneducated priests in some countries financed by the more wealthy simply to celebrate Mass for the dead of their families, often in chapels specially built for the purpose (chantry Masses). All this contributed to the idea that the Catholic priesthood was simply a “sacrificing priesthood” independently of any ministry of the Word.
  • The multiplication of Masses led to a quantification of grace. The practice of Mass stipends complicated the picture, as the theology manuals illustrated this quantification – the more Masses, the more grace.
  • The relatively easy acceptance of the laity only receiving the host and not from the chalice, though this restriction was originally introduced for reasons of hygiene (e.g. during plagues).
  • The process whereby the focus (and the design of churches) moved to the eucharistic host as object of adoration rather than as spiritual food (this was facilitated by communion only under one kind).
  • Among the anti-Jewish myths quite widely believed was one that the Jews were looking to steal eucharistic hosts in order to desecrate them. This led to stories of hosts stabbed by Jews starting to bleed, which became one form of “eucharistic miracle.”

Summary

  1. A series of harmful separations took place over a period of centuries:
    1. Sacrament from Word;
    2. Laity from clergy;
    3. chalice (wine) from the host (bread);
    4. The “real presence” from the whole Eucharistic action (Eucharist more as object than as action).
  2. The distancing of Christian theology from biblical Hebrew – Semitic thinking:
    1. “memory” (Do this in memory of me) being reduced to human recall of past events; the mysterious participatory character of Holy Spirit remembering is lost;
    2. “reified” thinking reduced the biblical signs to causes of grace: Do this and you get that – a mechanical conception. In this way the intrinsic power of symbols is not understood;
    3. through this quantitative thinking comes the argument that the Christian receives the total Jesus in the host, so it is not necessary to receive the chalice;
    4. the communal character of the remembrance is weakened (the model of the Passover is forgotten);
    5. the “Eucharist” can be reduced to the host independently of the Eucharistic action, and the theology of the Eucharist be reduced to the real presence. Then the consecrated host is the Eucharist, rather than the communal commemoration through which the unique sacrificial action of Jesus is made present.

This summary only surveys what led up to the Hussite controversy though its effects lasted long afterwards, some still operative today. It does not raise the question of the failings and distortions that followed in other Christian settings.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this fascinating insight into the reasons for and consequences of these abuses through a complicated historical situation. We are blessed to receive scholarly and wise insights into situations like this and I pray that writing and speaking honestly and clearly about these things can lead to a reconciliation with those brothers we treated so appallingly in times past. God bless you Fr Peter please write more about this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *