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Free Speech, Appropriate Speech, and Communion Wafers

The incident in which a university student took a communion wafer from a Catholic church instead of eating it has stirred up an incredible amount of controversy. For background I’m going to link to just three posts, which in turn will allow you to find all the information you want on the incident and probably more.

These are:

Those posts and the related links should give you a chance to discover what you want to know.

There is one particular point I want to comment on myself, however, and that is the confusion of arguments appropriate for free speech as opposed to appropriate speech. What I mean by that distinction is the difference between actions that should be legally sanctioned, and that one might restrain oneself from taking.

I’m a pretty extreme advocate of free speech. I’m opposed to campaign finance laws because I see them as infringing on free speech. I think pornography should be legal with the exception of child pornography involving exploitation of children. I think it should be quite legal to insult, vilify, and ridicule. I’m opposed to speech codes in most circumstances. (Private property and gatherings are an obvious exception, where people choose to come together under particular rules.)

At the same time I restrain myself from much of that speech, and there is a good deal that I believe to be legal that I will not listen to or watch, nor will I facilitate its appearance in any way. That includes the majority of what’s classified as pornography. (I restrict this to “majority” because some people have some incredibly wide definitions of pornography. I will watch an ‘R’ rated movie, for example.) I don’t like excessive use of profanity, and make it my aim not to use such language myself.

But I believe that there must be a difference between what I think is a good idea, and what is legal. That is a difference that is essential to a free, and thereby diverse, society. I like to restrain myself from certain types of insults to whole groups of people. In some cases I do so because I believe that such insults are simply not true. Most general insults (“all Muslims are violent”, “all Christians are bigots”, “all gays and lesbians are promiscuous”) are not true in the first place, and thus truthfulness alone is enough reason not to use them. Others involve simple courtesy.

Now let me relate this to the issue of the communion wafers and the reaction to them. I feel this one personally because though I’m not Catholic, I am a fairly high church Methodist who holds to a “real presence” view of the Eucharist. In other words I am one of those people who thinks that something happens when the minister blesses the elements of the Eucharist, and I hold those elements sacred. I don’t believe in transubstantiation (though I should note that many comments have indicated an incorrect understanding of that doctrine) but rather that Jesus is especially present through the Holy Spirit. I believe they should be treated with respect, just as other sacred symbols.

I’m not particularly offended by people who disagree with me on this, but I am offended at the idea of desecration. Let me distinguish a few gradations here. Speech indicating that my view of the Eucharist is stupid is inoffensive. If you don’t believe what I believe, you’ll find my belief silly at best, and my desire to protect some bread and juice as a bit ridiculous. I’m OK with that. A college student grabbing a wafer is a college prank. It’s a little nasty, but the reaction has been way over the top. College students will do silly things. I know I did. (Note here that a Catholic will almost certainly see this act as a more serious thing than I do based on our respective theologies and traditions.)

Trying to get some communion wafers so as to especially desecrate them is something I find offensive. It diminishes the stature of the person proposing it in my eyes. Presumably that person will not care about that, but it’s important to understand my position. I have no problem associating with and cooperating in many areas with someone who despises my religion. There is a level of action regarding that contempt that will make such friendly relations difficult.

I want to add one note. At least in my tradition, the fact that bread was made for communion is not the critical issue, so if you “score” the bread before it’s blessed, it would be a simple property crime, and one on an item of very small value. So in order to commit the desired blasphemy and insult, one would need to get bread that had already been blessed, which could get into some interesting legal issues. Just how much can you disrupt a church service without meriting a “disturbing the peace” charge or some such thing. I really don’t know and hope I don’t have to figure it out.

Now my point here is that I have found some behavior that is insulting to me, something I find very inappropriate and even reprehensible. I can argue why I feel that way, but many other people will not agree with me. Should I be protected from such an insult?

In a word, No! Barring some action stepping across legal lines in some other area (theft, actually disturbing the peace as opposed to existing where someone would prefer you don’t, violence done to an actual person) I believe the law should permit me to be insulted in this way. The wafer may be the body of Christ to me, but it’s a cracker to the law. The result is much worse if the law starts to recognize something spiritual.

So what is my own actual reaction? “PZ, I think that was quite rude.” That pretty much covers it. And I don’t want that opinion of mine to have the backing of law.

[And just to be clear these e-mails to PZ are both rude and illegal, and those who make such threats should face the full weight of the law.]

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  1. I believe that there must be a difference between what I think is a good idea, and what is legal. That is a difference that is essential to a free, and thereby diverse, society.

    I feel like I am constantly having to stress that distinction, which comes close to defining me as a moderate. People are constantly misreading my moral claims as legal ones, and my legal claims as moral ones. I think people should be legally free to do just about anything that doesn’t directly hurt another, but a great many things are and should be legal that are in no way good nor commendable. I would even go so far as to say that there are many things that should not be done, but should nevertheless remain legal.

  2. The obvious way to get hold of one of these wafers, duly consecrated, is to go up to take communion but not eat it. Many Catholic priests put it straight on the tongue, so that would mean keeping it in one’s mouth for a bit and then preserving the resultant soggy mess. Since the wafer has been freely given, no law suit would stand a chance.

    On Sunday night I visited a church which gives communion with normal bread. The piece I took was very crumbly and some of it fell on the floor. Was I blasphemous in allowing this to happen? Fortunately the church in which this happens has a rather low view of communion.

    My own position is that of the 39 Articles of the Church of England, Article XXIX, that people who eat the bread without faith are not receiving the body of Christ – which implies that people without faith who don’t eat the bread are not keeping the body of Christ. The crumbs on the floor are just crumbs, and the wafer taken home as a prank is just a wafer, whether prayed over or not – whereas a wafer taken home in faith to be given to someone who couldn’t attend and received with faith is indeed “a participation in the body of Christ”.

    1. Peter, you make a good point. I certainly don’t see it as “kidnapping” or a somehow irredeemable sacrilege. “Real presence” also would not imply that a dropped piece of bread was “the body of Christ” getting trampled on the floor.

      I still find the idea of “scoring” a cracker so as to desecrate it incredibly rude, while not thinking the person who did it should be legally sanctioned.

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