Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review, and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.
Ominous. It is the only word that can adequately describe the 2020 Pew Research Study. It polled Catholics on their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Almost 70 percent surveyed said no. Chilling, but not surprising. Even a casual glance at parishioners receiving Holy Communion in most Catholic parishes reveals a nonchalance that is telling.
One need not be a trained phenomenologist to appreciate the importance of symbolic acts in man’s self-disclosure. Insouciance in the presence of the Holy Eucharist is a damning sign—not only of the total absence of rudimentary piety but of a withered belief in the doctrine itself. One flows from the other as certainly as day follows night. If a Catholic shows as much attention to the Holy Eucharist as he does to collect his order at Starbucks, something is awry.
The American bishops seemed to have noticed this alarming anomaly in the past year. Odd that they should have detected this doctrinal collapse so recently since it has been glaringly evident for over a half-century. It is rather like a man being bitten by a shark and only screaming an hour later.
Clearly, this crumbling of the central dogma of the Catholic Church had its conspicuous antecedents—antecedents supported by carefully planned strategies; all of them gestating among the theological grandees for decades. So many, now forgotten, laid deep the foundations for the denuded Catholic Faith now so ubiquitous. To name only a few:
- Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and his attenuation of grace through the sacraments
- Karl Rahner, and his “supernatural existential”; to say nothing of his iconoclastic article “How to Receive a Sacrament and Mean It”
- The whole of the Concilium oeuvre
- The sacramental theology of the Theological Society of America, 1965—present
While this list is hardly exhaustive, (actually, quite skeletal) it does suggest the formidable momentum that set down the pillars upon which the present crisis rests.
All of this cerebral theological ground-laying could only be called the handle of the spear. The tip of the spear was two-pronged: liturgy and catechesis. Without these, the revolution to undermine the Holy Eucharist would have been stillborn. These two vessels are the ones that bring Faith to the ordinary Faithful. Liturgy and catechesis instill not only doctrine but piety and the entire Catholic identity and élan.
The esoteric ruminations of faux Catholic scholars would have collected dust on university/seminary shelves unless they were translated into praxis by the instruments of liturgy and catechesis. This is exactly what was done with impressive and sweeping results. In the case of catechesis, the old Baltimore Catechism anchored the Faith firmly in the minds of the young; its successor leaves young Catholics adrift in a sea of passé Sixties flotsam. And all of this has taken place over the past sixty years under the unwatchful eyes of pastors and bishops. Or, shall we say, watchful eye?
So thorough was this transformation of Eucharistic theology that well-meaning Catholics now confidently call the Mass “a meal” and the Holy Eucharist “bread of fellowship.” Under this logic, it is quite hostile, to say nothing of actionable, to refuse any man or woman access to the Holy Eucharist. Not a few bishops growl at a priest even publicly repeating the traditional requirements for the reception of Holy Communion. So very “unwelcoming,” you see. This alarming doctrinal breakdown entrenched itself so deeply that it even dictated new architectural forms for churches, confirming the Marshall McLuhan principle: the medium is the message. Not a few bishops growl at a priest even publicly repeating the traditional requirements for the reception of Holy Communion. So very “unwelcoming,” you see.
This helpful backdrop brings us back to the bishops. The Pew survey was a bit of cold water splashed in their faces, or, some faces. Something must be done. Alas, launch a three-year Eucharistic Revival culminating in a 2024 Eucharistic Congress. Every Catholic prays that it succeeds.
But, toward that end, some proposals should be made. At first glance, they may appear radical. Indeed, they are; but only because they stand so starkly against the blighted landscape of current Eucharistic practice. Some of these proposals may even seem so antediluvian as to be laughable. But this further proves the point, that Eucharistic doctrine has become so debased that such things seem almost taboo, like four-letter words.
First proposal: Tabernacles returned to the center of every church. It is interesting how “liturgists” commandeered this movement of the tabernacle from the center of every church to the side, if not out of the church proper itself. They appealed to Vatican II, the preferred tool in foisting upon the Church novelties which reconfigured the Faith. In point of fact, the relevant 1983 canon (derived from Sacrosanctum Concilium) contradicted this:
The Tabernacle in which the Eucharist is regularly reserved should be placed in a part of the Church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer.” (Canon 938:2)
Only those with an ill-disposed agenda would interpret this directive as anything more than a maintenance of the status quo of churches before the Council. Period. Any sidelining of the tabernacle transmits the unquestionable message of sidelining Christ Himself. No amount of theological/liturgical dissimulations can conceal this. Liturgists may not abide by the inescapable laws of the natural symbol, but ordinary folks do.
Second proposal: Abolish communion in the hand. This smuggled, early-Sixties practice was an undisguised rupture with a millennial tradition that deeply implanted a reflexive understanding of the Holy Eucharist. With effortless ease, the traditional practice conveyed to both unlettered and gifted alike the ineffable sacredness of the Sacrament of the Altar. No words are necessary; no lengthy explanations are required. Thus the immediacy of the symbolic act: informing, uplifting, and impassioning.
The Church alone plums the power of the symbol with her repertoire of ritual acts, all of it accomplished without theatricality or kitsch, yet embodying every element of authentic drama. What emerges is a unique wedding of man’s highest capacity for poetry threaded with the divine strokes of the Third Person.
The early Sixties, that wretched time, rightly deserving W.H. Auden’s epithet of the 1930s, “that low and dishonest decade,” ushered in the demise of the reverential and critical Communion on the tongue that can be traced to a restive European theological elite bent on retooling the Faith of the Church. They made fatuous appeals to the “sacredness of the whole body” and the innovation as an “ancient practice.” Those arguments were mendacious at their first showing, but, by this time, have so outlived their shelf life that their mere mention should cause embarrassment.
Its deadly spread so alarmed Pope Paul VI that he promulgated Memoriale Domini in 1969. Here he confronted the damaging practice illicitly introduced, and he ruled it should cease:
…with a deepening understanding of the truth of the eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in it, there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament and a deeper humility was felt to be demanded when receiving it. Thus the custom was established of the minister placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant.
This method of distributing holy communion must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist.
Third proposal: Eliminate Extraordinary Ministers of the Holy Eucharist. Again, to the common Catholic mind of today, a suggestion such as this sounds like the abolition of the Ten Commandments, only demonstrating how pervasive the distorted understanding of the Holy Eucharist is. The fact that few Catholics refer to Extraordinary Ministers is further proof of the tight grip of doctrinal misunderstanding. In the 1997 document promulgated by the Sacred Congregation for Liturgy and the Discipline of the Sacraments (along with seven other dicasteries) it is made clear the extraordinary nature of allowing laymen to distribute Holy Communion, keenly aware of the easy slippage into doctrinal chaos:
The Holy Father notes that “in some local situations, generous, intelligent solutions have been sought (to the shortage of priests). The legislation of the Code of Canon law has itself provided new possibilities, which however, must be correctly applied, so as not to fall into ambiguity of considering as ordinary and normal, solutions that were meant for extraordinary situations in which priests were lacking or in short supply.
These dicasteries were clearly adhering to St. Thomas Aquinas in ST III, q.82, a.3, “Whether the Dispensing of this Sacrament Belongs to the Priest Alone”:
The dispensing of Christ’s body belongs to the priest alone, for three reasons. First, because he consecrates as in the person of Christ; but as Christ consecrated his body at the supper, he also gave it to others to be partaken of by them. Accordingly, as the consecration of Christ’s body belongs to the priest, so likewise does the dispensing belong to him. Secondly, because the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people; Hence as it belongs to him to offer the people’s gifts to God, so it belongs to him to deliver consecrated gifts to the people. Thirdly, because out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this sacrament. Hence it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.
Fourth proposal: Reception of Holy Communion should always be kneeling. The last few years have seen a war waged on the few Catholics who follow the crystalline interior logic of orthodox Catholic doctrine, kneeling to receive Holy Communion. In their fury to abolish kneeling, the Innovators invoke the hollow excuse of uniformity and “local custom.” Even the most naïve Catholic sees this for the naked dissembling that it is. One stands to grab a free lunch, not to receive the Bread of Angels (pardon me, that kind of sacral language makes the Old Guard’s skin crawl). It is puzzlement that the same shepherds that perpetrated this not-so-veiled diminution of Eucharistic doctrine desire now to promote Eucharistic doctrine.
Attempting any longer to disguise the causes of the degradation of Eucharistic belief is monumentally disingenuous, on par with the “Wizard” of Oz ordering Dorothy, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
Our good bishops have been unafraid in harboring radical gestures in the past, even when they have jolted the faithful. Why not one more? Or four more?
Excellencies, shake the status quo. Be unafraid to shock. Step upon the third rail.
Be pioneers. Embark on a startling Eucharistic Revival.
A traditional one. The only thing you have to lose is a crisis.