Damned If You Do…

Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper was given a Communion Wafer at a recent funeral. He put it in his pocket.

Check it out at the 0:30 mark of this video:

Now the uproar begins.

Monsignor Brian Henneberry, vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John, wants to know whether the prime minister consumed the host and, if not, what happened to it.

If Harper accepted the host but did not consume it, “it’s worse than a faux pas, it’s a scandal from the Catholic point of view,” he said.

I agree with PZ and others on this: it’s just a cracker and while Catholic can give it whatever symbolic meaning they wish, the rest of us can choose to be realistic about it.

Let’s assume a couple things. One, since Harper is an evangelical Christian, he probably doesn’t buy into the cracker-is-really-the-body-of-Christ nuttiness. Two, he doesn’t put himself in many situations in which he is offered a Communion Wafer so he probably doesn’t know the proper protocol to refuse it.

So really, what options did Harper have?

Either he publicly shuns the wafer because he’s not Catholic — and Catholics would’ve been offended.

Or he takes it and eats it — and because he’s not Catholic, Catholics would’ve been offended.

Or he takes it and pockets it in order to not cause a scene. Which he did. And now Catholics are offended.

I’m not sure what else he could’ve done.

I don’t know if this is a big story in Canada… but can you imagine the Catholic reaction in America if this happened to President Obama?

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    He should have refused the wafer. That’s what I would have done if I was PM. But why are they doing communion at a funeral anyway…

  • Andy D

    I also agree with PZ, but Harper did have more options.

    Technically only Catholics are supposed to take “the host”, non Catholics are supposed to approach the priest with their arms crossed and the priest will bless them.

    Again taking the host shouldn’t be an issue, because it is just a cracker, but he’s going to take flack for this (unfairly), and it probably would’ve been easier for him to have crossed his arms.

  • Gabriel

    Panic and scandal and unconsummed magic cracker is loose in the world. Soone the magic will leak out of the cracker and the wild magic will bring about the end time. We are all doomed because the magic cracker wasn’t eaten thus stoping the zombie apocolypse.

  • Erp

    It was a funeral mass. I believe Catholics normally do communion at funerals though Protestant denominations generally do not.

    I assume they handed out an order of service and if so it should have contained a brief bit about the etiquette for a mass (only eligible Catholics partake, others should cross their arms or not go up). If that wasn’t in the order of service than the fault is with the church; they can’t assume everyone at a high profile funeral such as this would know the proper etiquette.

  • Peregrine

    Never before have I heard that non-Catholics cross their arms when they go to communion at a Catholic mass. Usually we just sit in our seats and don’t go up at all.

    Unless it’s me, and my family’s watching. Then I just play along, since I know all the motions.

    Here we go again. In my own country no less. And my own province. Crap. I’m going to hear about this on the weekend.

    On the plus side, maybe my dad won’t vote Conservative next election.

  • Jen R

    A Catholic who knows anything about their faith would not be offended by Harper refusing the wafer. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’d appreciate that he wasn’t taking it when he wasn’t supposed to.

    I grew up Catholic, and though I have never officially “outed” my atheism to my father, I think the fact that I haven’t taken communion for 15 years (on those rare family occasions when I get dragged to church) is probably a clue that I’m at least not Catholic anymore.

  • http://imaginggeek.blogspot.com Bryan

    Its not a big deal up here, the only paper that carried anything even vaguely critical was the small paper you linked to. All major papers/broadcasters seem to be treating it like a minor thing.

    For example

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    They aren’t bad with a little cheese on them.

  • Delphine

    I would’ve accepted it then tossed it out as soon as I leave. Preferably into the nearest trashcan, but I wouldn’t mind the toilet either.

    If you don’t accept it the priest will bless you. At which point I will have to vocalize and tell him to shove his faith down his own throat, not mine, and don’t offend me by blessing me.

    Pretty sure they’d be even more pissed at the 2nd scenario.

    Who cares about what happened to the host? It’s a freaking disgusting tasting cracker. (I know, I tried one out of curiosity and it’s awful.) What about priests that hold “services” where no one attends just so they can get drunk? What’s so holy about that? They’re practically drowning in Jesus’s blood at that point.

  • Kaylya

    Non-catholics are not supposed to take communion, period. Clinton did at one point and there was an outcry over that.

    I assume Michaelle Jean and her husband (the people receiving just before Harper) are at least nominally Catholic (I can’t find out for sure, they’ve probably been baptized but aren’t active), while Harper is pretty quiet about his beliefs but he’s evangelical. I’m not sure who the people after are.

    The demographics in Canada are fairly different from the US, there’s more people who identify as Catholic than protestant although most of those Catholics are pretty lax.

    (Story on Clinton: http://www.slate.com/id/2506/)

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  • http://sanguinity.livejournal.com Sanguinity

    Seconding many others: there are prominent eligibility requirements about who takes Communion, and Catholics are well aware of that. There would have been no uproar if Harper hadn’t taken Communion; in fact, it would have been an insult if he had taken it.

    I do think his aides seriously let him down on this one — someone should have seen this coming up and prepped him on the etiquette — but this was emphatically NOT a no-win situtation for him.

  • numsix

    As already said, not taking is the way. Staying in your seat is not considered bad. Going forward; ask for a blessing instead.
    Now, he is the PM; maybe the priest should have asked? Just saying if the leader of the country was walking in to my church I should know a little about him….

  • MeagD

    Just in response to some comments here… My mother works for a Catholic institution (in a non-religious role) and according to her experiences, non-Catholics take communion all the time. While this may not be official protocol, it’s typical if one doesn’t want to affect the flow of traffic or isn’t aware of the norms in Catholic church.

    The “most proper” action for him to take would have been to cross his arms and receive a blessing from the priest, however being that he is not a follower of the Catholic religion, I’m assuming that might have ruffled some feathers in the Evangelical community (his base). From a political position, he may have actually made the right choice here (assuming he want to remain in office — which wouldn’t be my pick). Refusing communion or accepting a blessing has the potential for serious repercussions with his base supporters, but this minor gaffe shouldn’t affect his chances at the polls this fall.

    On another note: He’s not as quiet as you might think regarding his religious beliefs, Kaylya. He’s made a number of political decisions based on his evangelical nuttery and has on many occassions refused to discuss specifics based on “personal reasons”. He’s a methodist, same as Bush, and is just as socially conservative as your average republican. The only difference, as you mentioned, is the demographic breakdown here. He knows that religious fervor doesn’t work as well up here as it does in the States, although things are changing for the worse.

  • Trixie

    While the comments on the media websites like the Globe & Mail mostly wonder why this is news, the fact that it is a leading story in our national paper is disturbing. Are the Catholics trying to make news? Do they have to do it at the expense of Romeo LeBlanc’s family and their period of mourning? I’m not a Harper fan, but if the Prime Minister made the effort to come to my house, I wouldn’t pick on him for leaving the toilet seat up (a cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned).

  • Miko

    This is almost as bad as that time some school kids named a teddy bear Mohammad.

  • peregrine

    I find it odd that I’ve learned more about these so-called protocols and “church laws” as an atheist than I ever did as a Catholic. These things aren’t as clear as the church seems to think they are.

    If they plan to be open to guests, they’ve got to start communicating their expectations better, instead of throwing a hissy fit whenever someone fails to intuit their protocols. If I didn’t know some of these things after 10 frigging years of catechism, they can’t expect it of an outsider.

  • Alex

    I attended Catholic high school and would always either stay in my seat or go up and cross my arms in an “X” grabbing onto my shoulders. If it is understood that he isn’t Catholic then either option would not have been an issue.

    It seems strange that he was ignorant about this practice, but maybe he really didn’t know. It also seems odd that the priest or somebody didn’t stop him or at least try to explain when he put the wafer in his pocket.

  • Sebeka

    A Catholic who knows anything about their faith would not be offended by Harper refusing the wafer. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’d appreciate that he wasn’t taking it when he wasn’t supposed to.

    Very much this. But despite the newspaper scandal articles, it’s also not that big of a deal if a non-Roman Catholic eats communion, especially if it’s out of ignorance. Worst case scenario is the individual learns a little about religious differences after mass, including how to refuse gracefully the next time if conversion is not an option for them. After all, the individual wasn’t trying to insult them, just participate.

    The fuss is because Catholics are supposed to save uneaten communion wafers for the next mass, treating them like holy objects in between. So, if the Canadian Prime Minister didn’t eat the wafer (it’s not clear from the articles or video if he put it in his pocket or just waited until after the camera had moved on to eat it) the clergy might ask that it be returned.

    Doing it publicly through the news is very inappropriate, though. According to my Roman Catholic friend, the Monsignor should have spoken with the Canadian Prime Minister privately after the mass in question or not at all.

  • Alan E.

    When I was an altar boy, I would usually sleep in too late and have to rush to church without eating breakfast. Often, i was left alone to prepare everything for the mass, and I would eat a handful of the crackers to tide me over until after mass. This was before they became cannibalized flesh. I didn’t crack open the wine because they got the cheapest stuff they could possibly find and order it by the truckload to distribute to churches all around. If it was a good wine, I might have taken a few extra sips more often.

  • zoo

    It seems strange that he was ignorant about this practice, but maybe he really didn’t know.

    I don’t know if it’s strange since I don’t know anything about him (this is the first I’ve heard of this practice. . . but I’ve had no contact with Catholics inside their churches either), but I think this is very likely the case. Wouldn’t make any sense to cause a scene on purpose. But then I don’t suppose he paid any attention to this guy (who got way more attention around here than was warranted).

    One, since Harper is an evangelical Christian, he probably doesn’t buy into the cracker-is-really-the-body-of-Christ nuttiness.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t used to a non-Catholic version of communion. . . in the Southern Baptist churches I’ve attended aka “The Lord’s Supper” since it’s symbolic of the last supper [the parts you consume only represent body and blood]. Then again, he either isn’t, in which case I might have expected him to eat it anyhow, and/or he does at least know that non-Catholics aren’t supposed to eat the Catholic version.

  • http://supercheetah.livejournal.com Rene Horn

    As a former Catholic, I can say they would have preferred the first option, and in fact it’s the only acceptable option to them for non-Catholics.

  • Veronica Abbass

    numsix Says:
    “if the leader of the country [were] walking in to my church I should know a little about him.”

    If you were the leader of a country, I hope you would be briefed about proper protocol before you attended any high-profile event.

    Re: imagine the Catholic reaction in America if this happened to President Obama?

    Not everything is about Obama; stop being so ethnocentric.

  • http://www.sinasohn.net/notebooks/ Uncle Roger

    Either it’s the body of Christ or it’s just a cracker. If the latter, then, while they are certainly welcome to be as offended as they like, there really isn’t any harm done.

    On the other hand, if it really *is* the body of Christ, then haven’t they just admitted to cannibalism? Shouldn’t they all be arrested?

  • Tony

    If you don’t accept it the priest will bless you. At which point I will have to vocalize and tell him to shove his faith down his own throat, not mine, and don’t offend me by blessing me.

    This is a bit odd. You would walk up to a priest for a blessing and then tell him to “shove it down his own throat”? I’m an atheist for reasons of rationalism. It seems that you are just being a bit rude.

    I was raised in a catholic home, but I haven’t been to communion for over a decade. This is because I don’t believe in it. In those circumstances I find myself in church I stay in my seat, which is the proper action for non catholics.

    Having said that even if I had some sort of revelation and started to believe again I still wouldn’t be able to go to communion. I’d have to go to confession first, and where am I going to find that sort of time?

  • Shae

    “Non-catholics are not supposed to take communion, period.”

    I was suprised to read this in the comments at least twice. What a weird thing to say on an Atheist forum.

    According to whom? Catholics? Is Catholics’ superstitous opinion on the matter more important than protestants’ superstitous opinion? Are rationalists making judgements on when to practice a supersition? I’m not trying to be sarcastic but honestly trying to understand what “supposed to” means here.

    I grew up evangelical Christian and they believe in taking communion from time to time. It is less ritualistic and more symbolic for protestants.

    Protestants believe that if you take communion when you are “living in sin” then you “drink judgment upon yourself”. In other words, you should refuse it if you don’t feel that you are “right with God” at the moment. There is a bible verse used to support that.

    So this may have been his reason for not taking communion, and who can be blamed for not knowing the exact set of ritual behavior another religion expects (cross arms, refuse this way or that, put in pocket, etc etc) if you don’t happen to be familiar with it.

  • http://joreth.livejournal.com/tag/atheist Joreth

    According to whom? Catholics? Is Catholics’ superstitous opinion on the matter more important than protestants’ superstitous opinion? Are rationalists making judgements on when to practice a supersition?

    According to the Catholic doctrine, only Catholics who have had their First Confession are allowed to consume the host. These are the rules of the ritual. When we’re at the DMV, everyone, regardless of faith, follows the rules of taking the number and waiting their turn, even if I, personally, think their system is inefficient and I know a better one.

    Not accepting the host at all does not conflict with the protestants’ superstitions while still not offending or insulting the superstition-holders of the church one is a guest of.

    The rules of that church are very specific and they allow for guests to be non-participants – if they didn’t allow that backdoor, I’d put up more of a fuss (or at least say “just don’t go in one”). If you visit someone’s home and they believe that shoes track in dirt so everyone has to go shoeless inside, you either take off your shoes or you don’t come inside. You do not walk into someone else’s home and insist on wearing your shoes, then stamp your feet and pout when they get upset, even if their rule is ridiculous.

    That being said, there is no way for your average non-Catholic to know these protocols up front without previous exposure to the rules from some other venue.

    But a high-ranking official should have a protocol office that is supposed to brief him on things like this.

    I’m not saying that the whole host-thing isn’t ridiculous. I’m saying that there are consequences to actions, and within the walls of this property, the rules say he shouldn’t have accepted the cracker at all (either by remaining in his seat, as my church did, or the arms-crossing thing, which I had never heard of before), so the consequences of his action is that religious people get offended.

    There are lots of ways to make a stand, some more effective than others. Deliberately entering a church and being insulting does not win over the fence-sitters and only antagonizes the opposition. This doesn’t mean to sit down and shut up, by any stretch of the definition, but it does mean that there are more effective ways to make a point.

    I don’t think the PM was actually making a point, I think he just didn’t know the protocol, and the answer to the question “what should he have done” is to not accept the host at all.

  • Peregrine

    According to the Catholic doctrine, only Catholics who have had their First Confession are allowed to consume the host.

    I had my first communion in grade 2, and first confession wasn’t until grade 3.

    That could be the rule. I don’t know. Or, it could be different in your neighbourhood.

    Or maybe they make an exception for kids. First communion is a big deal: The whole family showed up, there was cake… First confession, by contrast, is basically just feeling guilty for mouthing off to your teachers and saying the F word, and saying a bunch of Hail Marys to make up for it. No cake. So if you want to get them young, give them cake and crackers first, then make them feel guilty.

    But my point is that the rules aren’t hard and fast across the board. Either they vary slightly from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, or they’re doing things differently than they were when I was a kid.

    Of course there are rules. But some of them aren’t commonly known, they’re not being effectively communicated, and they’re being enforced willy-nilly. They’re not consistent church-wide. I’ve seen non-Catholics get communion in a Catholic mass all the time. I’ve seen deviations from these prickly little rules my whole life, and it’s only in the last little while that anyone’s been called on them. So I’ve got to ask, what gives?

    I’ve been to services for other denominations (Anglican, actually) both as a Catholic and as an Atheist. I didn’t call ahead and ask them how to behave. Granted, I’m not the Prime Minister, but even if I was, I don’t imagine it would occur to me. And I remember my mother telling me “their service is just like ours, and you can have communion if you want to. If the priest gives you communion, do what you normally do, and if he doesn’t, don’t argue, just sit down.” Hardly the advice you’d expect from a Catholic who’s versed in these “rules”.

    I’d imagine this isn’t a very rare occurrence. But I’d guess most of the time, when it happens, and they notice, they deal with it privately, internally, and then move on. In this case, and in the case last year, they didn’t. And that’s not good PR, and it’s not a good way to communicate expected protocol to their guests.

    I guess I’m responding to them more than to you, (on the odd chance that any of them happen to check in on pages like this) but last year I sort of stuck up for them a little bit, so they kind of owe it to me to take my advice into consideration if they want to avoid this kind of nonsense in the future.

  • Shae

    “When we’re at the DMV, everyone, regardless of faith, follows the rules of taking the number and waiting their turn…”

    Well there’s only a huge difference between being the BMV and being a Christian. I don’t become an official U.S. government licensing entity by announcing that I’m one.

    However, I can be a Christian just by saying so, or by following one of hundreds of denominations which disagree with one another, or by accepting Jesus into my heart or by merely thinking he’s a great prophet, or this, that or the other. I can interpret the Bible’s passages on “communion” however I see fit, and everyone who cares does just that. Some denominations are going to be offended by what others do, but I think it’s fairly ludicrous to pick one and decide they are right.

    You could say that he should have followed the rules while he was a guest at that religion’s service (if he knew those rules). But somehow I get the feeling you wouldn’t be equally adamant if a Catholic did something “wrong” in a Baptist church regarding communion (and perhaps anything else). Is the issue here that Catholics are less forgiving when their rules are violated?

  • Shae

    I meant to add that for the religious, this is an issue that’s more important than whether or not to take your shoes off in someone’s home.

    He may have felt that by taking communion he was “drinking judgment upon himself”. With this on the line, his religious convictions are as important as those of the church he visited, and the church has as much responsibility to respect his right not to damn himself as he has to respect the church (and maybe that should be more important than how he did it). But of course the Catholics are going to decide they’re right and nothing else matters.

  • Sebeka

    Catholics believe that taking communion means ingesting the physical body of Jesus, not just demonstrating willingness to be a part of the community. Other Christian denominations may feel that that view is very wrong and that taking Catholic communion would be counter to their beliefs and a sign that they, too, believe in transubstantiation. For both of those reasons, I think that Catholics are right to recommend that people not take communion until they understand (and presumably are ok with) the Catholic meaning of the act.

  • http://drcox.spaces.live.com/ Sandro

    Here you can find the video.

  • Shae

    “I think that Catholics are right to recommend that people not take communion until they understand (and presumably are ok with) the Catholic meaning of the act.”

    He didn’t take the communion.

    The question is whether Catholics have a right to expect that Protestants, who may also feel very strongly about the event, approach it in the Catholic way.

    The answer is no. Their crazy, important-to-them interpretation is no more important than his crazy, important-to-him interpretation.

    I think it’s strange that people here seem to think that communion is *objectively* Catholic.

  • Wendy

    Definitely not a big story up here; this is the first I’ve heard of it.

  • Sebeka

    Shae, would you rather I’d written that he shouldn’t have palmed communion? :0)

    The question is not which belief is more important, but more like whether it’s right to participate in a ceremony that you don’t respect or agree with (or that simply doesn’t hold the same meaning for you) — and haven’t been invited to.

    If Catholics truly think a wafer is their God made flesh, I’d think it weird if they weren’t concerned about what Harper did with his wafer. And while I consider ignorance of protocol to be a legitimate excuse, I’d think it very disrespectful of anyone to visit another’s church (or award ceremony, or dedication, or wedding) and deliberately behave in a way that he knows will bring his hosts distress. Even if he thinks it shouldn’t.

  • Witty

    I have to laugh at some suggestions about protocol. Who would have briefed Mr Harper on the proper procedure? If it was the same clown who slipped him the wrong trash on Ignatieff, he might have just dropped to his knees and bowed over like the Muslims!!

  • Shae

    “The question is not which belief is more important, but more like whether it’s right to participate in a ceremony that you don’t respect or agree with (or that simply doesn’t hold the same meaning for you)…

    If he was Protestant evangelical, which I read that he was, then he DID “respect and agree with” communion, and he may have handled it in the way that he understood it to be handled for a Protestant evangelical (which was to not drink judgment upon himself if he felt less than right with God).

    It seems that people here are assuming that communion is objectively Catholic and that therefore he was the one “doing it wrong”. That’s not fair if communion for you is as much a matter of life and death as it is for your hosts.

    At that point, we’re talking about a faux pas of manners, which perhaps he should have been better versed on, but he wasn’t, so he could only do what he thought wouldn’t send him to Hell.

    “…and haven’t been invited to.”"

    Looks to me like he was invited. That’s really the whole problem here. Catholics hold mass at a funeral (I wouldn’t have expected that), tackle a non-catholic with a ritual, and then get mad when he doesn’t handle it the most Catholic way.

  • David

    I live in Canada and NO, this is not a big “news story.” But where ever you go and who ever you are, you should respect other peoples beliefs. Is that so hard to do?


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