Canadian virus: Mass confusion

You gotta admit, this has been a strange week for the media.

It began with Alaskan governor Sarah Palin’s resignation, which fueled an epidemic of stories and columns. Speculation about Palin hadn’t even reached a crescendo before it was overtaken by the genuine grief and public antics around the service held for Michael Jackson.

And yesterday, a picture flying around the Internet appeared to show Mssrs. Obama and Sarkozy admiring a young G-8 summit participant’s rear end.
Check this video, by the way, and I think you’ll agree that Sarkozy seems more suspect than Obama — but I digress.

Ah, but this isn’t the only episode in which a video may, or may not, provide a clue as to what really happened. Given the torrent of attention paid to these events, you might have missed the flap over what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did, or didn’t do, with a communion wafer at a funeral service for a colleague.

To my mind, there are two stories here. One is the blatantly silly one: the possibility that a politician known to be a devout churchgoer (albeit Protestant) would put a Communion wafer in his pocket! As a souvenir? Do you agree with Harper’s assessment that it was a “low moment in journalism?”

It probably didn’t help that a local Catholic official asked whether Harper consumed the host — or that Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella, a Catholic, was quoted saying in an Agence France-Presse story on how appreciative he was that Harper consumed the wafer as a gesture of “solidarity and communion with all those present in the sanctuary.” Kinsella’s command of Catholic policy on intercommunion might be a little shaky.

It’s fascinating how, abetted by Canadian satirists, the alleged “blasphemy” went viral. Given that our business here is looking at how the press covers religion, it’s also interesting to see how what seems to be a clear policy about who and who isn’t welcome to receive communion can become the subject of speculation and misinformation.

A story from last week by Charles Lewis of the National Post leads with the breach of protocol, rather than what Catholics might see as the more serious problem.

The conduct of Stephen Harper at a funeral mass has ignited a religious controversy over the intricacies of proper decorum during a Catholic Communion service — a “scandal” that features Zapruder-like video footage, personal testimonials of witnesses and even an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The controversy revolves around whether Mr. Harper, a Protestant, ate the Communion wafer or pocketed it while attending the funeral of former governor-general Romeo Le-Blanc at a Catholic church in Memramcook, N. B., last week.

Of course, the problem wasn’t solely, or even mainly, one of decorum. It would be, as I understand Catholic doctrine, one of vastly different understandings of what the eucharist means. In addition, Lewis notes that “most Protestants see Communion as a symbol of the Last Supper.”

I think you’d get a rather heated debate on that point from many of the world’s 70 million plus Anglicans, or from various branches of the Lutheran tradition — while they don’t subscribe to a doctrine of substance and accidents, they do believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. How it happens, and what happens, is the subject of much debate. The further you get from the liturgical churches, the more correct his statement becomes.

I had thought that most journalists and, er, Prime Ministers, know that non-Catholics aren’t supposed to receive communion in a Catholic church . Some journalists do — or get half the story right. For example — look at this editorial by Barbara Yaffe of the Vancouver Sun.

As with other journalists, Yaffe seems to miss why this might be a bigger deal. The wafer, according to Catholic doctrine, doesn’t only “symbolize” the body of Christ. Through transubstantiation, it becomes the body of Christ. (I also wondered why Yaffe had to rely on a statement from U.S. bishops to back up her correct statement about who may receive and who isn’t supposed to receive — haven’t the Canadian bishops said anything?).
Again, an earlier story from the Telegraph-Journal didn’t explain why putting a consecrated wafer in one’s pocket might be a “scandal” in the eyes of the church.

All of this being said, I recall the first time my daughter attended communion at her parochial school — and went right to the altar with her classmates. Did her teachers send her to the priest for a little remedial instruction on the differences between Catholics and Protestants? After we brought it to their attention, they told us that they were sure it wasn’t the first time. Charity prevailed. At this point, I’m guessing everyone involved would like “Wafergate” to go away — and that next time the Prime Minister will make sure to keep his hands crossed on his chest, and ask for a prayer .

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  • David

    Do you think he put it in his pocket BECAUSE he realized he shouldn’t eat it, as a non-Catholic?

  • MichaelV

    I wouldn’t say it is a particularly low point in journalism. If it went viral and became a story before he had a chance to explain himself, well, that’s really not journalism. If there was a legitimate reason to ask whether he pocketed Communion, which isn’t really clear, that’s very much something that should be investigated and reported on. And since he apparently did receive Communion when he wasn’t supposed to, that’s certainly news-worthy. Even if it was done with the best of intentions (and I give him the benefit of the doubt) it raises some questions about how well society at large Gets Religion. If I was going to visit a Muslim funeral, I’d definitely want to be briefed on what not to do so I’d avoid offending anyone. I wouldn’t really have similar worries going to a Protestant funeral because I think I understand Protestantism well enough that I’d have no problems. But what if I was wrong?

    I think a story like this would be of interest to Canadians for political reasons but also because it raises issues relevant to non-Catholics who want to know what to do at mass and to Catholics because it raises questions about whether we have done enough to ensure non-Catholics who come to mass (whether high profile persons or not) know what they are asked to do.

  • Elizabeth

    David, He apparently didn’t put it in his pocket, or so witnesses said. In another article, he said that he takes Communion if it’s offered to him.

    It seems remarkable that he wouldn’t know the drill, since Canada is about thirty five percent Catholic.

  • Elias in Korea

    Didn’t the priest know Harper is a Protestant? (You’d think that it would be common knowledge). I think the priest is somewhat to blame also. Ridiculous.

  • bob

    Exactly, Elias. It’s a pretty serious duty to give communion. Why on earth doesn’t the priest know who he’s giving it to or act as he obliged to and ask? He’ll have some ‘splainin to do. The spectacle of ignorant politicians blundering up to a communion rail is equally embarrassing. There’s a time to stay in the pew and this was sure one of them.

  • Will

    Bob, looking at the video it seems Harper did stay in the pew. The priest walked up to the front pew and seems to have offered everyone there communion

    It should be noted that Communion was given to Harper by not just any priest but an Archbishop, who certainly should have known who Harper was. The Archbishop is reported saying here that “it’s considered ‘sacrilegious’ for non-believers to take part in the rite, but only if it is meant out of disrespect.” Since most of that’s not a direct quote I’m not sure how much actually came from Archbishop Andre and how much was the reporter’s interpretation. If that actually is what the Archbishop was saying, that’s quite troubling to me, since he seems to be saying it’s alright for non-Catholics to receive Communion as long as they don’t intend disrespect, which is not at all Catholic teaching.
    It is (hopefully) true that Prime Minister Harper didn’t intend to commit a sacrilege and didn’t know it was a sacrilege, and maybe that’s what Archbishop Andre is trying to say, but that doesn’t mean that his reception was not a sacrilege, just that Harper himself was not culpable or at least less culpable for that sacrilege.
    So, at least for me as a Catholic, I’m not so much upset or interested in Harper screwing up, or even his protocol staff (although they certainly fell down on this one), but rather the Archbishop, especially since his comments are now making me wonder whether he holds a Catholic understanding of intercommunion.

  • Brian Walden

    The priest is an Archbishop, he should know better. Even if he somehow didn’t recognize his prime minister and didn’t know he was Catholic it’s his responsibility to make sure the host is consumed.

    The part I found most interesting was the statement issued from him staff: Who is the Prime Minister to judge once Communion has been offered to him?” Soudas added, “It is a well known fact that he’s a Christian. From the video it looks like Harper is generally confused, but the statement from his staff made it seem like he knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t know what his staff hopes to profit from taking such a bold stance, when an apology explaining his confusion would make the whole incident go away.

  • Stephen A.

    I’m bemused by the video “news” report posted here saying that it would probably be okay “on special occasions” for a Protestant to take Catholic Communion. Okay for WHOM?

    I feel badly for the PM, actually, since being served communion put him in a delicate spot. The priest should know to whom he is giving communion.

  • E.E. Evans

    Stephen A — I used that video to illustrate that there seems to be a general confusion on proper behavior by non Catholics when communion is offered.

    The Archbishop, by the way, later clarified his statement about taking communion to say that non Catholics shouldn’t take communion, period — it’s not clear to me whether his first comments were not reported in full or whether he felt the need to respond.

  • FrGregACCA

    I think you’d get a rather heated debate on that point from many of the world’s 70 million plus Anglicans,

    You’d also get a heated debate from many Anglicans as to whether or not they are “Protestant”.

    • E.E. Evans

      Ha, Fr. Greg, as I said to Tmatt last night, there is no one position among Anglicans about what happens during the Eucharist. And you are absolutely right that many Anglicans don’t consider themselves Protestants. Many probably wish the Reformation had never happened!

  • Amy

    Glad to see GR picking up on this story. The coverage in Canada has been full of gems such as this from a story in the Ottawa Citizen:

    Questions arose after Harper attended last week’s state funeral of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc in Memramcook, N.B., when he was handed a sacramental wafer, which Catholics call a “host,” otherwise known as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

    I love the scare quotes and the “otherwise known as” bit. Makes it sound like the wafer should be on a wanted poster in the post office.

  • Erin

    Just a quibble, since this is the GetReligion blog. Could you not call the host a wafer? I understand that a non-Catholic is not going to refer to it as the Precious Body, but consecrated host is preferable to consecrated wafer. Thanks!

    I agree that Harper did nothing wrong here, and that the real lesson is that Catholics need to be much more zealous in safeguarding and promoting respect for the Eucharist.

  • bob

    Will, thank you for correcting me. It’s an archbishop with ‘splainin to do. It’ll be more interesting.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It isn’t just the Real or True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist that is at issue.
    Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ has always been taken to mean that the recipient is at one (in communion with) all other believers on matters of core doctrines–one of which being doctrines concerning the Holy Eucharist.
    The Orthodox Christian Churches are much stricter on this issue than the Western Church–and rightfully so both doctrinally and historically.
    In most cases, like pm Harper’s, the misunderstandings are the fault of Catholic clergy who are sometimes more interested in coming across as being “good guys” having “charity” rather than being willing to truthfully promote Catholic teachings (the Real charity).
    Consequently unwitting non-Catholics wind up taking part in a fraud based on modern relativistic attitudes. But to expect the media to understand and explain this is expecting a bit too much when even we, in the Church, do a poor job of it.

  • Caleb

    You’d also get a heated debate from many Anglicans as to whether or not they are “Protestant”.

    Ditto for us Lutherans. I think that the issue at hand here is definitely with the priest. Being charged with the sacred task of handling the dispension of the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is a tremendous responsibility, and, as Deacon John said above me, it is the fault of Catholic clergy who are more interested in being good guys than orthodox handlers of the mysteries of God. Literally touching the Body of the Savior is probably something to be handled with a little more discretion. And this is probably something far too theologically involved for the media to have a clue. We’re just a bunch of spiritual wingnuts anyway ;)

  • Eve Murphy

    The entire fault was on the part of the priest himself, who, in functions such as funerals and weddings, should always announce, “for those of you who are not practising Catholics” you should remain seated or if you like, come up for a blessing. However, communion wafers are for Catholics in good-standing only.”

    Or something to that effect.
    the PM is not at fault in any way, shape or form for the error of the attending priest.