Torture and Eucharist?

Torture and Eucharist? December 10, 2014

Yes, torture is a tool of refined societies like ours, especially when we seek to impose order on those we label barbarians. (Bartolomeo Manfredi, Apollo and Marsyas, circa 1610)
Yes, torture is a tool of refined societies like ours, especially when we seek to impose order on “barbarians.” (Bartolomeo Manfredi, Apollo and Marsyas, circa 1610)

It’s been noted (initially by the author of a book on the theology of the body–extended) that yesterday’s post on the already infamous torture report ought to have mentioned William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. His book develops a theology of the Eucharist by surprisingly contrasting it with torture as practiced by totalitarian regimes in Latin America:

Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, the Eucharist is the realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers.

These regimes were propped up by the United States. This fact is a reminder that Bush and Obama were/are working from precedent.

Cavanaugh details these abuses from first person accounts he collected from victims of Pinochet’s abuses in Chile. The book is sometimes gruesome, but it does not lack its share of dark humor. What follows reminds me of this Eastern European brand of humor mined by writers such as Konwicki, Kundera, and Bulgakov.

A theological reading of torture you say? It's been done already.
A theological reading of torture you say? It’s been done.

Cavanaugh sets up the joke with a passage from Pius XII’s encyclical on the mystical body:

We have had the great consolation of witnessing something that has made the image of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ stand out most clearly before the whole world. Though a long and deadly war has pitilessly broken the bond of brotherly union between nations, We have seen Our children in Christ, in whatever part of the world they happened to be, one in will and affection, lift up their hearts to the common Father, who, carrying in his own heart the cares and anxieties of all, is guiding the barque of the Catholic Church int he teeth of a raging tempest. This is a testimony to the wonderful union existing among Christians; but it also proves that, as Our paternal love embraces all peoples, whatever their nationality and race, so Catholics the world over, though their countries may have drawn the sword against each other, look to the Vicar of Jesus Christ as to the loving Father of them all, who, with absolute impartiality and incorruptible judgment, rising above the conflicting gales of human passions, takes upon himself with all his strength the defence of truth, justice and charity.

Then comes the punchline-commentary from Cavanaugh:

It is not difficult to sympathize with Pius’s efforts to bring some hope of communion to a world riven with strife. Nevertheless, one can imagine that the Pope’s words would be slight comfort to the Christian on the battlefield who finds that a fellow member of the mystical body of Christ is trying to blow his legs off.

The theologian does not leave us hanging (like a limb), but follows this up with a serious outline of the theological developments that led to this strange situation:

What has gone wrong here? How is it that the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ could have come to mask, rather than witness against, the violence of the nations? Tracing the genealogy of the term “mystical body” may give us a clue.

The clue lies in an inversion first studied in great detail by Henri de Lubac in his Corpus Mysticum. The inversion goes back as far back as the 12th century in the West. Both Cavanaugh‘s and de Lubac‘s accounts of these developments read like captivating detective stories. I won’t spoil them for you.

Theology: it’s not for the fainthearted.



Browse Our Archives