Real Presence – Does it Mean Cannibalism?
I’m prone to distrust doctrinal claims that would leave the majority of Christians throughout history as heretics. A strict Memorialism, the view that the Body & Blood are spoken of the Eucharistic species in a purely figurative way, does just that; for it makes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and Calvinists supremely wrong about the supreme act of Christian worship.
In short, it makes almost every Christian alive, or who has ever lived, a heretic. Now I’m not about to argue against Memorialism in its entirety. Frankly, there are many other resources available if anyone wants answers to that challenge. I only intend to answer the charge of cannibalism and the supposed violation of the Jewish dietary laws by those who affirm the Real Presence.
The Jewish dietary laws specified which meats were edible: vegetarian beasts with split hoofs, sea creatures having both fins and scales, and various particular birds and insects. Anything else was de facto unclean. The laws also included a prohibition against eating blood and fat.
In a recent discussion, a Memorialist accused the Catholic Church of violating the Jewish dietary laws by her doctrine of Real Presence since, in his mind, it amounts to cannibalism. But is this doctrine, which most Christians have always held in some form, a violation of the Torah? Let’s look at Mark’s gospel for some helpful clues. In Mark 7:15 Jesus says, “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him.” In verse 19, Jesus gives the reason and Mark explains the full implication of this radical statement, “‘For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
Jesus points out that eating food is a physical process. It goes in physically, is physically digested, and then discarded. It doesn’t enter the heart and therefore does not defile. This isn’t dualism, just common sense. Now it follows that if something cannot cause spiritual harm by a purely physical process, it cannot cause spiritual benefit by a purely physical process.
The objection Memorialists raise regarding the Jewish dietary laws and the Eucharist reduces the doctrine of the Real Presence to a purely physical process which is a straw-man fallacy. That is, if the reception of Christ’s Body by Christians is a purely physical process, we would be guilty of cannibalism and therefore a violation of the Jewish dietary laws. Now the contemporary Memorialists are not the first to accuse the Catholic Church of cannibalism. This unsubstantiated claim was widely used against us by the pagans of the second century. We emphatically do not hold the Eucharistic reception to be a purely physical process and we are not guilty of cannibalism because receiving the Eucharist is not the equivalent of taking a bite out of Jesus’ arm or of drinking His Blood from the Cross. Those things would be a violation of the Jewish dietary laws. The substance of the host has been changed into the risen Body of Christ which although fully corporeal and real, does not physically belong to this universe. The Jewish dietary laws pertain to the natural; what we are partaking of in the Eucharist is supernatural. So our reception of Christ in the Eucharist is not a mere physical event. It is an event where the supernatural meets the natural. The benefit of the Eucharist is spiritual not physical; namely: grace. We cannot receive grace via digestion. Moreover, we do not digest Christ.
From these arguments, it is clear that the doctrine of the Real Presence does not amount to cannibalism and thus does not violate the Jewish dietary laws (which Mark 7:19 abolished anyway).