The Onion and the transubstantiation

September 21, 2006 | By | 8 Replies More

Rather than describe The Onion’s most recent sacrilege, you can take a look here.  Remember, if you so much as smirk, you will have paved your own ultimate path to hell. 

I’ve written very little on the doctrine of the transubstantiation, the topic of this Onion article.  This surprises me, because the transubstantiation was one of the most puzzing aspects of my Catholic indoctrination.  It is a strikingly ghoulish ritual, if one thinks about it.  But that’s the problem: very few Catholics think about it.  They think about it very little as adults, despite the fact that, as children, all Catholics were taught that transubstantiation is perhaps the most important thing distinguishing Catholics from other types of Christians.

Here’s a simple experiment you are invited to run.  When you are next in the company of one or more Catholics, excitedly suggest that you’ve learned that there is a widely practiced American religious ritual based on cannibalism.  Almost every time, the Catholics will look at you with surprise and curiosity.  I’ve done this more than a few times, and it just amazes me.  How is it that so many people give such little thought to the utterly fantastic beliefs of their own religions. 

You can continue the experiement like this.  Proceed to explain the transubstantiation to the Catholics.  Watch their disgusted or puzled looks. Many of them will assure you that they don’t believe that the bread really turns into the body of Jesus.  When they make this claim, they don’t like being reminded that they therefore don’t qualify as Catholics. Many Catholics (I would suspect most of them) put it completely out of their minds that when they eat the wafer of bread at Mass, they are, according to official church doctrine, eating the actual body of Jesus.  It’s not a symbol, but a real body.  Others writers have addressed this topic (that Catholics are confused about the ramifications of eating the communion bread).

How can it be that so many people (many of them well thought out regarding many other aspects of their lives) give so little thought to the things that they claim to be so utterly important?  I suspect it’s that the claim of the transubstantiation makes no sense.  It’s really bread.  It’s not someone’s body.  Very few Catholics would ever dare to consider eating a human body. 

As I’ve written before, false and oxymoronic proclamations can nonetheless be important (I believe that such proclamations occur in the course of both religious and civic rituals). I suspect that such proclamations constitute important displays that facilitate social bonding, and this is what is really at play during the Mass.  This could explain both the felt importance of uttering such bizarre things (that a piece of bread is a human body) and the resistance to contemplating the literal meaning of such an utterance.


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Category: Language, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'd guess that they believe in transubstantiation in much the same way as they believe in the Holy Trinity: Jesus was simultaneously completely human for his whole life (and therefore able to make the sacrifice), and entirely and perfectly divine from the beginning of time until the end of time always existing as the Trinity (exactly as it was never described in the Old Testament).

  2. hogiemo says:

    The Onion doesn't commit sacrilege which is to physically desecrate some hallowed object or a sacrement of the Church. If we use words to profane such, it's at worst a blasphemy. at best journalism. There is some journalistic merit to the Onion piece in that radioactive spiders are seen as something which might bestow super-priestly powers upon a "priest".

    Let's assume the guy mentioned is actually an ordained Catholic priest with some order. At best he's misled, at worst his statements are heresy. Heresy would traditionally be known as the conscious choice to publicly deny or defy official Church teaching. I will not address the resolution of such conflicts by any "internal forum solutions". However, Catholic priests do not transubstatiate Mountain Dew or chicken guts in the sacrament of the Mass.

    It is correct that the mystery of faith of transubstantiation is at the core of Catholic teaching and the celebration of the Mass. Each Mass we attend in our faith journey we Catholics believe that, as Jesus did at the Last Supper, the priest celebrating the Mass makes the human gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Each Mass is an opportunity to participate in the Last Supper and partake of the Sacrament of the Eucharist which is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give us grace. I do not partake without serious consideration of what it is I do. I beg Jesus' forgiveness for my sins and those of all, sometimes tearfully/ I ask for Jesus' continued blessings upon me and my family/ I thank Jesus for all the blessings which I have received and ask for Him to keep safe and well all those who keep us safe and well/I ask that the special intentions of my Church community be what's so in the world and for my own special intentions/ I take the Body of Jesus and eat, choosing Him.

    I believe that the experience of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist makes me as close to Jesus as is possible in this life and gives me a special opportunity to renew my choice that He is my savior and I his servant. I see others making the same choice as I participate. We then go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

    I do not profess to hold any monopoly upon any truths but, this is what I believe.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    It's always struck me as peculiar that christians fail continually to see the connections between their own religion and other, "ancient" religions. Zeus made a habit of knocking up young women and getting them pregnant–the resultant progeny becoming "demigods" who then went out and did Great Things. Mercury was the guy who "spread the word" of the gods, and often took on the aspect of a bird. Flesh sacrifice was common, and the eucharist is a bizarre inversion of that. Jesus himself most parallels the life of Socrates, including his condemnation for blasphemy and the attempt by some of his followers to rescue him–help both of them refused.

    Then, of course, are all the pagan holy days that were merged with christianity to give us our regular feast days, in particular Christmas which was originally the celebratory day of the Roman Sol Invictus.

    I read an article once that suggested the dome and cross motif of churches began with the retrofitting of pagan temples, the domes of which were representative of a penis. Rather than tear them all down, christians stuck a cross on top (eventually, when the cross became the symbol, some time after Constantine) to "purify" its pagan symbolism.

    The transubstantiation itself may have been intended to rehabilitate Yahweh's reputation as a god needing blood sacrifice. The difference between Old and New Testament Yahweh seems to be the change from a god always saying "Gimme gimme gimme" to one willing to make ultimate and continual sacrifices–but whose chief medium of said sacrifice is death.

    Christians never seem to notice any of these symmetries.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    One reason why Christianity has been able to spread into so many different pagan cultures is that it contains nearly every pagan belief imaginable. Examples abound:

    – cannibalism (as Erich mentions above);

    – human sacrifice (Jesus dying on the cross);

    – talismans (rosary beads, crosses to ward off Satan, holy water (see:… etc.);

    – seasonal festivals of rebirth (Christmas & Easter) and harvest (All Saints' Day);

    – idol worship (statues of Mary, Jesus on the cross, the saints, etc.);

    – sexual virginity equated to spiritual purity (Jesus' virgin birth);

    – virgin sacrifice (Jesus);

    – monotheism (God);

    – polytheism (Father, Son & Holy Ghost).

    The list goes on and on.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Thank God I was raised Baptist. It was all symbolic to us. I found chocolate Saviors on the web last Easter (sweet Jesus!) and tried to convince my readers that this would be much more appealing for communion than bread, but no one took me up on it. You are right to point out that this phenomenon is not isolated to religious rituals.

  6. Deb says:

    This reminds me of my puzzlement re some vegetarians. Why do people who choose not to eat animal products because they think it is immoral commonly buy non-animal products made to appear and taste like animals. So they can just Pretend to be doing the immoral act of eating an animal?

  7. Erika Price says:

    I have to disagree with that perspective, Deb. I think vegetarians who eat meat substitutes largely do this to make their practice socially acceptable. Meat-based meals have become a frequent part of dietary culture, so to speak, and vegetarians mimic meat-eating behaviors in order to blend in as much as possible.

    Also, I would like to note that many vegans and vegitarians consider it more moral to encourage other people to practice vegitarianism than to strickly follow vegetarianism itself. PETA tells vegans to consider small amounts of "cheating" OK, because it makes veganism seem easier and more accessible, hence making more people willing to attempt veganism.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Hey Deb- As a lifelong vegetarian, I have problems with that, too. I especially hate all these food products made to look, taste, and smell like meat. It grosses me out to even think about eating meat, so why on earth would I want to eat the fake stuff?

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