At first glance, it looks like a cannibalistic gesture, even if it is addressed to God and not to a human being. Yet it is the quintessence of Roman Catholicism. We speak of “eating God,” an act that is central to the Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.
Can Roman Catholicism really be considered the religion of “eating God”? Matteo Al-Kalak, professor of modern history at the University of Modena-Reggio, explores this question in his latest book, Mangiare Dio. A story of the eucarestia (Turin: Einaudi, 2021; Eating God. A Story of the Eucharist).
The book is a history of the Eucharist since the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in the Italian context and focuses on how The Eucharist is elevated to the rank of first identity marker: practiced, taught, protected, abused and used for various purposes, including extra-religious ones.
Using “a mosaic technique” (p.xiv), he analyzes some pieces of the history of the Eucharist.
It is not surprising that in the face of the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation (in all its eucharistic variants, from the German Lutheran version to the Swiss Calvinist-Zwinglian version), the Council of Trent emphasized the sacrificial character of the Mass and makes the Eucharist the symbolic pivot of the Counter-Reformation.
The Book of Al-Kalak is a collection of micro-stories aimed at forming a mosaic that reflects the Crucial importance of the Eucharist in the construction of the post-Tridentine Catholic imaginary and a strong eucharistic emphasis.
After reviewing the biblical data, the book summarizes the medieval debates from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which intertwined three pillars: who should dedicate (in Roman Catholic language: consecrate) the bread and the wine (that is i.e. only the clergy), the confession to precede, and the true and proper Eucharist.
A die results of the Council was the institution of the feast of Corpus Domini (The Body of the Lord, 1247). This Lateran synthesis was contested before and after the Reformation.
The pages on the heretical movements of the 16th century give voice to the “doctrinal fluidity of Italian heterodoxy” on the Lord’s Supper (p.19). In this regard, the opinion of Natale Andriotti of Modena is reported. Addressing a friend, he said, “Do you think Christ is in that host? It’s just a bit of dough” (p.149).
Like pieces of the mosaic, other chapters tell eucharistic miracle storiesassociated with various wonders, and the development of a kind of preaching centered on Eucharistic themes (from the model proposed by Carlo Borromeo in the 17th century to the impulse given by Alfonso Maria de Liguori in the 18th century).
Al-Kalak refers to the meticulous regulation given to the administration of the Eucharist (spaces, gestures, treatment of abuse) outside and inside the Mass (for example, at the bedside of the sick).
Other chapters follow on the Eucharist represented in poetic, pictorial and architectural forms and on the Eucharist profaned in witchcraft, magic and superstitious practices.
The discussion of the The Eucharist in the face of the cultural upheaval of the French Revolution is also of great interest. The Eucharist was considered as a polemical tool against the rationalism of modernity and for the rechristianization of society (Pope Leo XIII).
In recent years, however, Pope Francis pushes to relax the criteria for access to the Eucharist to allow the inclusion of those who are in “irregular” life situations. The book bears witness to the fact that Eucharistic theologies and practices are not static and given once and for all, but always in motion.
the volume ends with an interesting “postscript” in which Al-Kalak dwells one “scandal” of the Eucharist“only the host is subjected to the physiological mechanisms of the human being in such a radical way” (191), but it is considered a supernatural act filled with mystery.
It combines rational language with sensory languages, opening up to the irrational (p.193). If it is true to say that “the Eucharist – in regular Mass, in Eucharistic adoration, in Eucharistic processions – and fidelity to the Pope and to the hierarchy are the two most distinguished features of Roman Catholicism since the Council of Trent” (p.195), then a history of the Roman Catholic practice of “eating God” allows us to enter the depths of the Roman Catholic religion.
Beyond the fascinating stories told by the book, what is interesting is its title, “Eating God”, and its relevance to describe the soul of Roman Catholicism.
Already in the early centuries of the church, Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism precisely in connection with the Lord’s Supper. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54)?
The meal of bread and wine associated with the memory of the body and blood of Jesus Christ could give rise to misunderstandings. Was it really a human “body”? Was it the blood of a corpse? Was it then a cannibal meal?
Early Christian apologetics tried to disentangle the misunderstandings as much as possible, indignantly rejecting the charge of cannibalism and, where appropriate, pointing to the biblical parameters of the ordinance instituted by Jesus himself.
However, from the Fourth Lateran Council, and even more since the Council of Trent, the Church of Rome has embraced “transubstantiationi.e. an understanding of the sacrament that after the consecration of the bread and wine and the transformation of their nature into the body and blood of Christ, there is a sense in which the Roman Catholic Eucharist is a true “consummation of God.”
If the bread really becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus (the God-man), to take it means in a way to “eat God”,
Can it really go that far? Obviously yes, according to Rome. While the The Reformation insisted on recovering the distinction between Creator and creaturethe radical nature of sin and the sufficient mediation of the God-man Jesus Christ for the salvation of those who believe, the Roman Catholic Church has instead veered to the analogy between Creator and creature and to the prolongation of the mediation of Christ in the hierarchical and sacramental domain. the church, to the point of considering the “eating of God” of the creature as possible, even necessary.
For Roman Catholicism, man is “capable of God” (capax dei) to the point of really having to “eat” him.
Is this the meaning of the meal that the Lord Jesus instituted the night he was betrayed and that he gave to the church in memory of him in view of his second coming?
The debate on this issue in history has been very lively and remains crucial.
In the “Eating God” of the Eucharist, Roman Catholicism puts its entire worldview into action: its view of reality as touched but not marred by sin, the extension of the incarnation in the Church , the deification of man, and the “already” of salvation that one enjoys in the fruit of the sacraments without waiting for the “not yet” of the final banquet.
If you think about it, as absurd as it sounds, “eating God” is a synthesis of Roman Catholicism.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism. He blogs at VaticanFiles.com.
Posted in: Gospel Focus – Vatican Files
– Eat God? A history of the Eucharist and an overview of Roman Catholicism