Who Are We Inviting to Our Table? Part 1

It seems pretty clear that divorced people are going to be the defining issue of the upcoming Synod of Bishops in October.  Five hundred British priests signed a letter encouraging the Synod to "stand firm" on the question.  The Germans seem to be willing to walk over the question.  It's a big deal.

But here's the thing.  While the motivating force behind these issues is sexuality, the locus of these issues--the place where the abstract doctrines become concrete--is the Communion line.  If you are divorced and remarried without a proper annulment, (in principle) you are forbidden to walk up into that line and receive the Eucharist.  Likewise, if you are in a non-celibate same-sex relationship, or any one of a host of delineated situations (sexual or non-sexual), the official doctrine of the Catholic Church is that you are forbidden from joining that line.  The base-line Eucharistic theology of the Catholic Church is that some people, those who meet certain predefined criteria, are authorized to partake of the Eucharist, and some people are not.

This raises a preliminary question, one that the German manifesto hints at without explicitly raising.  Before we ask the question "is it OK to ban divorced and remarried people from Communion?" perhaps we should ask the question "is it OK to ban anyone from Communion?"  Increasingly, I am coming around to the idea that the answer to this second question is "no," which makes the first question irrelevant.  In the next couple of posts, I am going to work through why I think that, with a massive assist from Richard Beck and his book Unclean.

Before getting to Beck, a quick note about this idea of "banning" people from Communion.  Never in my life as a Catholic--not once--have I seen a priest or minister of Communion refuse to give the Bread or the Wine to someone who walks up to receive it.  I'm not saying it has never happened, and in fact I am sure it has, but I have never seen it.  What happens in actual practice is that people are told the rules for who can and cannot receive Communion, and then they self-enforce by not going up if they are prohibited for whatever reason.  Or not, as the case may be; it is a not exactly a secret that many people--including divorced and remarried folks, gay folks, etc.--simply go up and take Communion anyway.  So, while the official policy is one of a restrictive, closed Communion, in actual practice your average Catholic Church in the suburbs is much closer to open Communion than one would think from reading the policies.

In any event, a brief outline of Unclean.
Beck, a psychology professor by training, explores in Unclean a field called "disgust psychology" and its resonance with Christianity, the teachings of Jesus, and religion in general.  In brief, psychological research has shown that the emotion of "disgust" is more or less hardwired into human life.  Psychologists have identified what they call "core" disgust, which is fundamentally about policing the boundaries of our body.  In particular, core disgust focuses on what we put into our bodies, i.e. what we eat and drink, and what comes out, i.e. feces, urine, blood, etc..  At its basic level, core disgust is adaptive and advantageous, because to protects us from all sorts of disease vectors.  But our "core disgust" is not well calibrated, and it polices the boundary between outside and inside in a very rigid and absolute way.

To demonstrate this, Beck uses a simple analogy.  Hand someone a cup, tell them to spit into it, and then tell them to drink that spit.  Most people would find that disgusting, and would refuse.  But why?  A second prior to the spitting, the person had saliva in their mouth that was going down their throat, and they didn't think twice about it.  Objectively, that saliva is not going to change in any significant way in the few seconds it takes to spit it out and then swallow it.  There's no real reason to hesitate to swallow down your own spit, and yet everyone hesitates.  Our basic core disgust identifies saliva that has left the body as Outside, and thus disgusting.  Once something is Outside, it is Outside, regardless of what it was like when it was Inside.

Consider another experiment Beck mentions.  Take a glass of juice and drop a cockroach into the juice.  No one is going to drink that.  Now remove the cockroach.  Still no one is going to drink the juice.  Now do whatever you want to try to purify the juice--boil it, irradiate it, strain it, etc.  If people have watched the entire sequence, it won't matter what you do to try to remove the taint--most people will never drink that glass of juice.  The idea here is that once something gets the label of Outside or disgusting (which is essentially the same thing), then that label is going to be very hard to shake--disgusting tends to be a permanent category.  In addition, a disgusting thing is seen as contaminating an otherwise pure thing, and not the other way around--no one would think that the juice somehow "cleans" the cockroach.  Similarly, if you put a drop of urine into a barrel of wine, most people would see that wine as forever contaminated, even though logically that really doesn't make any sense.

But there is another dimension of disgust, which psychologists call "sociomoral."  It is not simply objects that are disgusting, but people can be disgusting.  The basic dynamics of core disgust become abstracted and applied to interpersonal and cultural situations.  When this happens, all of the basic disgust wiring is triggered in this new space, including the rigid distinction between Inside and Outside, the permanence of a "disgusting" label, and the notion of the unclean contaminating the clean.  Indeed, we tend to see cultural contamination as physical contamination, and visa versa.  As an example, we see the "Lady Macbeth" effect, in which we try to "wash away" a moral stain as if it were a physical one.

Or, and here is where Beck's work dovetails with and complements Girard's ideas, we apply various moral judgments and condemnations on people who are Outside, as a way of buttressing psychologically our decision to keep them outside.  Those that are Outside we cast as Monsters, who are both physically and morally unclean.  If you look at monsters in folklore, they are often hybrids of human and animal (think, for example, of the Medusa) as well as being evil.  Or, in an terrible real life example, if you look at Nazi propaganda about the Jews, you see allegations that the Jews are both physically unclean (in a literal sense, but also in the sense of characterizing their facial and other features to the grotesque) as well as morally depraved.  The two types of uncleanliness are intrinsically linked because they spring from the same ultimate source.

At its heart, disgust psychology is about policing boundaries of various kinds, both personal and cultural, with an interesting and hardwired linkage between basic functions like eating and broader cultural boundaries and taboos.  And into this mix comes Jesus, with some very interesting things to say about both.  But that's for the next post.



I have some degree of sympathy for the British priests who are calling for the policy to be maintained. British Catholics have historically faced suspicion and, at times, discrimination. They probably feel that, if the Church is seen to weaken on the indissolubility of marriage, then the Church is saying that British Catholics sacrificed for nothing. I read once about a Mormon woman who raised a large family before the Mormon church softened its prohibition on birth control. She was deeply hurt. She had suffered greatly raising a large family and then the Mormon leaders told her, "Well, it turns out you didn't have to do that. Oops. Sorry."

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