Hey, Father! My protestant friends say if we truly believe it’s the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, when we receive the Eucharist, isn’t that cannibalism?
My protestant friends say if we truly believe it’s the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, when we receive the Eucharist, isn’t that cannibalism?
The short answer is no. The long answer is that Christians have been accused of cannibalism since the early years of the church since we recognize the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ. In the early church pagans made the accusation to discredit the Christian church as legitimate or moral.
Catholics absolutely believe that the Eucharist is the body of blood of Christ, namely because in all three of the synoptic Gospels Jesus Christ proclaims some iteration of the phrase “this is my body” in reference to the bread broken and shared at the last supper. (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19) In the Gospel of Luke, Christ follows this with the statement “do this in memory of me”. We, as Catholics, understand that this is exactly what is occurring when we celebrate the Mass and confect the Eucharist.
In spite of this claim, we understand the Eucharist to be fundamentally different than what is occurring when someone commits cannibalism. Firstly, most people would probably consider cannibalism to be psychologically demented and almost certainly morally evil. I would doubt any Christian would claim that Jesus Christ would compel any of his apostles to do anything demented or evil in any way.
Cannibalism could be defined as the consumption of human flesh by another human being. This process of consumption involves the killing and destruction of the flesh by eating it. Catholics do not claim to be killing Christ by this consumption of the Eucharist because we are not taking pieces of meat off of his body but instead eating bread that has been transformed into his body. We believe his body is sacramentally present under the appearance of bread and wine but we would never say his body is neither killed nor destroyed in this process.
In the act of cannibalism, the flesh is broken down by the digestive system of the person and thus becomes part of the person. The nutrients are absorbed and used as energy. In the reception of the Eucharist, there is of course some amount of this process, but in a larger and spiritual way, the consumed doesn’t become part of the consumer but the consumer becomes part of the consumed. That is to say, when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist, we become more like Jesus Christ. We enter, more fully, into that membership of his body that we all receive at the sacrament of Baptism.
The celebration of the Eucharist has been a part of the entire history of the Christian church and from very early on we can find evidence that these Christians believed it to be the body and blood of Christ. Origen speaks of this in the 3rd century, St Ephraim in the 4th century, and St Augustine in the 5th century. The theology has developed, and the celebration of the ritual may look different, but the consensus prevails, and we earnestly believe the Eucharist remains the same. It is central to our faith and the very foundation of our spiritual communion with all the church on earth and in heaven. It was instituted by Christ and passed down through the centuries to spiritually nourish us. Under no circumstances would we consider such a beautiful and sacred sacramental experience to be the heinous act of cannibalism.
Father Wayne Stock is pastor at St. Alexius in Beardstown, St. Fidelis in Arenzville, and St. Luke in Virginia. He is also an associate director for the Office of Vocations.