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The Eucharist & Cannibalism Print E-mail
By Michael P. Foley   
Saturday, 06 August 2011

Perhaps the most disconcerting Catholic doctrine is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Many people today have the same reaction as those disciples who heard Jesus preach it for the first time in Capernaum and were scandalized, “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” (Jn. 6:61). John says that after, many of His disciples stopped following Him altogether.

What is obviously so “hard” about this saying is that it suggests cannibalism. If Catholics believe the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Christ, then they believe they are eating human flesh and drinking human blood. The Romans accused Christians of cannibalism and that the charge has been made against Catholics in various ways ever since.

But while Holy Communion does involve eating human flesh and blood, it is not true that it is cannibalistic. How so?

The Eucharist is life. Cannibals eat what is dead. The Aztecs, the most notorious cannibalistic society in history, ate the beating hearts of victims, but they were still eating something doomed to die, and in the act of eating, it did die. By contrast, Christ, is alive. He rose on the third day, and is present in the Eucharist as fully alive (indeed, He is Life itself). Our reception of the Eucharist doesn’t destroy or change that in any way. 

The Eucharist is the whole body and blood of Jesus Christ. Cannibals only take a part of their victims. But even the smallest particle of the Eucharist contains the entire body and blood of Christ. The familiar characteristics of space and matter don’t apply: consuming a larger Host does not mean you get more of Christ’s body and blood, nor does consuming a small Host mean you get less. Even receiving from the Precious Cup is unnecessary: by “concomitance,” when a communicant receives the Host, he also receives the Precious Blood.

The Eucharist is the glorified body of Jesus Christ. Concomitance is possible because Christ’s living and eternal body is forever reunited with His blood; hence, receiving the former entails receiving the latter. Christ’s risen body is not a resuscitated corpse like that of Lazarus, but an utterly transformed “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44) far different from the spatio-temporal “body of our lowness.” (Phil. 3:21) Therefore, when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, he is receiving not just flesh but glorified flesh, a resurrected and transfigured “super body” that foreshadows the new reality of a new Heaven and a new earth. Cannibalistic practices don’t do that. 


     The Eucharist (Benedict XVI in Washington, D.C., 2008)

The Eucharist contains the soul of Jesus Christ. Some cannibalistic societies eat the flesh or drink the blood of fallen warriors in the hopes of taking on their “life force” or their courage, or of destroying their spirit altogether. Yet precisely because the risen Jesus is alive, His immortal soul is united to His body and blood, and inseparable from them in the Eucharist. 

The Eucharist contains the divinity of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ is true God and true man, His divinity and His humanity are also inseparable. Consequently, in partaking of the human “aspects” of Christ (His body, blood, and soul), we also partake of His divine nature. This stands in sharp contrast to cannibals such as the Binderwurs of central India, whose flesh-eating religious rituals tried to bring them closer to the gods, but made them sink lower than most beasts. 

Putting all these elements together, we arrive at the Catholic formula: “The Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

The Eucharist is not diminished. If Christ is entirely present in even the tiniest part of the Host, then it follows that the living body and blood of Christ are not diminished by the act of receiving Holy Communion (more communicants does not mean “less Christ” left, and so on). 

The Eucharist consumes us. When you eat food, it becomes a part of you. With the Eucharist, however, the opposite happens. We become a part of it, that is, in Holy Communion, we are made a part of the mystical body of Christ. In our Lord’s words, those who eat His flesh and drink His blood abide in Him (Jn. 6.40). 

The Eucharist is nonviolent. Catholics understand the Mass as the non-bloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross. Christ, whose innocent blood was unjustly shed 2,000 years ago, is made available for His disciples under the appearance of bread and wine, but in a peaceful, nonviolent way. Cannibalism is inherently violent and usually predicated on the assumption that the victim is guilty of a crime against a society (usually they are prisoners of war). 

All of this suggests that what happens at the Lord’s table is fundamentally different than what happens in the dark rites of a depraved tribe. Indeed, from a metaphysical perspective, we can consider all cannibalistic customs (as opposed to those induced by derangement or starvation) as a perverse and even demonic mimicry of our Holy Communion with the risen Lord. 

Most anthropologists believe that cannibalism is intrinsically religious in nature. Just as all pagan blood-sacrifices were distorted knock-offs of the one true Sacrifice of Calvary (even if they took place before the Crucifixion), so too all ritual acts of cannibalism are a distorted attempt to replace the Bread of Life with the mammon of one’s own iniquity.

The disciples scandalized by Jesus’ hard saying were right to be horrified by cannibalism but wrong to identify it with what they were hearing. The Eucharist is not another form of cannibalism. On the contrary, it is a holy union with Life itself, which all cannibal acts blindly seek but never obtain. 

In this respect Holy Communion is actually the supreme instance of anti-cannibalism, an exposé of all evil impostors for what they are. Jesus made the difference clear enough when He referred to Himself as the “Living Bread” (Jn. 6:41). 

So if anyone asks, now you know.
 

Michael Foley, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is an associate professor of patristics in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University. His articles have appeared in, among others, First Things, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and The Wall Street Journal. Dr. Foley has edited or authored several books including Frank Sheed’s classic translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything.

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Comments (27)Add Comment
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written by Paul Catalanotto, August 05, 2011
Substantially the Eucharist is the True and Real Presence of Christ. Accidentally it is still Bread. Therefore, Catholics aren't Cannibals.

It is really a simple argument that gets muddled in this essay.

There is something that bothers me by calling the Eucharist the "flesh" of Christ. Probably because the Church often calls it the "Body" and "blood" of Christ as well as the "real presence of Christ" and shies away from calling it the "flesh" of Christ.

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written by Lee Gilbert, August 06, 2011
Thank you, Michael Foley! This is very helpful.

Once I asked a rabbi, "What is a kiddush cup?" and he responded, "It is not the blood of Jesus!" This answer floored me, because I had never heard that phrase used with respect to the Eucharist...which evidently was his intent, for subsequently he raised this issue of cannibalism.

I know it is not liturgically correct to say, "This is Jesus," when presenting the Eucharist to the faithful, nor to say, "This is the blood of Jesus" when presenting the Precious Blood. Moreover, I suspect it is not theologically correct, either. However, I don't understand why. Although we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, is it incorrect to say that we receive the person of Jesus? Perhaps the name Jesus connotes the pre-resurrected and pre-ascended Lord, and is not an adequate designation for the Risen Lord under the Eucharistic veil. But that is only speculation. Would you clarify? Thanks!

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written by Louise, August 06, 2011
"Because Jesus said so."

"If you are a so-called Bible-believing Christian, then believe it and stop arguing with it."

I have long since given up discussing such matters with people who ask these kinds of questions. Generally, they are asked only to be argumentative and not to seek truth, so why carry on the discussion? The person who asks that question in that manner will always come up with more arguing points than you will ever have answers for--and besides, the questioner isn't looking for answers--let alone Truth. He only wants to argue.

Or if you are more patient than I, you might say, "If you are asking this question only to carry on an argument or to try to persuade me of the idiocy of my point of view, I don't want to engage. If you are asking me to learn something and are open to what I am going to say, then this is what the Catholic Church teaches" and proceed.

I loved the answer given to such a challenge by the great Rabbi in Pope Benedict's first "Jesus of Nazareth" book: "Ah. Perhaps it is true after all."
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written by Louise, August 06, 2011
"I loved the answer given to such a challenge by the great Rabbi in Pope Benedict's first "Jesus of Nazareth" book: "Ah. Perhaps it is true after all." "

Bad sentence structure. I should have put it this way: "I loved the answer to just such a challenge that a great Rabbi gave. Pope Benedict quotes the Rabbi in his first "Jesus of Nazareth: "Ah. Perhaps it is true after all."

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written by Brent, August 07, 2011
This is excellent! The second century Romans according to St. Justin Martyr said Christians were cannibals, and so it continues...
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written by Fred, August 07, 2011
From Dictionary.Com - a cannibal is "a person who eats human flesh, especially for magical or religious purposes, as among certain tribal peoples."

I can see why you'd want to defend yourself from the charge that "you are a cannibal" - it not really very nice to be called that. But, the arguments you have here are not very convincing, and certainly based more in feelings and teachings that in actual fact. In other words, only a believer would buy those arguments, and they are not the ones that are calling Catholics cannibals.

It's all point of view. I suspect the "Binderwurs of central India" would come up with similar arguments to justify their cannibalism also (as they evidently did it to please their goddess, Kali).

I'm not posting to condemn or pile on (after all, I think it's just a wafer, and the cannibalism argument seems silly to me). I can see how the arguments could be comforting to a believer. In fact, the only thing I *really* objected to in the article is this:

"Just as all pagan blood-sacrifices were distorted knock-offs of the one true Sacrifice of Calvary (even if they took place before the Crucifixion), so too all ritual acts of cannibalism are a distorted attempt to replace the Bread of Life with the mammon of one’s own iniquity."

I mean...even before the Crucifixion? How can you draw that parallel? If you can take credit for all acts of sacrifice in any time period, and say that they are trying to imperfectly mimic the Crucifixion, you can pretty much justify anything. By that logic, all ancient societies - every one - should have had some sort of sacrifice in order to mimic the great sacrifice that was to come.
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written by George, August 07, 2011
The title sounds needlessly confusing. Perhaps you should change it to something like "Is the Eucharist Cannibalism?"
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written by Steven Lo Vullo, August 07, 2011
Mr. Catalanotto, I am surprised that you are bothered by the designation "flesh" for the body of Christ. Not only is this the way Jesus himself referred to the Eucharist (John 6:51-56, where the Greek word is sarx), but it was also a designation for the Eucharist found in the Apostolic Father St. Ignatius, who even says that the term separated the orthodox from the heretical:

"I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh [sarx] of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love.” (St. Ignatius, Romans 7:3)

“Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh [sarx] of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God.” (St. Ignatius, Philadelphians 4:1)

“They [the heretics] abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh [sarx] of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” (St.Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 6:2)

Note in this last citation that it was Jesus "flesh" that both suffered for our sins AND was raised up by the Father. It is this resurrected flesh of which we partake in the Eucharist. This is clearly proclaimed in the Catechism:

"1384 The Lord addresses an invitation to us, urging us to receive him in the sacrament of the Eucharist: 'Truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.'"

"1391 Holy Communion augments our union with Christ. The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus. Indeed, the Lord said: 'He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.' Life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet: 'As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.'”

"1392 What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life. Communion with the flesh of the risen Christ, a flesh 'given life and giving life through the Holy Spirit,' preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. This growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion, the bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death, when it will be given to us as viaticum."

"1524 In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of 'passing over' to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: 'He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.' The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father."

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written by addison, August 07, 2011
As I've mentioned on other sites, the Lord's Supper is symbolic. If it is said, "Not one of His bones shall be broken," then what happens EVERY time you crush the host with your teeth? Answer: If it's literal, then you crush His bones and that would mean the Scripture has been broken. Also, why didn't the disciples have either the bread or wine? Answer: They knew that the "life of the flesh is in the blood," Isiah 53, etc. So, they and everyone else other than the RCC had both.
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written by Richard, August 07, 2011
This arcticle/essay helped me. Thanks. I have occasionally pondered the cannibalism question. The one question I have is this: I always understood that in John chapter 6, one of the words that Jesus uses for 'eat' can as easily be translated as 'munch' or 'gnaw', words that, to me, invite cannibal imagery. Why does the Lord use that word?
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written by Steven Lo Vullo, August 07, 2011
Richard, the best New Testament lexicon, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, has this comment on the Greek word in question:

"J[ohn] uses it to offset any tendencies to ‘spiritualize’ the concept so that nothing physical remains in it, in what many hold to be the language of the Lord’s Supper."

So the purpose is to concretize and give tangible and definite form to what is eaten, namely, the flesh of the Lord.
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written by Linus, August 07, 2011
I think many Catholics are poorly catechized on this doctrine, hence their weak faith.

Several things always struck me about John's rendering of our Lord's discourse on the Eucharist. It seems to me that most Catholics are shocked at the rejection of the Doctrine by many of his disciples. I am more amazed that any of them believed what He said at all. Clearly much more was said than we are being told. At the very least the Holy Spirit was at work. And did the Apostles and a few other disciples have a true understanding of what Christ was teaching? It is hard to believe they had the clear understanding we have today after two thousand years of theological discussion and Councilar Definitions. If I had been alive at that time I could not have accepted it, it is hard even now, even with all I now know.
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written by Steven Lo Vullo, August 07, 2011
Richard, just to add to my last comment, this aim of the Lord to concretize what is eaten, his flesh, is also behind his words, "For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink." This is from a Protestant translation, the NIV.
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written by TeaPot562, August 07, 2011
If one can accept the reality of the Incarnation (see Philipians 2:6-10, esp v.7) "he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men.";

Time Out!

How can someone Who is God, "empty himself"? God knows everything, is all-powerful, never becomes tired. By contrast, Jesus does become tired, knows much that will happen (but not everything), etc.
Does the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity wall Himself off from a number of the Divine attributes in order to become human? How?
I accept the fact of the Incarnation; but I do not pretend to understand it.
If one can accept the Incarnation as worthy of belief, the ability of God to change bread and wine into His Body and Blood should also be acceptable. Again, one can accept it w/o pretending to understand it.
OTOH, the Modernist heresy starts with the assumption that miracles related in the New Testament did not happen.
Paul in 1 Cor. 15 discusses the Resurrection in depth. Verses 13-19 tell the logical consequences of denying the Resurrection. "If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men" (V. 19)

Why would Modernists, who deny miracles - including the Resurrection of Jesus - claim to be Christian?
If the Resurrection is real, and Jesus taught what is discussed in John's gospel, Chapter 6, He does have the ability to do what He claimed.
TeaPot562
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written by Steven Lo Vullo, August 08, 2011
Mr. Addison, you are ignorant both of Catholic teaching and the Scriptures. First, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church doesn't teach that people are biting into parts of Jesus and grounding up his flesh and bones. She teaches that each communicant is receiving the whole Jesus, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Chewing is simply part of the human way of receiving food into one's system. If the glorified Christ's body could pass through closed doors or walls without any damage being done to his flesh or bones, why could not his body pass through the human digestive process, including chewing, without any damage being done to his flesh or bones? And if the Eucharist were only symbolic, as you say, and chewing necessarily means that Jesus bones must be broken, then Jesus left us an entirely inappropriate symbol, since he would have left us a symbol of breaking his bones by crushing the symbol with our teeth! Yours is a childish way of understanding the glorified body of the Lord and its astounding properties.

Secondly, have you never read 1 Corinthians 11:27? Note carefully the particle and conjunction:

"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread OR drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body AND blood of the Lord."

Note that eating the bread OR drinking the cup in an unworthy manner makes one guilty of the body AND blood of the Lord. If you eat the bread unworthily, you are guilty of both the body AND blood of the Lord. If you drink the cup unworthily, you are guilty of both the body AND blood of the Lord. This indicates that if you eat the bread, you are receiving the body AND blood of the Lord; if you drink the cup, you are receiving the body AND blood of the Lord. It is significant that the King James version seems to purposely mistranslate the Greek particle for "or" by translating it "and." The two words are very different. I think the translator knew the implications of what the Greek text was actually saying and didn't want it known to the reader who knew only English. Protestants can't get away with that any longer, and so translate the text appropriately.
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written by Paul Catalanotto, August 08, 2011
Steven Lo Vullo, I am well aware of the citations you have given me. I never said there is anything wrong with calling the Eucharist Flesh. I am just bothered by the use of the word in regards to the Eucharist. "Body" and "Blood" I have no problems with.

My only reason is that in my mind "flesh" implies something different than does "body" and "blood" in relation to the Eucharist.
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written by mark, August 12, 2011
You of little faith.. God, the creator of everything can turn ordinary water in to wine, then I don't think it is a problem for him to turn ordinary bread and wine in to his body and blood. Jesus said it, and the early Church taught it and passed it down to us. AMEN! Turn, twist and wiggle, it does not change what Christ taught.
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written by Debra Barry, August 12, 2011
What a tempest in a teapot all this is. Is the next article on actually how many angels there are dancing on the head of a pin? No one eats actual flesh and blood and since I made my First Communion in grade 2 I understood the Eucharist as a taking in of the spiritual essence of Jesus' sacrifice. All your senses, science and common sense confirm it is not actual flesh and blood or no one would partake. Cannibalism!
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written by Christopher Lake, August 17, 2011
Debra Barry, Jesus and His disciples definitely did not see this issue as a "tempest in a teapot." As a Catholic, it is astounding to me that you could see the true nature of the Eucharist as a small issue.

Read chapter 6 of St. John's Gospel. Many of Christ's original followers were unable to accept His Eucharistic teaching that "This is my body...." (rather than merely "This is the spiritual essence of my sacrifice"). Those followers who could not accept Christ's teaching here chose to leave Him over this matter, and significantly, He didn't chase after them, saying, "Wait a minute! I didn't mean it literally!" He simply allowed them to leave, instead of affirming a view of the Eucharist that was less than He meant to teach.

At every Mass, we are offered the Eucharist, and the priest specifically offers it to us as the "Body of Christ." When we say, "Amen" before receiving, we are affirming, "Yes, I believe that this is the Body, the true Body, of Christ." This is what "Amen" means-- I believe, I accept, what is being said.

The doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is what Jesus Himself teaches about His Body and Blood, in the Eucharist, in chapter 6 of St. John's Gospel. It is what the Church has taught about the Eucharist for 2,000 years. If you don't believe it, then what are you affirming when you say "Amen," before you receive?
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written by GADEL, August 30, 2011
EUCHARIST: It smells, taste and looks like bread but it is more than bread. It is the Body and Blood of King Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread. "Since Christ Himself has said, "This is My Body" who shall dare to doubt that It is His Body?" St. Cyril of Jerusalem
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written by Greig Roselli, April 19, 2012
Your argument creates a strawman. By claiming Christian communion is not cannabilism because it is not the cannabilism of other cultures, "evil impostors" you say -- is to totally denigrate other culture practices to boost your own. It's like you're saying, Christianity is not inherently cannabilistic because it doesn't practice it in the way the evil impostors do. Can we find a justification for holy communion that is not so blatantly imperialistic and colonial?
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written by First Communion Dressses, January 09, 2013
It is important for Catholics to know this so they can defend themselves when they are confronted with this question.
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written by Oldscribe, February 02, 2013
Judaism, out of which Christianity arose, has few rivals in the ancient world for obligatory blood sacrifice, in which the object of sacrifice was later eaten. The continuance of this tradition in an offshoot of Judaism that was not intended at the time to have meaning or consequence to any but Jews should be no surprise. To change the object of the blood sacrifice from sheep, oxen, birds, and other animals to a human being was a novel and revolutionary innovation that has required continuous justification and rationalisation ever since. Believe it if you will, call it what you like, but the Scripture is crystal clear, the "Eucharist" is the consumption of the entire body of Jesus, and the drinking of his blood. If you believe this, and believe this is a good thing that others should do, don't hide from it - proclaim it and let others decide how they feel about it; and if God is sending folks to eternal damnation for being put off by the idea, sobeit! This is your God! This is your Church. This is who you are...
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written by LoneThinker, June 02, 2013
Corpus Christi 2013. The Presence of Christ is a sacramental presence, His Risen Body remains in Heaven and we receive the entire Mystery of Faith sacramentally in the Jewish zikarron / Greek sense of anamnesis, not the popular memorial as we think back or play-act a battle. This explanation dwells too much on what cannibalism is and is not and misses the full Catholic Truth.
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written by LoneThinker, June 02, 2013
Corpus Christi 2013. The entire Christ stays in Heaven, His Eucharistic presence is sacramental, we are not play acting a battle or thinking of the past, His Paschal Mystery is made present past is brought forward. The Professor Foley explanation above tries too hard to explain how it is and is not like cannibalism and as I read it, misses the Sacramental Jesus did say Eat My Flesh Drink My Blood so we need the Sacramental explanation to fully make it rational. I also reject that transubstantiation is our Faith, it simply makes it rational. This IS my Body/Blood is our Faith. The Jews were not thinking of cannibalism but that HE is the Bread of Life replacing Moses's daily miracle and the Temple Show Bread that David's troops ate. Idolatry, not cannibalism.
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written by Mark M. Bridle, June 20, 2013
Eating wheat crackers certainly does not make anybody a cannibal, but if a person truly believes that mumbling a few Latin words changes crackers into human flesh, then eating them is cannibalism by his own definition. No amount of abstruse philosophizing can refute this straightforward logic.
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written by Frank Bunne, September 12, 2013
Dictionary. com's simplest definition of cannibalism is "the eating of human flesh by another human being." If the Eucharist is human flesh, and a human eats it, that satisfies this definition. The distinctions that were pointed to do not appear in the definition and are therefore irrelevant distinctions.

For the record, this is not the broadest definition of cannibalism: "The violent eating of dead, non-glorified, non-divine human flesh without its soul by another human being, provided that only part of the body is eaten and not the entire body, and that the body does not consume the eater."

The broadest definition is "the eating of human flesh by another human being." If the wafer is human flesh, and a human eats it, the human has eaten human flesh. If a human eats human flesh, he has engaged in cannibalism.

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