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 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 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.