As Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, tells it, he was attending a Catholic Mass with a friend, was given the communion wafer, and wanted to show it to the friend in order to help explain Catholicism. He was accosted as he attempted to walk back to his seat with the wafer uneaten, and in defiance decided to leave the service with it (he later gave it back). Church officials tell it differently: Cook was never physically restrained, and he basically absconded unprovoked with what they believe is the body of Christ, holding it hostage just to make point about the public funding of religion (the service was held at a publicly funded school).
Worldwide controversy ensues. Bill Donahue calls his act “beyond hate speech.” The local priest calls it “kidnapping.”
PZ Myers has his usual blistering take of course, mostly agog at the seeming absurdity of the whole matter: it’s just a cracker!
I guess I have more sympathy for the outraged Catholics than he allows. What Cook did hurt them, plain and simple, and you shouldn’t hurt people for no good reason.
The thing is though, it’s very hard to sustain that sympathy for too long in the face of the way many proud Catholic warriors are acting. Cook has received actual death threats, and it goes without saying that countless people seem to think that he will justly be consigned to hellfire for his actions (a promised threat that’s far more sickening and over-the-top than even death threats, in my opinion). And then there’s the assertion that the act is criminal, rather than an immaterial dispute over belief: that it should result in Cook’s discipline or even expulsion from school.
In short, critics seem to be doing everything they can to demonstrate that they are incapable of simply disagreeing with Cook’s actions and condemning his conduct as insulting. Instead, they want metaphysical blood, incarnated in endless prostrations and severe judicially imposed consequences.
Take this fellow at Vive Christus Rex, who rubs his hands with Scientologist-level glee at the idea of the Catholic League destroying powerful companies and now going after a young man. He even has a handy guide for how Cook can try to make it all up him, maybe.
Maybe this is supposed to make sense only to Catholics, but this fantasizing about someone prostrating themselves in front of you looks unseemly and embarrassing from the outside. I’m very much reminded of Father Cantalamessa, who seemed to believe that the only intellectually legitimate or honest atheist was one writhing in apologetic agony at his feet over how terrible it was for them not to be Christian.
Now I certainly think that Webster Cook was insensitive for doing something that would so deeply offend the Catholics at a Mass he was attending (the question of whether he was fully just a “guest” there is more complex, as the school was publicly funded).
I don’t have to agree with people’s elaborate metaphysical reasoning about why something is wrong to know that they believe it’s wrong, and that, reasonable or not, it upsets them. I don’t believe in pushing people’s buttons, especially not just because I think those buttons are silly or oversensitive. That’s the worst, and least productive, way to try and make any sort of point.
But honestly, what Cook sparked off was a dispute over a faith-based ritual. Catholics may believe that the physical body of Christ was at stake, but no one is obligated to believe what they believe when gauging how wrong his actions were in terms of the law, either for the school’s disciplinary proceedings or even morally.
Cook was also not, as some have claimed, violating anyone’s rights to practice religion as they see fit. There was no ban established barring them from practicing their religion. There was a single scuffle. They gave him the wafer, and his taking it out of the church did not prevent them from believing whatever they want about how sinful his conduct was, or conducting their services any way they wanted in reponse. Cook clearly disrupted things (wittingly or unwittingly), but this was apparently the first and only incident: they did and still do have the power to kick him out then or not let him participate in the future.
No points to Cook, certainly, who has plenty to answer for personally. But I don’t think the reactions he stirred up are to anyone’s else’s credit either.
Anyhow, my curiosity was piqued a little at this last quote of one article, in which a priest describes the apparent wrathful anger of God not just at Cook, as might seem potentially reasonable, but at the entire congregation.
Gonzalez said intentionally abusing the Eucharist is classified as a mortal sin in the Catholic church, the most severe possible. If it’s not returned, the community of faith will have to ask for forgiveness.
“We have to make acts of reparation,” Gonzalez said. “The whole community is going to turn to prayer. We’ll ask the Lord for pardon, forgiveness, peace, not only for the whole community affected by it, but also for [Cook], we offer prayers for him as well.”
Concede for a second that Cook really is nothing more than an arrogant little git trying to thumb his nose at a church practice, and that he walked off with a piece of God’s spiritual body instead of consuming it.
This God, apparently, is not a being who’d laugh it off as some little adolescent display. This God isn’t a being who’d snort derisively at it. This God isn’t above it all. This God is, in fact, supposedly as vein-poppingly outraged by this act as Bill Donahue: so much so that he’d demand that people utterly innocent in the incident beg his forgiveness. Indeed, this God is tame compared to Bill Donahue: for this God, this was not merely a hate crime, but as bad or worse than murder, and punishable by the worst imaginable of all punishments.
I don’t know about you, but I find such a being very hard to imagine or relate to.
Update: Catholic League firebrand Bill Donahue has now turned his rage at PZ Myers, who’s been soliciting communion wafers so that he can defiantly defile them online. Myers was pretty obviously trolling for this reaction, and he got it, of course. Donahue, as is his shtick, is seeking to destroy Myers in his rage. Myers is, of course, enjoying it immensely, noting that his employers’ guidelines for conduct don’t quite apply to this situation:
When dealing with others, I must be respectful, fair and civil. Hmmm. Doesn’t seem to say anything about when dealing with crackers.
True enough. But I wish Myers would at least appreciate that in dealing with these particular “crackers” he is, in some sense, dealing with people. Whether or not he thinks the things Catholics invest in communion wafers are silly, the plain reality is that they do care about them, and it is a matter of insulting them. I think Myers is probably okay with doing just that, of course, because he thinks that insulting their beliefs, in words and actions, could make them, or at least somebody, reconsider things. Jury’s out on that one, but as noted with Cook: I’m pretty skeptical about that method producing anything constructive.