William Cavanaugh - Torture and Eucharist

To participate in the Eucharist is to live inside God’s imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ. As human persons, body and soul, are incorportated into the performance of Christ’s corpus verumm, they resist the state’s ability to define what is real through the mechanism of torture. (Cavanaugh 1998: 279)

Although William Cavanaugh's book is now ten years old, and concerned with events of the 1970s and 1980s, abduction and torture are not yet consigned to Latin America's history. At the beginning of this month, human rights activist Juan Puthod was kidnapped in Buenos Aires Province. Puthod was due to testify against military officials accused of crimes carried out during the dictatorship. He was the third witness to be abducted in the past three years (Julio Lopez disappeared September 2006 and has still not been found; Luis Gerez, also abducted 2006, was found after 48 hours).

Fortunately, Puthod was found in little over a day following a massive police hunt. This was not the first time he had been illegally detained and, as before, he was blindfolded and beaten by his captors, who told him, ‘buddy, you don’t understand that we still have your life in our hands. Even after 32 years, your life still belongs to us.'

In such times, Cavanaugh argues that the Eucharist can function as a method of resisting violence, fear and torture. Being part of a Eucharistic community should shape believers according to Christian virtues of peace, justice, hope, love and forgiveness. It should make visible an alternative way of living, based on mutual relationship rather than control.

But if fails to do that, the Eucharist can also function as a method of discipline, through the act of excommunication. Cavanaugh traces the use of excommunication by the Chilean Roman Catholic Church. He notes that as early as 1626, the Synod of Santiago excommunicated slave traders. Promising, I thought. But he goes on to list a whole range of instances in which the church uses excommunication to protect its position in politics or the law etc, or to reinforce "traditional" morality (outlawing abortion and divorce). The church in Chile at various times excommunicated both those who joined the Communist Party, and rich patrons who didn't pay their workers a just wage.

During Pinochet's rule, Catholic bishops issued two decrees of excommunication against the regime. One was against the security agents who harassed several bishops at Santiago airport on their return from a pastoral conference in Ecuador. Cavanaugh suggests this instance did not go much beyond traditional concerns over protecting the standing of the church hierarchy. Indeed the bishops were able to draw directly on canon law, which explicitly names violence towards bishops as a reason for excommunication.

The second instance was in December 1980 when seven bishops issued a degree of excommunication against all those involved directly in torture and those who authorized its use. Again, Cavanaugh argues the force of the degree was weakened by the lack of willingness to name names.

New to me (but not to the church who developed this belief early on) is the idea that excommunication, far from being a cutting off, is actually ‘an invitation to rejoin the flock.’ By pointing out to the guilty party that their actions have placed them outside the church community, they can begin to take the necessary steps to return.
Excommunication is the formal offering of reconciliation in the hope that even the most hardened offender will be saved...The only point to disciplining the individual sinner is to reconcile her to the body of Christ, for without incorporation into Christ’s body, salvation is jeopardized. (Cavanaugh 1998: 240-44)


Finally, by naming what is outside the church, excommunication also acts to make visible the true body of Christ. It is therefore an act of witness to the wider society; a proclamation of what it is (and is not) to be a Christian.

Both these functions of excommunication - to witness and to reconcile - appeal. But what concerns me is that excommunication has generally been used to enforce conservative private morality or to protect the political standing of the church. Much less frequently has the church excommunicated in order to reveal injustice, challenge violent regimes, or protect the poor.

I have a whole list at my fingertips of actions over which I would love to issue a few well-worded degrees of excommunication. But until we learn together what it means to be the body of Christ, there will still be confusion over what actions place a member outside the community.

I don't believe there is room for all in the church. But I do believe that every rejection should also be an offer of reconciliation, a hand that holds at arms length but holds, waiting for the one sent away to return.

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Cavanaugh, William T. (1998) Torture and Eucharist Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

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