Right now the sacrament of communion (Eucharist) is in the news, because the American Catholic bishops are deciding whether President Biden, a Catholic, should be denied communion because of his position on a woman's right to choose. So I'll blog about communion.
Its origins of course are clear in the New Testament, which is why it's found, in one version or another, in all Christian denominations. The Last Supper, the evening before the Crucifixion, Jesus is recorded as saying, "This is my body," while picking up a piece of bread, and, "This is my blood," in relation to wine, urging his followers to eat and drink in memory of him.
Now of course this could be interpreted in lots of different ways, including the fairly simple idea of his followers getting together for a meal in which they would share what they had and talk and remember. But the version that came to dominate western theology was the doctrine that bread and wine could become the literal flesh and blood of Christ (while still looking and seeming in every respect like bread and wine).
This got early Christians accused of being cannibals, and throughout the Middle Ages there were miracle stories about bleeding communion wafers. But the theological decision, confirmed at the 1215 Lateran Council, was that the bread and wine underwent "transubstantiation" when consecrated during the Mass, changing their substance to the actual crucified body and blood of Christ (while continuing to look and taste like bread and wine), so that Christians could partake in Christ's sacrifice.
It was considered important, as the same council confirmed, that all Christians should take communion at least once a year. (Priests and monks might do so daily.) But there was concern that regular folks might dribble the wine on the floor, or even try to chug the whole chalice, neither of which was appropriate. So it was decided that for ordinary people just the wafer (bread) would do, because after all a person's body has blood in it, so "the body" would already include blood.
Not everyone agreed with this by any means. A heresy grew up (which, like all good heresies, considered itself true Christianity and everyone else heretics), called the Utraquists. This odd word comes from the Latin utraque, meaning "both," because they wanted to be able to receive communion in "both kinds," both bread and wine. This religious heresy got wrapped up with the efforts of Bohemians in the late Middle Ages to free themselves from the Holy Roman Empire and the emperor's betrayal of John Hus, the Utraquists' leader, burned at the stake in 1415 at the Council of Constance.
In more recent years, the Catholic church has gone back since the 1960s to allowing ordinary folk to sip the wine. Some Protestant congregations substitute grape juice; those that stick with wine have allowed everyone to have wine since the Protestant Reformation. (And in medieval Scandinavia, where wine was hard to get, beer was often treated as an acceptable substitute.) There has been concern however that Catholic parishioners might drop the bread, so it was common until recently for them just to open their mouth and have a bit of wafer placed on their tongue by a priest.
But back to Joe Biden. The Catholic bishops are still in the drafting stage, and their official comments so far do not specifically refer to the president. Besides, whether or not he could receive communion would be up to his local bishop (who supports him), rather than the bishops collectively. (This is different from the Middle Ages, when bishops all tried to act collectively.)
But I guess if he were refused communion he would be excommunicated. That's what the word means, to be cast out of the community of the church, and it's extremely serious, what one might call the "nuclear option." Now in fact the American Catholic bishops are not going to really excommunicate him, which would entail telling all Catholics not to associate with him, and any church to lock its doors and cover the altars with black cloths if he tried to get in. Someone who dies excommunicate goes straight to hell. But someone who has committed a sin for which they have yet to perform confession and penance is not supposed to take communion (although they can go to church), which is what the bishops are advocating.
© C. Dale Brittain 2021
For more on medieval religion and other aspects of medieval social history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms. Also available in paperback.