Vol. VI, No. 4: June / July 2000
Adoremus Fifth Anniversary – June 29, 2000
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
Nathan Mitchell, associate director of the influential Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy, will be the speaker at “Eucharist 2000”, a day-long conference sponsored by the diocese of Erie to “explore how we celebrate and live Eucharist and how we might express it more fully”.
The conference, expected to attract between 2,000 and 3,000 people, will be held August 6, 2000 at Gannon University. It replaces a diocesan-wide Eucharistic Congress, postponed because the bishops of Pennsylvania have designated the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ as a statewide Eucharistic Congress in June 2001. In addition to Mitchell’s address, there will be a series of workshops, including three on music.
Erie Bishop Donald Trautman will preside at the closing Liturgy. Bishop Trautman is chairman-elect of the US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, member and former chairman of the Committee on the Liturgy, and a member of the Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations.
Bishop Trautman was also the keynote speaker at the Notre Dame Center’s 1997 annual liturgical conference where he was honored for his leadership in promoting “inclusive language” revisions to the Sacramentary and Lectionary.
Mitchell, a former Benedictine priest, will speak “on Eucharist and its connection to our everyday lives”, according to diocesan publicity.
Mitchell’s theology of Eucharist, priesthood
Some who attend “Eucharist 2000” may find Mitchell’s views on the Eucharist more puzzling than enlightening.
Mitchell’s theology of the Eucharist was the subject of his “Amen Corner” column in the March edition of the liturgical journal Worship (p. 173f). He defends ICEL, complains about “creeping capitalization” of sacred words like “transubstantiation”, and enthusiastically quotes Cardinal Roger Mahony’s pastoral letter, Gather Faithfully Together, on “collaborative ministries” at Mass:
The core of the ministry is the assembly. Now we have begun to grasp in what way the assembled Church, the Body of Christ, celebrates liturgy together with the presider.
Two years ago, Mitchell expounded his view of the priesthood and the Eucharist presented in the “courageous” Gather Faithfully Together — and sharply criticized the 1997 Vatican Instruction on roles for laity in the liturgy in his Amen Corner essay, “A Tale of Two Documents” (Worship, March 1998).
The Holy See’s Instruction, said Mitchell, “unintentionally, perhaps, secularizes the sacred ministry of ordained priesthood by adopting a model for its exercise based on the elitist, repressive strategies of totalitarianism”.
By using “absolutist models” for the ordained priesthood, he says, the Vatican “radically secularizes sacerdotal authority”, and “seeks to create a clergy immune from questioning, from criticism, from collaboration, and above all from ‘contagion’ by lay ministers”. Cardinal Mahony’s pastoral, on the other hand, fulfills the Second Vatican Council’s radical departure from the hierarchical “old Roman tradition” in rooting all “priesthood” in baptism, according to Mitchell.
This view of universal priesthood also affects church buildings. Those who “urge a return to preconciliar ‘sanctuary’ arrangements in the building or renovation of churches”, writes Mitchell, “might do well to ponder Cardinal Mahony’s words about the kind of floor plan that best enables the assembly and its ministries to fulfill their roles at Mass”.
“Fears and obsessions”
Mitchell says in his March Worship column that capitalizing words like “transubstantiation” expresses “fears and obsessions that ultimately erode faith and endanger ‘traditional doctrine'”, and calls it a “sudden mania”, prompted by “vigilantism”. (Mitchell sees this in the “Roman reaction” to ICEL’s work, but does not mention that among the vigilantes are several notable American prelates).
Commenting on the concept of transubstantiation, he says, “The ultimate goal of Eucharist is not to change bread but to change people, to transform the celebrating assembly into what it receives, viz., the body of Christ”.
Mitchell frequently cites the views of the well-known dissenting theologian Father Herbert McCabe, OP. “As McCabe puts it, in a succinctly evocative sentence, Christ is present to us because our language has become his body”, he writes. This statement does not “render that presence ‘merely subjective’ or ‘unreal’ “, Mitchell explains. “There is, after all, no such thing as purely private meaning; meaning ‘belongs to language itself'”.
What, one might ask, is the meaning that belongs (privately or publicly) to the meaning of the language itself in this severely deconstructed statement about the Body of Christ?
The sacraments, centering on Eucharist, are the language that makes a certain kind of society possible. That society, in turn, makes sacramental language both meaningful and distinctive precisely because [again quoting McCabe] “the society in question is the mystery of the People of God. The sacramental language is the language granted to us in which this mystery is to be expressed and lived out in human and material terms”.
Thus, Mitchell says, “to treat sacramental language as though it were merely a ‘litmus test of orthodoxy’ is manipulative, cynical and little short of sacrilegious.”
The Singer “Solution”
Mitchell returns to the theology of the Eucharist in his May column in Worship, this time in the context of what he deems the serious “ethical challenge” posed to Christians by Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer in a New York Times Magazine article last September, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”.
Singer is a notorious advocate of euthanasia and infanticide as necessary for population control. An Australian, Singer is founder of the International Association of Bioethics and the leading bioethicist at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. He first achieved prominence thirty years ago for a book, Animal Rights, based on a utilitarian view that some animals have more right to live than some humans.
Mitchell approvingly quotes Singer: “ethics is not the same thing as ‘a set of prohibitions … concerned with sex. There are more important ethical issues to be considered'”. Mitchell elaborates,
In light of the moral challenges posed by Peter Singer and [his ethicist-colleague] Peter Unger, one may ask a simple question: What if “charity” is not optional for Christians? What if (to use Unger’s example) we have no “right” to ignore the [UNICEF] appeal-envelope and toss it into the wastebasket? What if “doing” Eucharist is contingent upon what we “do” with the envelope?
Mitchell supplies the answer:
The greatest threat to Christian Eucharist is not “defective” theology, or noisy liturgies, or progressive pastors … [or] Catholics who agitate for perpetual adoration so they and their fellow-parishioners can “comfort the divine prisoner in the tabernacle”. The most serious threat to the Eucharist is the ethical emptiness, the moral absurdity, of most of our so-called “liturgical” and “sacramental” agendas, [such as the difference] between priest and people in liturgical acts.
What about the “ethical emptiness, the moral absurdity” of Peter Singer’s deadly view that infanticide is not only permissible but may be a moral imperative? Although he mentions that Singer is “controversial”, Mitchell never alludes to the reason why. What was his purpose in choosing Singer as an example of Christian charity?
If Mitchell finds Singer’s suggestion that we could save children’s lives by giving up luxuries so compelling that it blinds him to Singer’s utterly chilling theories about infanticide, why is he silent about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on building new churches (or “updating” old ones) in order to conform to the theological views of liturgists like himself?
Radical equality, radical theology
Mitchell’s apparent endorsement of Peter Singer’s radically “anti-hierarchical” ethics, which refuses to distinguish human life from animal life, may stem from his own radically egalitarian theology of the Eucharist and of his rejection of any distinction between the ordained priesthood and “lay ministers” or among the many “presences” of Christ in the Eucharist.
In his May Worship column, Mitchell again quotes Father McCabe, “Christ has more right to be called food than bread does” (whatever that may be intended to mean), then asks, rhetorically,
But when are we going to give up the childish fantasy that Christ’s real presence in the consecrated species means we somehow have him “trapped” or “imprisoned” in bread, in wine — or, for that matter, in the assembly?;
It is nothing short of heretical to suggest that real presence means God has at last been corralled, controlled, and confined by our sacramental “ingenuity”. Real presence, as Catholic tradition has understood it for centuries, means that Christ continues giving life to the world by giving himself to the world. He gives that life abundantly, lavishly, promiscuously — in us, as us…. Jesus is the one who becomes the very people he saves — the body of Christ, member for member.
Will the Catholics of Erie who attend the “Eucharist 2000” conference find their understanding of the Eucharist deepened and strengthened by Nathan Mitchell’s opinions?