Oct 15, 2009

Why Eucharistic Adoration Disturbs Some Liturgists

Online Edition: October 2009

Vol. XV, No. 7

Why Eucharistic Adoration Disturbs Some Liturgists

by James Hitchcock

The recent revival of eucharistic adoration has, predictably, caused alarm in those liturgical circles for whom not many things qualify as a sacrilege but for whom the “reform of the reform” is one.

Thus for the theologian Father Richard McBrien, “Notwithstanding Pope Benedict XVI’s personal endorsement of eucharistic adoration … it is difficult to speak favorably about the devotion today.” It is a “doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backwards” (National Catholic Reporter September 8, 2009 – http://ncronline.org/ blogs/essays-theology/perpetual-eucharistic-adoration).

The principal criticisms of adoration seem to be that historically it was a kind of alternative to the reception of Communion itself and that it rested on an ultimately heretical view of the sinfulness of human nature (Jansenism).

Historical Perspective

Frequent Communion seems to have been common in the early centuries, but it gradually diminished, the primary impetus for that decline being the heresy of the French monk Ratramnus (d. ca. 868), who distinguished Christ’s spiritual body from His physical body and held that He is present only “figuratively” in the Eucharist.

Ratramnus’s former teacher Radbertus (d. 860) countered that Christ’s body, as received by the faithful in the Eucharist, is the same body that was borne by Mary and died on the cross.

Thus the habit of infrequent Communion developed eight centuries before Jansenism, less from a pessimistic theology of human nature than from the fear that frequent Communion might deaden the communicants’ realization that they were receiving the actual Body of Christ.

After that a number of liturgical practices were intended to strengthen belief in the Real Presence: identification of the consecration as the exact moment when bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood; the elevation; the use of unleavened bread, to prevent crumbs; the practice of giving the laity unbroken hosts, for the same reason; allowing only clergy to touch the consecrated host and the sacred vessels; the confession “Lord, I am not worthy” before Communion; and reception of Communion on the tongue while kneeling.

It was considered meritorious merely to be in the presence of the eucharistic Christ, without necessarily receiving Communion, and throughout the Middle Ages the reception of Communion remained infrequent, even as eucharistic piety grew even more fervent, as in the great hymn of Saint Thomas Aquinas, O Salutaris Hostia, and the new feast of Corpus Christi, with its processions of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets.

The practice of exposing the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance (“showing”) was established in the thirteenth century, and gazing prayerfully at the sacred elements became a kind of “spiritual Communion” with Jesus in the soul. The Mass was not only a communal act of worship but a divine action that bestowed grace on the faithful even if they were not present.

The Council of Trent (1545-63), in the century previous to Jansenism, once again encouraged more frequent communion, but it also strongly reaffirmed the Real Presence and therefore eucharistic adoration.

In the Baroque architecture of the Counter-Reformation the high altar with tabernacle was the focus of the worshippers’ attentions. Churches were built without rood screens in front of the sanctuary, and with as few pillars as possible, in order not to interfere with the congregation’s view of the altar, the elevation, and the monstrance or the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved.

Far from being influenced by Jansenism, before there even was a man named Cornelius Jansen, the Catholic Reformation exalted eucharistic adoration in order to counter the Protestant denial of the Real Presence. Equally important, however, Trent also condemned precisely that highly pessimistic Protestant view of human nature that Jansenism came to embody.

Thus in the two centuries following Trent, such things as exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Forty Hours’ Devotion flourished completely independent of Jansenism and its quasi-Calvinist view of human unworthiness.

The Jansenists, beginning around 1620, did discourage frequent Communion, because they thought human beings wholly unworthy to approach the holy table. By contrast, two of the greatest saints of the era, Francis de Sales (d. 1622) and Vincent de Paul (d. 1660), advocated weekly Communion and broke with the Jansenists over precisely that issue.

Adoration Linked to Social Action?

Liturgist Nathan D. Mitchell now links Jansenism and eucharistic adoration by the kind of move that in introductory philosophy courses often serves as a textbook example of specious logic — Jansenists favored eucharistic adoration rather than frequent Communion, ergo anyone who favors adoration must also be a neo-Jansenist who opposes frequent Communion. (“The Amen Corner”, Worship, 83, 5, September 2009, pp. 457-71).
Above all Mitchell wants eucharistic piety to be socially conscious. But oddly, although Catholics over the centuries have engaged in often heroic efforts to alleviate poverty, illness, slavery, imprisonment, and every other kind of suffering, Mitchell makes no effort to discover what links those activities may have had with the Eucharist.

His only discussion of adoration prior to Jansenism is his claim that in the Middle Ages adoration was somehow intimately linked to service of the poor, a claim that his proffered evidence does not support. In keeping with current fashion, he prescinds from major figures like Saint Francis of Assisi in order to focus on two obscure women, neither of whom really serves his purpose.

One of his citations is of an anonymous English anchorite (religious hermit), someone who deliberately abandoned an active life for a purely contemplative one and thus could not have helped the poor directly. She was urged to pray for the needy at Mass, something that Mitchell seems to think was unique.

His second example is Mary of Oignies (d. 1213), a Fleming who, as Mitchell reports, was active with her husband in numerous charities. But Mitchell does not make clear that after her husband’s death she too became an anchorite and therefore she also gave up active works of charity. She received Communion frequently and had mystical experiences, but Mitchell’s brief account says nothing about eucharistic adoration.

Ironically, Mitchell’s two medieval women seem to show, if anything, that a cloistered life of prayer and adoration was valued above service to the needy.

Most of Mitchell’s effort goes into proving, once again, that Jansenism was, or could be, a serious distortion of Christianity. It would be convenient for his purposes if readers were to assume that the Jansenist texts he cites were typical of seventeenth-century Catholicism, hence that they underlay the spreading practice of eucharistic adoration, and readers unfamiliar with the subject have to read his article carefully to catch the fact that, far from having been approved by the Church, Jansenism was repeatedly condemned.

Adoration an “Extension of the Mass”

When Saint Pius X restored the practice of frequent Communion a century ago, he did not even faintly imply that it somehow dispensed with the merits of eucharistic adoration. At one time frequent Communion and eucharistic adoration may have been alternatives to one another, but today no one who promotes adoration even hints at such a thing. To the contrary, there is a high probability that those who practice adoration also attend Mass quite frequently and that they see adoration as the natural extension of the Mass itself. Whatever may have once been the case, the two are now united in happy harmony.

Mitchell’s chief worry is that “…one sometimes gets the impression that enthusiasm for practices like perpetual adoration … embody a flight from the world’s woes rather than proactive engagement in solving them.”

It is of course impossible to take responsibility for an “impression” that “one sometimes gets” without regard for evidence. (Ordinarily this is called prejudice.) And it is again odd that, anxious as he is to honor saintly women, Mitchell does not notice the intimate link that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta saw between adoration and works of charity.

If Mitchell’s warnings mean anything at all, they presumably mean that time spent in adoration of the Eucharist is time wasted, that it should be spent in social action. But such a crude quantitative understanding makes participation in liturgy of any kind (to say nothing of writing articles for liturgical journals) into a “flight” from reality.

The unsupported implication that those engaged in adoration of the Eucharist lack a social conscience, and that they may in fact be unwitting Jansenists, is merely another manifestation of the panic of the liturgical establishment, as the unchallenged dominance it enjoyed for forty years continues to break up.


James Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University and frequently writes on Catholic issues. Among his many works are The Recovery of the Sacred (1973; 1994) and The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (2004). He is currently writing a history of the Catholic Church.



James F. Hitchcock

James F. Hitchcock, emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University, which he attended as an undergraduate, received his masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University. An archive of various articles of his can be read here. Dr. Hitchcock has authored several books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life; The Recovery of the Sacred; What Is Secular Humanism; Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?; and History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium