texte intégral de la conférence donnée par William Cavanaugh à Lyon en 2016.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, Lyon, France, November 9, 2016

William T. Cavanaugh, DePaul University


There is a community of people on the outskirts of Manila in the Philippines who live on the edge of a garbage dump and make their living by scavenging whatever can be sold out of the things that other people have thrown away. When Father Danny Pilario says Mass for people in this community, he says that the sign of the cross he makes over the Eucharistic elements serves a dual purpose: to consecrate the elements, and to brush away the flies from the chalice. Just as there is a close connection here between the sacred and the profane, so Father Pilario sees a close connection between the Eucharist he celebrates with the community and the political work they do together to improve the lives of the people there.

To talk about Eucharist and politics we must bring together two things that are usually kept apart in the social imagination of the modern state. In a militantly secular state like contemporary France, these two terms fall on opposite sides of the impregnable wall that separates a series of well-known binaries: church and state, private and public, religion and politics, and so on. The wall seems impregnable, as if it were made of brick and mortar, a place that one could visit, snap a selfie in front of it, and post the picture on Facebook. But the wall between church and state, religion and politics, does not exist in nature; it exists in the social imagination, that is, the way we perceive things to be. The wall, of course, has real, tangible effects in the social life of the nation; it is enshrined in laws of all kinds, for example. But we tend to regard these binaries as if they were simply part of the nature of things, as if religion and politics, for example, were two substances like potassium and water, which are not only separate things but explode when mixed. In reality, however, the categories of religion and politics are imagined, and the boundaries between them are the product of human imagination. Tonight I want to talk about a different kind of imagination, God’s imagination, as expressed in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a way of constructing a different kind of world, a world redeemed. The Eucharist is not inherently distinct from politics; it is rather a kind of politics, a way of ordering the world that draws the world into the very life of the Trinity through the body of Christ.

The imagination of these binaries produces a number of challenges for the Catholic Church in a secular society. The most obvious is that Catholics are expected to keep their convictions private and not allow them to interfere with their public lives, either in the workplace or in political life. The source of this demand that faith be kept private is the secularist belief that religion is a primary source of division and violence. Beyond recent concerns about the violence of certain forms of militant Islamism, there is a more basic secularist conviction that all types of religion are inherently prone to violence because there is no way that reason can adjudicate between essentially irrational beliefs. Even more basic is the secularist fear that we cannot disagree, in any fundamental way, without killing one another.

The story is told that people used to agree on fundamental matters, before the Protestant Reformation introduced disagreement and violence into European society. The solution to Catholics and Protestants killing each other was to privatize religion and unite people in public around their devotion to the nation-state. I have criticized this tale on historical grounds in my book The Myth of Religious Violence, pointing out, for example, that many Catholics killed Catholics and Protestants killed Protestants in the so-called “wars of religion,” and that the rise of devotion to the nation-state was a cause of—not the solution to—the wars in question. The problem, however, is not just with the way we tell the history but with the way we imagine society to be now. We think that we cannot fundamentally disagree on religious matters in public without violence, so we make the nation-state our new religion. We regard our nationality as our primary identity and our Catholicism becomes secondary, something relegated to the private realm, like a hobby. We are willing to kill and die for our country, but suffering for one’s faith is considered fanatical. Conscientious objectors in the workplace are considered bad citizens. We are urged to leave our faith behind when we enter the public realm of work or politics. There is no apparent connection between Eucharist and politics, for example, and this produces a further divide among types of Catholics: there are those Catholics who are involved in social justice and those Catholics who are invested in Eucharistic adoration and other kinds of devotional life, but it is too rare to find Catholics who are engaged in both simultaneously. Some Catholics see Christ in the Eucharistic host, and some see Christ in the refugee from the Middle East, but the two sometimes seem to live in parallel churches.

Is it possible to do Eucharist and politics at the same time? Is it possible to imagine a world where people can be different and disagree without violence? Is it possible to bring God’s imagination, the Eucharist, out of the confines of the church building and into the public realm?   I will discuss what politics means first, and then examine the Eucharist as source of God’s healing presence in the world.

  1. What is politics?

When we use the term “politics” today, we tend to refer to elections and the influencing of those who have already been elected. Max Weber gave the modern definition in his famous address “Politics as a Vocation” when he said “We wish to understand by politics only the leadership, or the influencing of the leadership, of a political association, hence today, of a state.” He defined the state, in turn, as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” This is not the only way of defining politics, however. Aristotle defines politics based on its end or goal: “the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions » (Ethics 1099b30). Politics is defined here not as a monopoly of force used to protect individuals from each other, but as a practice that makes people good. Politics furthermore does not view the individual as its basic unit; Aristotle writes of a “body politic.” The individual’s relationship to the city or polis, from which our term “politics” comes, is like the relationship of a hand to a whole body. The individual member receives life by participation in the whole body: « if the whole [body] is destroyed there will not be a foot or a hand » (Politics 1253a20).

If this sounds familiar, it may be because you are thinking of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul draws on the Greek imagery of the body politic to describe the Church as the body of Christ. “There are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (I Cor. 12:20-1). For Paul, the Church is a kind of politics in Aristotle’s sense of a community with a common end and common goods that gives life to its individual members. For Aristotle, however, the body analogy demanded that—just as the head governs the body—a limited class of people would rule. Citizenship was limited to propertied men; women, children, slaves, resident foreigners, and many laborers were excluded. Paul, on the other hand, envisions a new type of body in which participation is offered to all. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Not only are the weakest members not excluded from citizenship or membership in the body, but there is a preferential option for the weakest in the body: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor” (I Cor. 12:22-23). Paul takes the body analogy even further by implying that a kind of nervous system connects all the members, for “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (I Cor. 12:26). The common end that holds the body together is the love of God.

If it seems a stretch to call this body political, consider the term that Paul and the early Church more generally chose to name the Church: ekklesia in Greek. The word is borrowed from Greek political discourse, in which the ekklesia was the gathering of all those who had the rights of citizens in the city-state. The Church did not use the term koinon, which referred to a private association or club. Why not? Because the church claimed to be a fully “public” gathering concerned with the whole of life. At the same time, it was wider than an earthly polis; it was an anticipation of the eschatological gathering of the people of God. As scripture scholar N.T. Wright says, Paul’s missionary work

implies a high and strong ecclesiology in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men, and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises (cf. Rom. 15:7-13). From this point of view, therefore, this counterempire can never be merely critical, never merely subversive. It claims to be the reality of which Caesar’s empire is the parody; it claims to be modeling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and peace, and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which Caesar’s empire boasted.

The point is that the early Christians thought of the Church as a kind of political body, not the same as a Greek polis or city, but as an anticipation of a different kind of city, the City of God, as St. Augustine would write. The Church was meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly city that descends to earth in the last chapter of the book of Revelation. The Church is not simply concerned with giving people a ticket to another world but with the transformation of this world, a new heavens and a new earth, the anticipation of which is a body of people who order material life in a new way.

Eucharist as politics

If politics can be understood in this broader way, then we can begin to see how the Eucharist can be understood as a politics. The Eucharist is the incorporation of the person into a new kind of body politic through an act of bodily consumption. In a move that must have seemed exceedingly odd and even perverse to the Greeks, the body of Christ was identified with both the corporate person of the church and the food upon which the members of the church fed. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor. 10:16-17).   By eating the Lord’s body, we become assimilated to the Lord’s body, consumed by what we consume.

For Paul, this assimilation has direct social effects. In the following chapter of 1 Corinthians, he chastises the Christian community for the way that the rich eat well but the poor go hungry when they come together to celebrate the Eucharist. Paul calls this a failure to “discern the body,” referring to the body of Christ in both the consecrated bread and the Church community. He says that in their Eucharistic celebrations they may be “eating and drinking their own damnation,” and even suggests that the Eucharist may be killing some of them! (I Cor. 11:27-34) For Paul, the type of corporate person that the body of Christ called into being was clearly a challenge to existing social, economic, and political stratification.

The great French Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac wrote that for the early Church the Eucharist was “more of an action than a thing.” By this he certainly did not mean that the early Church denied the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. But the presence of Christ was seen as a dynamic rather than a static thing, primarily expressed in the action of gathering bodies into the body of Christ. For this reason, the Church was known as the corpus verum, the “true body” of Christ, in the early Church. The true body was the effect of the sacramental action: “the Eucharist makes the Church” in de Lubac’s famous phrase. The Eucharist is the effective sign of the union of peace and charity toward which humanity is reaching. But according to de Lubac, this reality became obscured starting in the late middle ages, when the Eucharist came to be seen as more of a thing than an action. The elements were now referred to as the corpus verum, and Eucharistic piety became focused on the miracle at the altar. The Church became increasingly clericalized, and laypeople avoided frequent communion, in part because they felt unworthy of such a miracle.

All of this is documented in great detail in de Lubac’s book Corpus Mysticum, which was published in 1944 in the midst of World War II. It may seem frivolous that de Lubac was working on a history of some medieval theological concepts while the world around him burned. But there is ample evidence that he intended the book to be a contribution to the effort to resist Nazi occupation. De Lubac refused to join the Free French armed resistance against the Vichy regime, because he feared the direct involvement of the Church in nation-state politics. He did, however, assist in the publication of an underground journal that showed the incompatibility of Nazi ideology with Christian thought. “It is now clear,” writes David Grumett, “that the context, motivation and implications of de Lubac’s theology are profoundly political.” This is true if “politics” is understood in a broader sense than the pursuit of power in the state apparatus.

De Lubac was fighting a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, he wanted to resist the co-opting of the Catholic Church in support of nationalistic politics, as was the case with Action Française, which attracted a lot of Catholic support before its condemnation by Pope Pius XI in 1926. He did not want to “lower [the Church]… to the ranks of the powers of this world.” On the other hand, he wanted to resist the privatization of Catholicism, the reduction of the Eucharist to individualistic piety, which he thought allowed Catholics to collaborate with the Vichy regime, because they separated their faith from their politics. He wrote that “in reality Catholicism is essentially social,” and he rejected the privatization of the faith in the following terms: “Since the supernatural is not separated from nature, and the spiritual is always mixed with the temporal, the Church has eminent authority—always in proportion to the spiritual element present—over everything, without having to step out of her role.” De Lubac’s work on the Eucharist in the midst of the war was an attempt to forge a third way between the pursuit of power and influence over nation-state politics on the one hand, and the privatization and political irrelevance of the Catholic faith on the other.

I think that de Lubac’s work is useful for helping us envision bringing the Eucharist out of the confines of the church building and making the body of Christ happen in the world, in the form of communities that anticipate the Kingdom of God. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Eucharist “is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation.” The Eucharist thus “increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today.” Here John Paul II echoes a major theme of the twentieth century liturgical movement: worship should continue in the streets and the marketplace, at work and at home. Christian life was to be an unceasing act of worship. More recently Pope Francis told a World Youth Day audience in Rio de Janeiro “I want the Church to go out into the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.” But Pope Francis made it clear at the same time that the Church has something unique to bring when it goes out; it is not just another social service agency or political party. “The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going out … if they don’t, they become an NGO, and the Church cannot be an NGO.” What the Church has to offer the world is the body of Christ.

What does this vision of the Eucharist in the streets look like in practice? I will give two examples from different contexts. As I describe in my book Torture and Eucharist, the military regime in Chile—where I lived in a slum in the 1980s—was determined to repress all social bodies that stood between the individual and the state: political parties, labor unions, peasant cooperatives, and, last but not least, church movements. They used torture as a way of scattering people, making them too fearful to gather. The Church responded by excommunicating torturers and anyone responsible for torture, excluding them from the Eucharist because they were attacking the body of Christ, both individual bodies and social bodies. The Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity sponsored social bodies under the Church’s protection: health clinics, legal clinics, soup kitchens, buying cooperatives, house-building projects, women’s groups, self-employment workshops, sewing cooperatives, and a host of other spaces to gather. A group called the Sebastian Acevedo Movement also started doing street liturgies. At a prearranged signal, members of the group – mostly priests, nuns, and Catholic laypeople, but also including nonbelievers – would gather, hand out leaflets, unfurl banners, sing, and chant litanies denouncing the torture being performed in that very place. These liturgies were intended to perform the body of Christ in public spaces from which the body of Christ had been disappeared. Members of the group suffered in their own bodies the violence of the regime, as they were usually beaten and arrested. As one observer put it, “their bodies are transformed into powerful flesh for the sacrifice in which they lovingly receive the Eucharist with those who suffer.” In a sense, they became Eucharist by uniting their bodies in sacrifice with the body of Christ.

A second example comes from Africa, where Maggy Barankitse has gathered children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide—both Hutu and Tutsi—and is raising them to ignore their ethnicity and consider their identity as part of God’s one family. This is a profoundly political act. Barankitse’s Maison Shalom is involved in setting up businesses and providing education, but it is centered on the Eucharist, which Barankitse calls “a spirituality that includes everything.” In 2008, Barankitse addressed the forty-ninth Eucharistic Congress in Quebec and called on the bishops and other delegates gathered there to “have the courage to lose our heads in the Eucharist,” which means recovering our true identities as reconciled people. As Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole has written, “the blood of Eucharist is thicker than the blood of tribalism… Could there be a clearer exemplification of de Lubac’s claim of Eucharist as action and Eucharist as politics than Maggy’s Maison Shalom?”

Eucharistic politics in France

These examples are inspirational, but they raise the question of how de Lubac’s claim about the Eucharist might be exemplified here in his native France. I am not an expert on the French context, but I offer the following thoughts as an outside observer.

There is, of course, an important role to play for Catholics in the political life of the nation-state. Catholics who run for public office or support various candidates in an effort to influence state policies can have an important leavening and even prophetic role to play in national politics. The situation can be difficult in France because of a kind of militant secularism that pushes traditional religious faith to the margins. But France is not alone in this regard. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, neither the modern state nor the market accommodates the principles of gratuitousness and love that should characterize not only “micro-relationships” among family and friends but “macro-relationships” at a wider social, political, and economic level. Benedict suggests we respond by thinking of politics in broader terms than the nation-state. He recommends what he calls a “dispersed political authority,” “the development of other political players, of a cultural, social, territorial or religious nature, alongside the State,” and the “articulation of political authority at the local, national and international levels.” We can create alternative communal spaces where God’s imagination can create a new kind of politics, a Eucharistic politics.

Recent popes have asked us to think at levels both above and below the nation-state. To think above the state, or at the international level, is to see that the body of Christ transgresses national boundaries, and to recognize that the Church is called to be truly catholic, embracing all peoples. Pope Francis’ call for each parish in Europe to take in a refugee family from the Middle East is one example of how a truly catholic imagination of the body of Christ can exercise charity that sees beyond national interest. To think below the state, or at the local level, is to see that the body of Christ is about face to face encounters with real persons in whom we see the face of Jesus Christ. We cannot simply delegate care for our neighbors in need to a bureaucratic welfare state. As necessary as a safety net can be, it is not the Kingdom of God. We are to care for one another directly, and not leave others at the mercy of what Pope Benedict calls the “exclusively binary model of market-plus-State” in which there is only “giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law).” Benedict recommends participation at the local level, direct care for the poor, micro-finance and other business models—like Fair Trade, the Mondragón cooperative, Focolare’s Economy of Communion, and others—that put people above profit. Benedict makes clear that he does not simply want to create niches of charity but to infuse the entire social, political, and economic system with the love of God. The earthly city, he writes, can be “to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.

The overall vision, then, is one in which the definition of “politics” is broadened to include all kinds of alternative communal spaces where a Eucharistic imagination of the world can be enacted. Unless we break out of the discipline of binaries like private/public, religion/politics, religious/secular, and Church/state, however, this vision can be easily misunderstood: we think that either we must seek to impose this vision on the rest of the nation through the mechanism of the state, or we think that creating alternative communal spaces means withdrawing from participation in the rest of society. The former is an outdated form of theocracy, the latter is an act of despair. In the United States today, many Christians debate what is being called the “Benedict Option,” a reference to St. Benedict of Nursia. The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre closed his famous book After Virtue by calling for “a new, and doubtlessly very different, St. Benedict.” Some Catholics have taken him to mean that we are in a new Dark Ages and we must withdraw from society, like the medieval monks did, into enclaves of like-minded people, in order to preserve what is left of Catholic culture. They forget, however, that monasteries became the new centers of civilization in the so-called Dark Ages. And, as Catholic theologian Gerald Schlabach has recently argued, St. Benedict’s vow of stability that he required of all monks runs counter to the present-day urge to flee the company of others with whom we disagree.

Today, the urge to withdraw from society into enclaves of like-minded people is not counter-cultural but is in fact a dominant trend in Western culture. With so many news sources available now, we have a tendency to listen only to news and commentary that we already agree with. We seek out the company of those who agree with our political views or who already share our faith commitments, and we demonize those with whom we differ or disagree; we merely shout slogans at them from afar. We avoid true dialogue and respectful disagreement because we fear the other, and because we fear that we cannot truly and fundamentally disagree without violence. A different kind of “Benedict Option” would take the vow of stability seriously, and refuse to flee from those who are different and who might disagree with us. Staying put, listening, learning from others while witnessing to our faith—this is what is called for now. And this requires breaking down those private/public, religious/secular, religion/politics binaries, because we have to be willing to speak of our faith in Jesus Christ in public, even if we know that others do not share our convictions. Rather than reserve the Gospel and Eucharist for Sundays and speak only secular language on Monday through Saturday, we are called to bring our faith out of its confinement and into dialogue with others who disagree. This is part of what Pope Francis means by taking the Church into the streets.

In order to be faithful witnesses, however, we have to be attractive to other people. We will not be leaven for the Kingdom of God simply by complaining about the confinements of secular society, or condemning the culture of death, or by demanding that the state enforce our vision of love, or by trying to out-argue our opponents. We need to create communities of people who live joyful lives, who live as if God has already saved the world, because we are confident that God has in fact already saved the world. We need to create communities of healing and mercy, where material suffering is alleviated and sins are forgiven. We need to create new economic spaces where people, not profit, come first. We need to make clear that we do what we do in the world because we have been incorporated by the Eucharist into the body of Christ, where all suffer together and all rejoice together. We sometimes put so much emphasis on truth and goodness that we forget the third transcendental, beauty. We need to create beautiful lives that will attract other people. Scripture scholar Gerhard Lohfink says that attraction to beauty is how God changes the world without violence. Human revolutionaries are short on time and need to change the world by overthrowing the powers with grand acts of violence. God, on the other hand, changes the world patiently and non-violently, by establishing a community of people who live reconciled lives. God then invites people to come and see and join this beautiful movement. The Catholic Church in France is in some ways ideally poised between a militant atheism on the one hand and a militant Islamist fundamentalism on the other to display a beautiful way of life that says “yes” to God’s gifts without basing our identity on saying “no” to other people.

Creating Eucharistic communities is not a matter of creating enclaves by Catholics and for Catholics only. All people, as Dorothy Day liked to remind the Catholic Worker movement, are either members or potential members of the body of Christ, which is truly cosmic in scope. Indeed, the body of Christ has a way of scrambling our preconceived notion of identity, for Christ in the Eucharist is simultaneously the gift, the giver, and the recipient. We eat the body of Christ, and then we are turned into the body of Christ; the act of consumption is turned inside out, such that, as St. Augustine hears Christ say, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” But this also means that we in turn become food for other people; we offer ourselves to be consumed by a hungry world. We thus follow God’s act of kenosis, or self-emptying, in Jesus Christ who, Paul tells the Philippians, did not regard equality with God as something to be held onto, but took the form of a slave (Phil. 2:6-7).

But Jesus’ narration of the final judgment in Matthew 25 makes the boundaries of the body of Christ even more paradoxical. Jesus offers salvation to those who, when he was hungry gave him food, and when he was thirsty, gave him drink, and when he was in prison, came to visit him, and so on. We tend to read this passage and acknowledge that we should serve the poor in order to be Christ-like. But here Christ does not identify himself with those who serve but rather with those who are hungry and sick and naked and in prison. Here the body of Christ is identified with all those who suffer. The point is that the boundaries of the body of Christ are not fixed and immutable, and are not simply identified with the boundaries of the visible Church. The Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church, but rather than causing us to draw borders around the Church and become closed in on ourselves, it should encourage us to reach out, as Pope Francis calls us to do. In the Eucharist we become Christ, who becomes both food for the poor and becomes the poor. We are the body of Christ only insofar as we become beggars for the daily bread that Christ gives.

This vision of God’s imagination means that we need not draw tight borders around the Church; we should reach out and collaborate with those of all faiths and none in witnessing to a redeemed world. But this should not mean that we diminish the importance of our own faith when we do so, or cease to give reason for the faith that is in us. Dorothy Day understood this years ago when she wrote “if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives.” She was convinced that we could not get to the root of modern society’s ills until people believed that they were truly members of one another. She worked tirelessly against war, for the dignity of workers, against racism, and in favor of cooperatives and credit unions and farming communes and houses of hospitality for homeless people. And she understood all of this as flowing from the vision of the body of Christ. She wrote “This work of ours toward a new heaven and a new earth shows a correlation between the material and the spiritual, and, of course, recognizes the primacy of the spiritual. Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. Hence the leaders of the work, and as many as we can induce to join us, must go daily to Mass, to receive food for the soul. And as our perceptions are quickened, and as we pray that our faith be increased, we will see Christ in each other, and we will not lose faith in those around us, no matter how stumbling their progress is.” Dorothy Day knew that Catholics’ activism must be nourished by the Eucharist or else it quickly runs out, as people become burned out and discouraged by the massive injustices of the world.

Dorothy Day knew as well that if God does not change the world, the world will not be changed. Our hope is in God, not our own efforts. “What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest…Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.” Violence comes from the fearful illusion that there is no God, and that we must take charge of history and make it come out right. But for those of us who believe in the God of Jesus Christ, we can relax into the hopeful love that God has promised us. God is in charge of history. We are not called to save the world, but to be faithful to the way that God is saving the world. In the Eucharist, God takes “the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands” and turns it into Godself, the very body of Christ. This is enough. In the Eucharist, God imagines a new earth in which all come to see that they are members of Christ’s very body, and share each other’s joys and sorrows. We are called to live in God’s imagination, to be nourished by it, and to offer that nourishment to a hungry world.