Msgr. Irwin: “Draft of bishops’ Eucharist document reflects 400-year-old theology”

In an extremely important commentary on the draft of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ proposed new document on the Eucharist in the National Catholic Reporter, highly respected liturgical expert Msgr. Kevin Irwin says that the document “reads as if it could have been created before the Second Vatican Council.” Irwin taught at the Catholic University of America and is the author of several significant books on liturgy, sacraments, and the environment.

Irwin wryly notes that the proposed title of the bishops’ document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” would more accurately be “The Mystery of the Sacrificial Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Species.”

Defending sacrifice and real presence were primary concerns of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, reflecting a certain defensiveness over against Protestant reformers.

While those doctrines are of course fundamental to Catholic sacramental theology, the Second Vatican Council drew on the preceding decades of theological renewal so as to retrieve a fuller – actually more traditional – understanding of the eucharistic mystery as the broader context for them.

Irwin charges that the draft document “is framed in a Tridentine framework, not a Vatican II framework.”

Missing, according to Irwin, are the richly multiple terms retrieved by Vatican II to name the Eucharist. Missing is any reference to the two parts of the Mass – Word and Eucharist – which according to the Council make up one act of worship. The document’s silence on the need for communal gathering in an individualistic and fractured society “leads to a pious individualism,” he writes.

Unmentioned is any reference to the multiple presences of Christ in the liturgical assembly – a key teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

The inclusion of eucharistic miracles in the document, according to Irwin, could lead a physical, rather than sacramental, understanding of the Eucharist. This understanding would actually be “heretical.”

Irwin concludes: “Perhaps it would be better for the bishops during their Nov. 15-18 meeting to decide to hire a new team of writers, with the hope of having a different draft of this text to review by next spring.”

Read Msgr. Irwin’s entire commentary here.

23 comments

  1. It is challenging to understand exactly what the Monsignor’s problem is here. This document quotes from Pope Francis, St. Paul VI, the reformed missal, the new Catechism, and, of course, the Vatican II documents themselves. Must it also extinguish any trace of Ss. John Chrysostom and Irenaeus before the Monsignor is fully satisfied?

    More confusing is that this document in no way leaves “unaddressed” the “Eucharist as communal action,” which it treats for four pages, beginning on page 9 (Communion with Christ and the Church). Nor can I understand the Monsignor’s “impression that adoration and the receiving of Communion is all that matters” when, from pages 16 to 18, it quotes from Pope Francis, the new Catechism, and Vatican II to explain how “the Eucharist commits us to the poor.”

    The most challenging of the Monsignor’s discrepancies is when he claims the discussion on the relationship between sin and reception represents “[a] disproportionate part of the document.” It’s four paragraphs, again quoting Pope Francis and the postconciliar Catechism. The Monsignor’s criticism on this point is troubling to me personally, because when I finally learned of this teaching as an adult, I felt as if it had been purposefully hidden from me, even by the more conservative Novus Ordo priests and bishops I encountered. It still remains a great mystery to me why the new lectionary removed St. Paul’s exhortation on this in 1 Cornthians 11:27-29 from the public worship of the Church, when it was ostensibly created to otherwise introduce *more* scripture into the liturgical cycle, not *less.*

  2. I’d like to see a text of this draft before commenting on it. I take nothing serious from an op-ed like this–not yet, anyway.

    I suspect the bishops who drafted the document may have been swayed by questionable recent polls on belief, presence, and the like. If the diagnosis is wrong, then the medicine prescibed will do no good.

    As for 1 Cor 11:27-29, perhaps wealthy suburban parishes would benefit more from the original criticism of neglect of the poor. The apostle was likely far less concerned about politicians. The foundational Biblical teachings on the Eucharist are to be found in the Last Supper narratives, in Luke 24:13-35, a few locations in Acts, and yes, even in that 1 Corinthians chapter, only in verses 23-26.

    I think a briefer document would be better than the longer. If we wanted an exhaustive treatment, we have the Catechism, right?

      1. Looked at the first 130-ish lines. I don’t really get Msgr Irwin’s problem, but likewise I don’t get the bishops either. It reads like a document they need rather than what the people need. It reads as very self-assuring, but they could’ve used a synod process to guide them. Maybe the 2023 version will be better.

    1. Bingo. They believe that poll implicitly, and are now convinced (and panic stricken) that Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence anymore. That’s the subtext.

      Todd is also right that 26 pages is too much.

      Given what they want to accomplish, bullet points would have been better. One page. Given to all persons in ministry, to implement as they see fit. Report back in a year and evaluate.

      1. The Pew survey from a number of years ago, which focused simply on belief, was pretty seriously flawed, but the more recent one measures both religious knowledge and belief. I think the data are something to be worried about at least a little bit, since I’d like to think that if a Catholic were presented with the (admittedly flawed; I know that Christ’s presence is both “real” and “symbolic”) stark either/or of “real” vs. “symbolic” they would have some idea that “real” would be the correct answer as regard to what the Church teaches.

      2. Thanks for the link to the newer survey, Fritz. I agree totally about that older survey. The newer one is somewhat better, and quite interesting with respect to religious literacy / information.

        I’m prepared to agree that there is widespread confusion out there over everything, really. There are a whole host of things people think the church teaches that it doesn’t teach. But I still think we should not rely on a survey to take the pulse on this issue, because surveys do not tell us what people actually think they are affirming or denying when they check those boxes. My hunch is that when they check “symbol” they are not denying the church’s teaching regarding sacramental presence. More likely, they are denying “physicalism.” You would need interview data to really find out.

      3. I saw the second survey and I still harbor some skepticism on what it means. At the risk of being catty, I’ve noticed our bishops can be a bit clumsy in theology–check their document on hymns and their treatment of Elizabeth Johnson. I’ll also comment that the much-maligned post-conciliar catechesis is mostly a fable too.

        My sense is that unless and until pastors take liturgy more seriously–give it the resources and effort deserving of the presence of Christ–that the Church in the US will be more successful in educating children, giving them opportunities in sports, Scouting, and service trips, maintaining our hospitals, colleges, high schools, etc..

        I wouldn’t want to say non-Eucharistic emphases are necessarily bad–just that they overshadow staff, budget, and focus of many, many priests. Even some bishops. I once served near the border of a midwestern archdiocese where the ordinary instructed new parishes to build schools before churches. Pragmatic and effective for maximizing parish rolls? Likely yes. But it tells you source and summit didn’t sink in at bishop school.

        I might suggest a different kind of survey to get at what’s really behind this supposed lack of belief. What if we surveyed people to compare parishes that invested well in worship versus parishes that did not?

  3. Worth noting there was a claimed eucharistic miracle in Buenos Aires while the now Pope Francis was in charge there, and he referred to it very positively as a “mark of the Lord” etc (without necessarily accepting its miraculous nature).

    While these kind of popular pieties are capable of being misunderstood, they are approved by the Church including under our present Pope, without that meaning anyone has adopted a “physical rather than sacramental” conception of the Eucharist.

    1. Miracles are precisely that: things eliciting wonder. They are exceptional cases and to use them to ‘prove’ dogmatic assertions is not a good idea. That’s probably why we are not obliged to ‘believe’ (whatever that means) them.

      AG

    2. This is a good point, Robert. Just so we’re attentive to the possible dangers of some people moving in the direction of that misunderstanding.
      awr

  4. I found the draft document lacking in a number of respects, and I think it was the omission of key elements of Eucharistic theology from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the ensuing magisterial documents concerning the liturgy that caused Msgr. Irwin to react as he did. He is right to criticize the absence of any meaningful reference to the Word, for example. The conciliar theology of the Mass must inform our thinking about what a Eucharistic revival means.

    What he did not mention, but which is shocking to me, is that there was only one glancing reference to the Paschal Mystery in the document. Arguably, this is the most fruitful and important theological concept of the liturgical reform, and it’s not even referenced.

    The idea of sacrifice, which is important, needs to be situated within the Pascha — Christ’s Passover and our Passing Over with him. The Paschal Mystery includes not only the cross, but also resurrection and glorification. Eucharist is a paschal sacrament. Nothing else can take the place of this idea. It is abundant in our liturgical texts and magisterial documents. Why not talk about it? We got as much attention to the Paschal Mystery as was given to Eucharistic Miracles — one glancing reference.

    The very Catechism from which the document so often quotes in other respects entitles its whole section on sacraments “The Sacramental Celebration of the Paschal Mystery.”

    The bishops’ document was crafted to be remedial. They think we don’t believe or know certain things, so they pound and cajole and enthuse around those things. Jesus is present in the Eucharist species. Eucharist is a sacrifice. Be conscious of sin. Go to confession. Adore the Blessed Sacrament. Do good works. Admire the saints. Go to Mass. Pay attention to what the priest says. No ecumenism, no Word, no Paschal Mystery, no Christ present in the worshipping assembly. Msgr. Irwin could have nuanced his remarks, because there is much good here, but basically he is right.

  5. I wish the US Bishops (and all of us) would re-read the Catechism of the Catholic Church paras 1391-1398 on the Fruits of Holy Communion. And then ask themselves if they think Catholics (or even they themselves) know and appreciate everything that is said there and understand what the implications are for all of us.

    Once we understand that the Eucharist is in fact the greatest sacrament of reconciliation, a lot of other things fall into place. Prating on about worthiness and treating it as a reward for club members will no longer do.

    And then I’d like them (and all of us to (re-)read Herbert McCabe’s masterful Eucharistic Change, available here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/9h6l1rg1olis0w9/21McCabeonEucharisttypocorrected.doc?dl=0
    and ask themselves/ourselves if they/we understand all that is said there, before suggesting that others do not believe what the Church teaches.

    It might be that the proposed new document is actually unnecessary.

  6. I just finished reading the draft document and I can identify with Msgr. Irwin’s characterization. This was clearly written by a theologian in a style of writing that the clergy and other well educated Catholics are used to. I humbly suggest that it needs to be re-written in the kind of language readily understood by the folks in the pews or run the risk of it barely being read at all.
    The document should state clearly that while Christ can be encountered anywhere, anytime, by anyone who is seeking him, in the Holy Eucharist is readily found in the people who are gathered together in his name, in his Living Word proclaimed through the scriptures, in the ministry of the bishop or priest who serves as an icon of Christ as the head of his body, and most importantly in the sacred food and drink by which we fulfill his commandment to take and eat, take and drink, do this in memory of me. Fine if one includes elucidating paragraphs that further quote scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the councils, and papal teachings. Fine to quote the passage from St. Paul which infers a prayerful process by which individuals examine their consciences before taking communion.

    Finally I was surprised to find a reference to the obligation to “attend” Mass. Isn’t the obligation, at least since the reformed liturgy, to participate fully, consciously, and actively. Is it not time to replace expressions like “saying Mass” and “saying prayers” to celebrating the Eucharist and praying prayers? I pray for a document that is clear and inspiring if it has much of a chance to be well received by the faithful.

    1. Isn’t the obligation, at least since the reformed liturgy, to participate fully, consciously, and actively.

      As a father of growing children, I certainly hope not. I attend Mass faithfully, but being able to participate “fully, consciously, and actively” is not always possible–often, helping a child follow along, or changing a diaper, or dealing with a child who has gotten upset for some unclear reason has to take priority.

      1. I remember from many years ago how challenging this can be! But I would now be tempted to characterise attending to the needs of children during the liturgy as very much full, conscious and active participation.

      2. I had a growing child once too. As a parish liturgist, my attention is also drawn out of the liturgy to priorities too. Thing is, participation is less something of exact dogmatism on every point and more one of invitation.

        For me, participation doesn’t begin at the entrance song, or even when I unlock the church building at 8:30 Sunday morning. It might begin on Tuesday when I field the intercessions my writers have crafted, and I begin to pray them and think about them, and make an edit here and there. At Mass, maybe I have a new lector, and I’m listening for presentation rather than entering into a reflection on Christ’s priesthood in the reading.

        Questions for the busy parent at Mass: are you not serving in the role of porter for your family? Preparing them at the doorway for the experience of worship–if not today, then some Mass in the future, next week or even in a few years? Do you not participate if you read the readings ahead of time? If you come early and catch a moment to look around your church before the kids start fussing?

        It is easy enough to mark participation by engaging one’s body or mind at every single moment. Full participation means more than the moment. Conscious means we have a will to engage the liturgy. Active participants are not continuous participants. These are misreadings of church teaching. We have to think of the long game.

    2. It’s true that the modern emphasis is on “participating in Mass” (Can. 1247: “Missam participandi”), which conveys a fuller understanding of what the faithful are meant to be doing. Yet this is not considered to render older terminology inadmissible, since the obligation to participate in Mass is satisfied by “a person who assists at a Mass” (Can. 1248.1: “Missae assistit”). Assistere has a semantic range that includes active involvement (assist, aid) but those meanings tend to be offered after renderings which are more reducible to the positional (stand near, attend). In other words, one could argue that the Church has shown a willingness to use “participate” and “attend” interchangeably in this context.

      Of course, the long-used parlance of “assisting” at Mass included an awareness that physical presence was a necessary but ultimately insufficient condition of fulfilling the commandment, just as the current emphasis on “participating” in Mass has not obviated the need for physical presence.

      1. For most people, the words “assist at Mass” would probably have connotations that it is someone else’s liturgy that you’re present at. Perhaps, therefore, a whiff of clericalism? The words “participate in the Mass” convey the idea of doing something in a liturgy which is yours just as much as everybody else’s.

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