A Response to Msgr. Irwin

At least in my social media feeds, Msgr. Irwin’s critique of the draft of the U.S. Bishops’ document on the Eucharist has been widely read, and in most cases seen as confirming people’s prior suspicions that this would be a retrograde document, poison fruit from the poison tree of culture war battles over abortion, politics, and communion. Of course, the document doesn’t mention abortion or President Biden, so the particular form this critique has taken is the claim that the document reflects a pre-Conciliar, Tridentine theology of the Eucharist. I hope anyone who reads the actual draft of the document on the Eucharist will wonder what document Msgr. Irwin is talking about.

First, last I checked Trent was a Council of the Church (and, in my judgment, a rather splendid one that bore much good fruit), so associating something with that council should not itself be disqualifying—just as describing someone’s Trinitarian theology as “Nicene” should be seen as a compliment, not a criticism. But in this case it is not even accurate. The Council of Trent is cited three times, while the document quotes copiously from Vatican II, post-Vatican II documents, as well as from the reformed liturgy itself. The only scholastic theologian cited is Thomas Aquinas (twice, I believe), while patristic sources are cited seven times. The figure most cited is Pope Francis (Church documents often seem to want to curry favor with the current boss). Of course, counting citations only tells us so much. But they suggest that Msgr. Irwin’s statement that “the document reads as if it could have been created before the Second Vatican Council” could only be the result of inattentive reading. In both tone and content it is far more reminiscent of the documents of Vatican II than of Trent.

Msgr. Irwin rightly notes that a pressing question today is “why should we gather for the Eucharist as a communal action in a world that is dominated by ‘the self,’ ‘mine’ and ‘me?’” But then he says that this issue is unaddressed by the bishops’ document, which he claims is individualistic in its focus, “leaving the impression that adoration and the receiving of Communion is all that matters.” This is an exceedingly curious charge, since the draft contains an entire section on the communal dimensions of the Eucharist, which says (among other things): “The Sacrament of the Eucharist is called Holy Communion precisely because, by placing us in intimate communion with the sacrifice of Christ, we are placed in intimate communion with him and, through him with each other.” The document also points to the social dimension of the Eucharist, stating:

Our relationship to Christ is not restricted to the private sphere. The very solidarity or communion in Christ’s self-giving love that makes the Church and makes us members of the Church orders us beyond the visible community of faith to all human beings whom we are to love with the very same love that forms our communion with the Lord. Otherwise, if we do not love all human beings in this way, our communion with the Lord is impaired or even contradicted.

The document also connects the Eucharist to the preferential option for the poor, opposition to structural sins like racism, and the growth of “throwaway culture” (hardly major Tridentine themes).

Msgr. Irwin also faults the document for using terms “transubstantiation,” “real presence” and “venial sin,” suggesting that these terms would be unfamiliar to the target audience. But this is, after all, a Roman Catholic teaching document on the Eucharist and I don’t think it is too much to ask the Roman Catholic faithful to be at least familiar with these terms, which are explained in the document.

A particularly puzzling part of Msgr. Irwin’s review is his objection to the mention of eucharistic miracles. Simply reading his review one might get the impression that the document includes extensive discussion of these, when in fact it mentions Eucharistic miracles once and in passing, in the context of talking about the life the recently beatified Carlo Acutis, who created a website on the topic. Msgr. Irwin seems to think that even a passing mention of Eucharistic miracles opens the door to heretical “physicalist” views of the Eucharist. But while Eucharistic miracles, like the Eucharist itself, can be given a heretical interpretation, there is nothing heretical per se about them.

I could go on, but will spare you. Read the draft yourself. It is not perfect by any means and Msgr. Irwin points to some legitimate weaknesses. It does, as Msgr. Irwin mentions, seem to be somewhat unbalanced, focusing perhaps more than is warranted on the topic of worthiness to receive the Eucharist, but given its origins in debates over the politics of communion this is perhaps to be expected, and we might be rather grateful that this discussion is couched in rather general terms. Moreover, in their concern over worthiness to share in the Lord’s Supper the bishops are in good company: St. Paul (no Tridentine Catholic he) was rather concerned about this issue. The issue of audience that Msgr. Irwin raises is also legitimate: for whom exactly is this intended? But to my mind this is always an issue with Church documents. It is hardly likely that those who have stopped gathering for the Eucharist will ever lay eyes on this. But if they do, they will encounter the current teaching of the Church on the Eucharist, not a “Tridentine” relic of the past.

7 comments

  1. ” . . . in most cases seen as confirming people’s prior suspicions”

    Which, as we should know by now, is the principle function of social media, which is an electronic selection bias/confirmation bias generator and amplifier. Pauline Kael should be glad she predated it.

  2. I do like the aside on St Paul “(no Tridentine Catholic he)” Well. No “Catholic” at all, since the use of that word for the Church had not come into use yet. So history counts. The Council of Trent is very interesting, and surprising, too. But the point about this right now is the notion that the Church which followed that council cannot be surpassed. Was Vatican II an improvement on Trent –for our day– or was it a diluting of the fullness of dogma? That is still the issue fought out now.

    1. I think competitive-minded people think in terms of improvement, surpassing things, etc.. The Christian view is that we are on a pilgrimage in this life. Certainly people need to stop to rest, eat, party, take stock, and plan. In the long run, walking is better than sitting. Vatican II represents that the Body has made a journey since Trent. If some are still fighting, let’s be clear on what that tussle is. Is it about going this road or that road, both paths leading ahead to new ground? Or is it an argument about walking versus congratulating ourselves while sitting on our butts?

  3. There were teaching documents which emerged from Trent and Vatican II. Since they are conciliar teachings affirmed by the popes at the time, they contain insights that allow us to grow in our faith. But they approach important matters such as worship from different historical, cultural, and theological perspectives. After reading both councils’ teaching about worship and real presence and priesthood can there be any doubt that there are distinct differences. Trent spoke of the need for promulgating a uniform Roman Rite derived from one Roman Missal. Vatican II spoke of the need for reforming that very rite. The rite (s) were reformed to the delight of most and the grave disappointment of a smaller yet equally fervent group. To “go back” to the 1962 Missal I think would require more than an indult or motu propio of a sitting pope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.