As I've made this argument in various places I've encountered counter-arguments and have discerned, in these conversations, that the most powerful argument many have encountered in favor of "Eucharistic discipline," closed communion and excommunication is the argument made by William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and Eucharist. (A H/T to Chris Haws for finally getting me to get Cavanaugh's book and engage this argument.)
I read Torture and Eucharist over the family vacation and want to devote some posts this week to summarizing and interacting a bit with Cavanaugh's argument.
Cavanaugh's book is an analysis of the Catholic church's response to the torture program under the Chilean dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet took power in a coup d'état in September 1973. After taking power Pinochet's regime, particularly in the early years, intimidated, killed and tortured rivals and those not supportive of his government. Many Chileans were arrested in the middle of the night and never heard from again.
Cavanaugh discusses how the Catholic church was slow to respond to the torture but how it eventually gathered itself. According to Cavanaugh the slowness of the initial response had to do with bad theology, particularly Eucharistic theology. Eventually, the church found her voice in using the Eucharist as a "counter-politics" to the politics of the torturing state.
The argument begins with Cavanaugh arguing that the church in Chile had, in the years prior to Pinochet, accepted a division of labor with the state, a Gnostic division between the body and the soul. According to this division the state had control over the bodies of Chileans while the church would restrict its attentions to the souls of Chileans. This was, in essence, the classic separation between the political and spiritual where churches restrict their attention to issues of personal piety and withdraw from the political wranglings of the state. What is interesting in Cavanaugh's framing is how he identifies the political with the body--politics is essentially what the state is allowed to do to the bodies of citizens (and aliens within her borders). For the most part, we accept this power and when the state is working well we really don't notice this power. But the power is there. The state can incarcerate a body or demand, in times of conflict, that bodies go to war.
Torture, according to Cavanaugh, represents the logical outworking and endpoint of this power of the state over the body. In torture we see that the state can do whatever it wants to the body.
Thus we confront the problem when the church has withdrawn its claim over bodies, we see here the impotence of the church when she restricts her witness to issues of personal piety. Initially in Chile the church was in this powerless position, ineffectual and confused by bad theology in speaking out about how the state was using bodies because the church had ceded its own right to lay claim to bodies in the name of Christ. The church in Chile regained its footing when it began to exert its claim over bodies, to enter into a dispute with the state over the state's self-appointed right to do with bodies whatever it saw fit.
In summary, the church becomes "political" when it enters into a dispute with the state over bodies.
(This might seem to be an abstract conversation so let me give a few other examples.
Consider America's own torture program during the Bush administration. The American state claimed it had sole and unrivaled power over those bodies. The questions Cavanaugh helps raise are these: Did the church have any claim over those bodies? Or did the state stand unopposed?
Consider a different issue, the deportation of illegal immigrants. The American state claims it has sole and unrivaled power over these bodies. Again, the questions are: Does the church have any claim over these bodies? Or does the state stand unopposed?
Consider a final issue: capital punishment, execution. The American state claims it has sole and unrivaled power over these bodies. Again: Does the church have any claim over these bodies? Or does the state stand unopposed?
Other examples can be offered, and feel free to do so in the comments, but the point of conflict has been highlighted. The church gets "political" when it disputes the state's claim that it can do whatever it wants to bodies.)
Here is how Cavanaugh summarizes the issue:
[The] ecclesiology which dominated the Chilean Catholic church between the separation of the church in 1925 and the coup in 1973 had theorized the church not as a social body but as the 'soul of society.' The church would be responsible for the souls of Chileans, in effect handing their bodies over to the state for political and military duty. The church would supposedly form their individual consciences, and people would enter public life as individual Christians, but the church as a body would not act politically. I will argue that imagining that it could become society's soul, the church had already begun to forfeit its own discipline and to disappear itself.The church in Chile began to recover her voice when she began disputing the state's claim to sole ownership of bodies:
In the face of constant accusations of interfering in politics, the church gradually made clear its refusal to leave bodily matters such as unemployment and torture to the state--in other words, to hand over the bodies of its members to the state.In tomorrow's post we'll get to the next part of Cavanaugh's argument, that it was necessary for the church to lay claim to tortured bodies so that the church could be made visible. By laying claim to tortured bodies, by saying that these bodies bodies are "ours" and not the state's, the church rescued the tortured bodies from becoming anonymous victims of the state to making them visible martyrs of the church. And with the martyrs now visible and publicly recognized the persecuted body of Christ became publicly visible and able to prophetically resist the torturing state.