The Fifty-Year Descent to Footnote 351: Our Progressive Desensitization to the Most Holy Eucharist

We did not wake up one fine day in 2017 to find ourselves suddenly confronted with Eucharistic sacrilege being promoted from on high. There was a long, slow process that led to this moment. It consisted in the gradual dilution of the sacredness of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and of the Blessed Sacrament at its heart, with institutionally tolerated sacrilege along the way. Fifty years of desacralization has ended in the temerity of contradicting the entire Catholic tradition about the most holy of all the Church’s mysteries.

The first major step was the allowance of communion in the hand while standing—a sharp break from the deeply-ingrained practice of many centuries of kneeling in adoration at the altar rail and receiving on the tongue, like a baby bird being fed by its parent (as we see in countless medieval depictions of the pelican that has wounded her breast in order to feed her chicks). This change had the obvious effect of making people think the Holy Eucharist wasn’t so mysterious and holy after all. If you can just take it in your hand like ordinary food, it might as well be a potato chip distributed at a party.[1] The feeling of awe and reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament was systematically diminished and undermined through this modernist reintroduction of an ancient practice that had long since been discontinued by the Church in her pastoral wisdom. Nor, as has been well documented, did the faithful themselves request the abolition of the custom of receiving on the tongue while kneeling; it was imposed by the self-styled “experts.”[2]

The second major step was the allowance of lay ministers of communion. This reinforced the perception that the Church had given up all that stuff about the priest being essentially different from the laity, about the Mass as a divine sacrifice and the Eucharist as the Bread of Angels that only anointed hands are fit to handle. True, a priest still had to say the magic words, but after that, Jack and Jill could come up, take bowls and cups, and hand out the tokens of club membership.

The effect of these “reforms” and others like them (the replacement of majestic and mysterious Latin with everyday vernacular, the substitution of guitar and piano ditties for pipe organ and chant, the turning around of the priest to face the people like a talkshow host, the removal of altar rails, the decentering of tabernacles, the uglification of vestments and vessels, and more) was to weaken and corrupt the faith of the people in the Mass as a true and proper sacrifice and in the Eucharist as the true Body and Blood of Jesus. No wonder that after this, the idea of the Eucharistic fast, and of preparing oneself for communion by going to confession, went right out the window for the vast majority of people. The Church’s own pastors didn’t act as if they really believed these things anymore, so why should their flocks?

In short, we have lived through, and suffered under, half a century of ritual diminishment and symbolic contradiction of the Church’s faith in the sublime mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. As John Paul II and Benedict XVI lamented, there is scant evidence in our communities of any awareness of the distinction between worthy and unworthy communions—one of the most basic lessons children used to be taught in their catechism class.

Children in those primitive “pre-Vatican II days” were taught to practice virtue and avoid mortal sin because they should desire to be able to receive the Lord and be ever more perfectly united to Him, until they reached the glory of heaven where they would possess Him forever. They were taught that if one received the Lord in a state of mortal sin, one committed a further and a worse sin. They were taught that making a good confession, with sorrow for sin and an intention to avoid it in future, was enough to put this bad situation right and restore them to God’s friendship. Who could seriously assert that most Catholics believe any of this today, or that they would even recognize, much less understand, the concepts?[3]

Today, at least in certain Western countries, nearly everyone goes up for communion when the time comes. It’s just “what you do at Mass.” Hardly anyone goes to confession; hardly anyone refrains from receiving, out of a consciousness of sin; and rare is the priest who ever preaches about having the right dispositions for communion. (Contrast this with St. John Vianney, who preached relentlessly about these things, and greatly intensified his parish’s commitment to the sacrament of confession and to frequent communion. It’s not for nothing that he’s the patron saint of parish priests. Patrons are meant to be imitated.)

Thus was the ground devilishly prepared for the final stage, in which any impediments to communion are theoretically and practically dissolved. In a general situation where the few Catholics who still attend Mass all receive, it would seem cruel and unusual punishment to single out a handful of so-called “divorced and remarried” people for special treatment: “You are not allowed to go to communion, but meanwhile, the self-abusing and fornicating teens, the contracepting couples, the families who sometimes skip Sunday Mass for sports events—all are welcome to come forward, as usual!”

This is the big picture that explains, to my mind, why the liberals or progressives in the Church are totally incapable of seeing why anyone would object to chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia with its nuclear footnote.[4] They do not really believe that the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the Most Holy Trinity; they do not really believe in transubstantiation and the Real Presence; they do not believe that one is eating and drinking the flesh and blood of God; they do not believe that one who eats and drinks unworthily is eating and drinking his own condemnation, just as those who eat worthily are seeding their souls and bodies for a glorious resurrection.

The Amorites, as we might call them, see “the Eucharist” as a fraternal gathering, a social event, an affirmation of human worth, a “celebration” of God’s “unconditional love,” and whatever other Hallmark slogans come to mind. Within the confines of this horizontal and superficial theology, there is no room for any requirements or prohibitions: everyone is welcome, and anything goes! Since the Eucharist is a meal symbolizing God’s welcome of the sinner, there is no reason to exclude anyone, for any reason, from partaking of the “table of plenty.”

Amoris Laetitia fits into this larger historical trajectory whereby the Mass has been stripped of its transcendent, mysterious, fearful and challenging sacrificial realism and pushed continually in the direction of an ordinary meal with ordinary folks doing ordinary things for a this-worldly end,[5] with a forced spontaneity and embarrassing banality that has failed to attract the overflow crowds predicted by Paul VI. At such a Mass, is there anything to do but receive communion? Who would ever think of going just for the sake of adoring God and contemplating His beauty? Opportunities and incentives for adoration are practically non-existent in the Novus Ordo, and beauty has fared no better, or rather much worse. In such circumstances, to place a barrier between a free meal and a guest who thinks well of himself for being there is unthinkable.[6]

In truth, the Mass is the unbloody sacrifice of the Cross, made present in our midst; it is simultaneously the heavenly life-giving wedding feast of the now-glorified Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the one-flesh union of a bride adorned with grace and a Bridegroom who is her sole happiness.

I am not surprised to find that, at traditional Latin Masses around the world, including in the United States, one sees two related phenomena: a large number of the faithful availing themselves of confession, before and during Mass; and a fair number of the faithful who remain in the pews and do not go forward for communion. The interior triumphs of the one, the interior trials of the other, are known to God alone. But this much is obvious: they all came to worship Him. They came in response to His majesty. They came to fulfill a solemn obligation of the virtue of religion. Whether they are personally disposed to receive or not is a question at a different level. This is the sanity that prevails in the realm of tradition; it is the sanity that paves the way for sanctity.



[1] In a moving scene in Robert Hugh Benson’s novel By What Authority?, we read the following about the character Isabel’s experience of a Calvinist communion service: “The mahogany table had been brought down from the eastern wall to beneath the cupola, and stood there with a large white cloth, descending almost to the ground on every side; and a row of silver vessels, flat plates and tall new Communion cups and flagons, shone upon it. … The three ministers had communicated by now; and there was a rustle and clatter of feet as the empty seats in front, hung with houselling cloths, began to be filled.” Isabel sees some people receive kneeling, others standing. And all this at a ceremony of Protestants who expressly denied the Real Presence and the sacrificial nature of the Mass.

[2] There is an obvious difference between an original practice, such as early Christians receiving in the hand, and a later reintroduction of such a practice when it has long since become obsolete. In the former case, the practice is innocent. In the latter case, it amounts to a repudiation and a symbolic contradiction of the values represented by kneeling before the host and not handling it oneself.

[3] Msgr. Benson wrote this about his Anglican days: “I was an official in a church that did not seem to know her own mind, even in matters directly connected with the salvation of the soul.… Might I, or might I not, tell my penitents that they are bound to confess their mortal sins before Communion? … The smallest Roman Catholic child knew precisely how to be reconciled to God, and to receive His grace…” (A City Set on a Hill). Does not this Anglican’s description of the problem in his own communion sound frightfully close to what may be found today in the Roman Catholic Church?

[4] Or perhaps we should say footnotes, since there are several that are severely problematic.

[5] It is consistent with the love-blind embrace of the United Nations and the “Greenpeace” environmentalism of Laudato Si’.

[6] We can begin to see the magnitude of the sea change if we imagine what it would have been like had the Kasper Proposal been floated in 1965—the last year in which we can arguably say that we still had an integral and authentic Roman Rite throughout the entire Church (albeit already orphaned of its opening and closing prayers). There would have been stunned incredulity and righteous indignation. The proposal wouldn’t have lasted longer than a lit match. No churchman in his right mind would have countenanced it. Progressives today attack traditionalists equally for our love of the traditional liturgy, our dogmatic intransigence, and our commitment to objective morality. They are right see a deep and abiding connection between these things—a connection neatly summed up as lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.

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