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‘Body Of Christ’ Snatched From Church, Held Hostage By UCF Student

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I smiled. I just love The Onion. Then I realized this was an actual news headline about an actual event. On Earth.

I hadn’t planned on writing about this. I’m trying to maintain a semblance of focus in this blog. But then the student’s father began defending his son in comment threads on Catholic blogs, and I had my parenting angle. Which I’ll get to. First, though, for the three of you who don’t know what I’m on about — the story that ran below that headline:

Church officials say UCF Student Senator Webster Cook was disruptive and disrespectful when he attended Mass held on campus Sunday June 29. It was during that Mass where Cook admits he obtained the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is a small bread wafer blessed by a priest. According to Catholics, the wafer becomes the Body of Christ once blessed and is to be consumed immediately after a minister passes it out to churchgoers.

Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.

“When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him,” Cook said. “I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they’d leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth.”

A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that’s why he brought it home with him.

“She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand,” Cook said, adding she wouldn’t immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.

Cook is upset more than $40,000 in student fees have been allocated to support religious organizations on campus for the 2008-2009 school year, according to student government records. He denied he is holding the Eucharist hostage to protest that support.

Regardless of the reason, the Diocese says its main concern is to get the Eucharist back so it can be taken care of properly and with respect. Cook has been keeping the Eucharist stored in a plastic bag since last Sunday.

“It is hurtful,” said Father Migeul [sic] Gonzalez with the Diocese. “Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family.”

The Diocese is dispatching a nun to UCF’s campus to oversee the next mass, protect the Eucharist and in hopes Cook will return it.

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You will no doubt be shocked to learn that the student has received several death threats. As a result of that exalted terrorism, he has now returned the Divine Saltine.

Despite the fact that almost everyone in the story is acting like a baboon, this is not just a toss-off piece of silliness to me. It taps fascinating issues around the intersection of sacredness, tradition, tolerance, the media, force, academia, healthy snacking, and free expression. Most such stories are merely about baboons, but this one I simply can’t get out of my head.

Question #1: Why does the David Mills video I’ve denounced strike me instantly as a profoundly stupid gesture, while this strikes me just as instantly as an interesting and thought-provoking transgression?

The reason, I think, is that the act of crossing the church threshold with that wafer (whether he intended this or not) is a kind of Gandhian gesture. Doing something so seemingly innocuous and eliciting an explosive, violent, even homicidal response is precisely the way Gandhi drew attention to cruel policies and actions of the British Raj, the way black patrons in the deep South asserted their right to sit on a bar stool, while whites (enforcing a kind of sacred tradition) went ballistic.

No, the analogy is not perfect. Cook was not defending a right. But he did similarly draw attention to an element of belief (crackers are different once a priest’s hand has waved over them) that can tip quite suddenly into dangerous lunacy at the slightest provocation. Isn’t that a point worth making?

Mills’ feces-and-obscenity-strewn video, on the other hand, had offense not as a byproduct but as its intentional essence. Of Cook, one can say, “he just walked out the door with a wafer,” and the contrast with the fireworks that followed is clear. But saying, with sing-song innocence, that Mills was “just smearing dogshit on a book while swearing, gah,” doesn’t achieve quite the same clarity. Even though it shares the act of questioning the sacred, it’s much less interesting and much less defensible.

Question #2: Is nothing sacred?

Becca and I debated this at length. She said that all declarations of sacredness should be respected and left alone. I countered by saying the very idea of sacredness is worth discussing, and that the best way to draw attention to something of this kind — like an unjust law — is by violating it and allowing the results to play out. Should we “respect and leave alone” the opposing, irreconcilable claims of sacredness that keep the Middle East aflame? The sacred idea that men should have dominion over women? The list goes on.

But the question remains: Should anything be held “sacred”? I think the answer is yes and no, because the word “sacred” has two different major meanings.

Sacred is used to denote specialness, to mark something as awe-inspiring, worthy of veneration or deserving of respect. In this first sense, the nonreligious tend to hold many things sacred — life, integrity, knowledge, love, a sense of purpose, freedom of conscience, and much more. One might even hold sacred our right and duty to reject the second meaning of sacred: something inviolable, unquestionable, immune from challenge.

This second definition of sacredness is much like the concept of hell — it exists primarily as a thoughtstopper. As such, it has no place in a home energized by freethought. One of the most sacred (def. 1) principles of freethought is that no question is unaskable, no authority unquestionable.

Which bring me to Question #3, the parenting angle. If this were my son, and he had undertaken this as a kind of civil disobedience, would I be proud?

Immensely. Intensely. Uncontainably. It’s Kohlberg’s sixth stage of moral development, and it makes me weak in the knees.

Encouraging reckless inquiry in your kids means laughing the second definition of “sacred” straight out the door. Given that understanding of the dual meaning of sacredness, it should now make sense that I consider it a sacred duty to hold nothing sacred.

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.