Following publication of the Irish and British Bishops' statement on the Eucharist and intercommunion (see November 'AD2000'), there have been critical responses from other Church representatives, media commentators and from within the Catholic Church - many suggesting that the statement is too hardline and will set back ecumenical progress.
Now, from an unexpected quarter - a journalist writing in the London 'Weekly Telegraph '- comes strong support for the Catholic position.
Last October's warning by the Catholic bishops of Britain and Ireland in One Bread One Body that Communion is not something which can be casually shared with non-Catholics has predictably been ridiculed - as have Cardinal Hume's admonitory words to Tony Blair on the subject. For it is bad form for the Roman Catholic hierarchy nowadays to state that it has distinguishing and defining beliefs.
The merest suggestion that Catholics, like Orthodox Jews, Sunni Muslims, Baptists or Mormons might actually have an enduring creed normally causes headline writers to reach into their bags of abuse and come up with descriptions such as reactionary, uncompromising, or doctrinaire.
The use of such terms reflects on the widespread culture of unthinking and mushy ecumenism, in which the possession of any immutable principle - by the Catholic Church in particular - is portrayed as being hardline, unyielding and authoritarian. Such adjectives are, of course, never used about, say, liberal opposition to capital punishment, apartheid or female circumcision, for in the liberal canon these principles are self-evident and non-negotiably right and proper.
Why? Because they are the defining cornerstones of liberal belief, the classic defences of the integrity of the human body and the freedom of the individual. But the Eucharist, and the reverence for it, are no less the central tenets of the Catholic Church. Sweep all the other aspects away - liberation theology, papal infallibility, this liturgy or that liturgy, priestly celibacy, the pomps of hierarchy and the stenches of the thurible - and what remains is the key to Catholicism.
That key is transubstantiation, which Catholics believe is the changing of the bread and wine during the sacrifice of the Mass into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ the Saviour of Mankind.
You might well regard that belief as fantastical. It is nonetheless what defines Catholicism. The principle of apostolic succession from the Last Supper to this day gives the priest the authority, unique in the world, and precious beyond compare, to eradicate the substance of the wafer and wine and to replace it with the very substance of the Son of God, there, miraculously on the altar before the cathedral congregation or in the prison cell; and the body of the Risen Christ is then consumed by the worshipful. It is the greatest of all sacraments for Catholics, who must be in a state of grace unstained by grave sin before they may receive the Communion host in their mouths.
Even the words - host, meaning sacrificial victim, sacrament, or holy oath, Eucharist, the thanks for Christ's sacrifice on the Cross - declare that what is being celebrated are for Catholics the greatest moments in the history of the world: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. And as Islam guards its precious moments for true believers, and permits only those who follow the word of the Koran to go on the haj, so Catholicism has for two millennia reserved the divine privilege of taking Holy Communion to those who believe the cosmic vastness of the deed of transubstantiation. This is surely not an unreasonable reverence, in the circumstances.
Yet the Catholic Church has no one but itself to blame that it needs to reiterate this central belief, to much appalled surprise. The role of the Eucharist has long been lost in the din of tambourines and the witless mumbo-jumbo of folk-masses. Predictably, even the hierarchy's restatement of belief could not free itself of the huggy muggy, Songs of Praise, Oprah Winfrey culture that has settled on most forms of Christianity like a sickly porridge. It actually managed to do an Oprah over those who felt themselves hurt by the document's rulings. "It is our pain also," it sobbed, wiping a tear from its eye.
Rubbish. Rules are rules. You cannot play rugby to a soccer code. Baptists do not flock to Mecca. Presbyterians do not follow the Pope and The Church of England is not a sub- aqua club. Defining and defending what is vital to you without collapsing in a weeping heap over the offence you might be causing others, are the first steps to mutual respect. Leadership of the Labour Party is, after all, restricted to party members. Ditto Catholic Communion. No apologies, please.