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Corpus Christi in a world where the bodies are hidden


In Catholic nations the Feast of Corpus Christi (The body of Christ) has been a time for public celebration of faith. Processions in which the Eucharist was carried high through towns in a cavalcade and even across Sydney Harbour on a white and gold ferry during the 1928 Eucharistic Congress expressed people’s devotion. From its beginning the Feast had a slightly combative edge. It was born out of debate about how to understand Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and later proclaimed Catholic teaching about the Eucharist in defiance of supposed Protestant denial.

That edge has largely disappeared now, as have the large public celebrations of the feast in many nations. But the debate that underlay the Feast remains of interest outside its Catholic context because it focused on what matters in human presence. This question is posed in a secular context by technological developments today. The qualities that were defended then are also those at issue today.

In Catholic life, the celebration of the Eucharist is the principal event that brings Catholic communities together. It is central to their identity as Christians.  In Catholic theology the Eucharist lies at the intersection of Jesus’ life as the Son of God who lived a fully human life, died, rose and is present in the church today. In particular He is understood to be present in the offering and consuming of the bread and wine in the celebration of the Eucharist. This is the principal face to face gathering of the Church. The question with which Christians grappled at the start of the second millennium of their history was the nature of Christ’s presence, and consequently the nature of human presence, in the Christian story.

In the early centuries of the Church the major threat posed by the prevailing culture to Christian faith was the pressure to see Christ’s presence and activity as exclusively spiritual, and to play down its bodily reality. Some Christians denied the reality of his brutal execution and saw his human life as an appearance. This pressure also could also lead people so to emphasise the spiritual aspects of the Eucharist that they minimised the human and divine interchange involved in each celebration and the importance of Christ’s presence and agency as well as  that of the community.

The Feast of Corpus Christi was born out of the resistance to this movement at a time when the intellectual culture was beginning to separate the empirical from the ultimately real. In defending its way of speaking of Christ’s real presence in the symbol of the Eucharist, Christians were then and afterwards often wrongly dismissive of other believers who used different words to describe his presence. 

The debates about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist may seem to be esoteric with little connection to broader human perplexities and challenges today. The underlying questions they pose about human identity and presence and their implications, however, have never been so pressing. The urgency can be seen in an important and fascinating recently published book that reflects on the challenge posed to the future of humanity by recent developments in information, genetic and nano engineering.


'To separate self-reflective intelligence from body, or to see it as reducible to body, is a recipe for a fractured humanity and a fractured faith.' 


In Here be monsters : Is technology reducing our humanity? , the subject of a fuller review in Eureka Street Plus, author Richard King names three constitutive qualities of human identity that have developed over millions of years of evolution and are now under threat from unconsidered technological development. They are, first, the human sociality that is expressed through our physical presence to one another. This is threatened by the presence at a distance inherent in digital and information technology. The second quality is embodiment, threatened in our culture by the prevailing image of the world and human beings as machines that are reducible to their smallest parts. This encourages the view that human nature is provisional and alterable. Nanotechnology and genetic engineering make it possible to alter humanity and its gene pool from within, leading to unpredictable consequences for the human future. The third quality is agency, embodied in the nature of human beings as tool makers. It is associated with a self-reflective as well as instrumental intelligence. The developments in human technology dissociate human beings from their tool making and risk making them the objects of technology and not its masters.

In response, King affirms the value of technology but insists that it must be subject to conversation in society about its purpose and its human consequences. This is difficult in a culture that establishes a gulf between our brains and our bodies. It sees our brains as subjects of human development and our bodies as its objects. A neo-liberal economic culture with its focus on individual choice then further reduces the worth of human beings to their competitive achievement. And an intellectual culture that restricts valid questions about the world to ‘how’ questions leaves no room to ask why and to what benefit technological developments should be allowed. It leads to utilitarian ethics and leaves little basis for conversation based on respect for each person’s value as a bodily human being with an active and self-aware intelligence.

King’s book is beautifully written, culturally alert, humorous in its appreciation of human idiocy, richly researched and penetrating in its reflections. Given all that is at stake in technological development it is a must read for anyone concerned with social justice.                                                                                    

The debates about the Eucharist and those about modern technologies converge in their focus on the importance of the body in reflecting on what it means to be human. Both affirm the importance of presence and sociality in human life. Both stress the centrality of agency. And both see the importance of going beyond instrumental reasoning to reflect on the deeper and more complex reality of our world. To separate self-reflective intelligence from body, or to see it as reducible to body, is a recipe for a fractured humanity and a fractured faith. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: La Pietà, Michelangelo. (Deposit photos) 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Corpus Christi, Catholic



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Existing comments

The "mystical body of Christ" is a rich and highly appropriate metaphor with scriptural basis for the community of faith, incorporating as it does both the spiritual and corporal, the invisible and visible elements of the Church's existence. Over-emphasis on one aspect at the expense of the other would compromise the integral reality of Christ's abiding presence among his baptized members, now and in eternity.

John RD | 09 June 2023  

A thought dropped into my head the other day about AIs and humans. I haven't thought more - "processed?" - about it. Look forward to what others make of it.

AIs scan the Internet for the information they need in order to, in the case of the Bing AI on my computer, write a haiku about a crocodile. Now, even in English, a a crocodile is not just a crocodile. Extra value may result from specifying whether the reptile is a caiman, gaval or an alligator. If Inuits (I'm told) have 21 words for snow (and desert dwellers possibly many words also for sand), and Greeks seven words for love and, for the French (again, so I'm told), "comprendre" is different from "apprendre", an AI that cannot manipulate information through the lenses of other languages before it talks to you in English is imperfect because it is culture-bound.

If they only speak English in Silicon Valley, perhaps the designers should take language and linguistics lessons.

Can an AI be "wise", especially one which is used to write a sermon? If languages are gifts from God to pursue different ways of understanding God and Creation, can a monolingual human be wise?

s martin | 13 June 2023  

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