Torture and Eucharist

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 5:32 AM

William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist is a fascinating look at the Catholic Church’s response to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. The work is, if nothing else, a provocative effort at thinking theologically about what in most minds is a political problem.

Cavanaugh says that our thinking about it in such a way is evidence of the problem he aims to address. The first sub-heading (“Torture As Liturgy”) and, indeed, the first chapter as a whole are worth the price of the book. It would seem the crucible of an oppressive state clarifies one’s allegiance, either to the nation-state, or to the Kingdom of God.

Frankly, those of us who are American conservatives would do well to grapple with the questions of human dignity swirling around which have arisen since 2001. The catastrophic loss of life, and its potential repetition in the future, has certainly been used to shift the terms of debate such that safety and the survival of the nation dominate the discussion over our common humanity made in the image of God.

No one would argue that our common humanity with the current enemy should not have an impact on how we wage war. However, Cavanaugh’s insight that the state uses the fear of the nation’s collapse to accrue more power over its people should give us pause before casually accepting the terms of the so-called “ticking time-bomb” scenario.

The totalitarian state’s inclination to make its people into non-persons in the process of asserting its authority stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ loving sacrifice for us at Calvary. In fact, Cavanaugh counts the Chilean state under Pinochet among the “powers and principalities” that Christ defeated there. The state has its ‘liturgy of death;’ the Christian has a liturgy of Life that culminates in the Eucharist. The Chilean state made people disappear, denying thousands of applications for habeas corpus; Jesus says, “This is my body,” and not only do we commemorate that, but we are ‘re-membered’ into the Body of Christ.

Cavanaugh sharply critiques the “New Christendom” theology that arose in Catholicism after World War I and culminated in the Second Vatican Council, and what became a catchphrase during that time, “the mystical body of Christ.” By this, he said, theologians meant the Church; unfortunately, it had the connotation of non-physicality, of unreality, which Cavanaugh says began centuries ago when the different senses of “body of Christ” shifted.

In the life of Chile, however, Cavanaugh blames French political philosopher Jacques Maratain, who was very influential in shaping Catholic thought with respect to the modern liberal pluralistic democracy. In attempting to carve out proper ‘spheres’ for the state and the church, Maratain shrunk the church’s ecclesiology, and authority to speak on matters of torture and murder, according to Cavanaugh.

I am both a non-Catholic, and completely unfamiliar with the work of Jacques Maratain, so I tread carefully. But it seems to me that Cavanaugh undercuts his own point here, since he admits Maratain would never have approved of Pinochet, the regime misunderstood Maratain’s philosophy and the contexts—post-World War I Europe and 1970’s Chile—are radically different.

If the Chilean bishops (and Maratain) are guilty of anything, it is in coming late to seeing the depth of evil possible in a nation-state. In my view, it was likely not a failure of ecclesiology, but of courage. There is an obvious benefit to Catholic Eucharistic theology in this context, in that its straightforward literalness reveals the scandal of the regime’s indignity. Because Christ is present bodily, and the people as his members are also, commemorating him while being cemented in love, the regime’s offense against its people and against Christ is more visible.

I had but one critique of the political thought in this book: the various hints throughout which attempt to link neoliberal free-market economics (and Milton Friedman) with the worst abuses of the Pinochet regime are offensive. That it may have assisted the regime in its ‘atomization’ of the Chilean people, and provided a pretext for its terror is irrelevant to the question of the market’s usefulness (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998; $39.96).

Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to Open for Business.

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