If you have ever discussed the faith with any Protestant friends or relatives, there is a good chance you’ve heard this argument before: Since we Catholics believe that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ, not just a symbol, it is tantamount to cannibalism. And since cannibalism is obviously wrong, our beliefs about the Eucharist are seriously problematic.
So how do we respond to that line of reasoning? Do our beliefs about the Eucharist really amount to something as bad as cannibalism, or is there more here than meets the eye? Most Catholic responses to this argument try to deflect the charge and explain that the Eucharist is very different from what we normally think of as cannibalism, but I think we should take a different approach. Rather than waste time quibbling over semantics, we can tackle this accusation head-on and show that its logic simply doesn’t hold up.
A Thought Experiment
To do that, let’s start with a little thought experiment. Imagine that you and five friends are exploring a newfound island in the middle of the ocean, and a huge storm comes and wipes out your plane and all your equipment. You cannot get off the island, and you cannot call anybody to come rescue you, so you are completely stranded. On top of that, the island is entirely barren, so the only food you have is what you and your companions brought with you. As time goes by, your supply begins to run low, and one day, you eat the final morsel. You have no more food, so you are all going to starve to death.
In this scenario, would it be okay to kill one of your friends for food? Of course not! That is murder, so it is clearly wrong. But let’s say that one of your companions dies of starvation. If he is already dead, would it then be okay to cook him and eat him (or at least part of him) so the rest of the group can stay alive? Again, I think the answer is pretty clear, but this time it is yes instead of no. If you’re not harming the person in any way, if it is absolutely necessary to stay alive, and if you do it respectfully, I think it is clearly permissible to eat human flesh.
And that is really significant. It means that cannibalism isn’t intrinsically wrong. Sure, it is wrong in the vast, vast majority of cases, but eating human flesh is not immoral in itself. As a result, simply calling the Eucharist a form of cannibalism does not mean anything one way or the other. Instead, if you want to make a real case against this central Catholic practice, you have to give more specific reasons why it is wrong, and I do not think you can do that.
Eating Jesus’ Flesh
To see what I mean, let’s think about the things that make eating human flesh immoral in most cases and see if they apply to the Eucharist. To begin, does it harm Jesus? Not at all. We’re not cutting off his arms or taking a bite out of his legs, nor are we destroying or diminishing his body in any way. His glorified body remains intact in heaven, and the Eucharist does not change that.
Okay, so we don’t harm Jesus when we receive the Eucharist, but could it be disrespectful? This is a difficult criterion to pin down. There is no clear-cut standard of what is and is not respectful in these cases, so answering this question is more like an art than a science. For example, most people would agree that it is wrong to just go around digging up dead bodies and eating them, but in the survival scenario I proposed above, what exactly would constitute a lack of respect in eating the dead body to survive? I don’t claim to have all the answers here, but I think there is at least one thing we can say: we have to receive the Eucharist reverently, recognizing the great gift that it truly is. And if we do that, then we are not consuming Jesus’ body and blood disrespectfully.
And finally, are we doing it out of a genuine need? Yes, we are. The Eucharist is obviously not necessary for physical life, but we do need it for spiritual life. Jesus told us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). The Eucharist is essential for a healthy spiritual life, so when we consume Jesus’ body and blood, it is in fact out of a genuine need.
The Eucharist Isn’t Morally Wrong
When we put this all together, we can see that simply calling the Eucharist cannibalism is not a real argument against it. Sure, the word “cannibalism” sounds scary at first, but if we really examine the logic behind this charge, it doesn’t hold up. Yes, it is almost always wrong to eat human flesh, but there are exceptions. If certain conditions are met, it can be permissible, and as far as I can tell, the Eucharist meets all those conditions.