Crimes of Communion

By Allan Nadler
Monday, May 9, 2011

Two years ago, a Muslim reporter for the Malaysian magazine Al Islam attended a Catholic mass in Kuala Lumpur with a companion, surreptitiously took communion, and put the wafer in his mouth, only to spit it out later. The May 2009 issue of Al Islam featured a cover photograph of the soggy, partially-eaten wafer—to the horror of local church authorities outraged at this desecration of the sacramental host, held by Roman Catholics to be the actual trans-substantiated body of Jesus. A complaint was lodged with the police, demanding investigation and redress.

One may muse on the likely response by Muslims to an analogous blasphemy perpetrated by Christians. One may also muse on a statement by the Malaysian Catholic complainants: "We are resolved not to allow anger to guide our actions and instead pray that these ignorant will be forgiven by Allah." Given the place, and the historical moment, in which the audacious act was committed, so emollient a statement is certainly understandable; but it is also a measure of the distance between the modern Christian temper and medieval Christendom's notorious array of tortures and public executions of alleged heretics and blasphemers.

Alleged desecration of the host was among the acts for which such cruel punishments were regularly prescribed for centuries by Rome's Holy Office of the Inquisition, and Jews were chief among the accused. It is to be distinguished from the more familiar and resilient calumny of the blood libel. The latter endured well into the 19th century in Europe and thrives to this day in the Muslim world. By contrast, accusations of host desecration gradually died out after the Protestant Reformation. But, as the historian Magda Teter vividly demonstrates in a superb new study, Sinners on Trial, the emphasis is very much on the word "gradually."

Teter opens her study with a general introduction to the hierarchical conceptions of the sacred in Catholicism, making clear that at the summit of the hierarchy is the consecrated communion wafer. This is followed by a chapter on the history of church thefts in early modern Poland—the main geographical setting of her book. In these crimes, Jews often served as pawns for the sale of stolen communion vessels, chalices, candelabra, paintings, and other precious sacred objects. A remarkably gifted story-teller, Teter relates about a dozen such crimes and their grim consequences.

Two major surprises emerge in these opening sections. One is how common it was for Gentile thieves—usually impoverished women working as domestics in Jewish homes—to collaborate with male Jewish fences in such thefts; the second, how quickly and cruelly punishment was dealt to the former, while the latter were often overlooked or forgiven by the Polish courts (on which more below).

From general church thefts, Teter proceeds to focus specifically on alleged thefts of the host and in particular on some of the most infamous accusations of desecration leveled against Polish Jews.  Here the surprise, and it is a big one, concerns developments in the 16th century, in the wake of the Reformation and the spread of Protestantism. To the eminent Polish historian Janus Tazbir, post-Reformation Poland had become, beneficently, a "State without Stakes." (The reference is to the practice of punishment by incineration.) In fact, as Teter shows, convictions of Polish Jews for host desecration actually increased in this period.

She cites a confluence of factors. A series of legislations had enabled a takeover by the secular courts of the adjudication of religious sins formerly handled by ecclesiastical tribunals. Intended to protect non-Catholics from the religious courts, the policy led paradoxically to the treatment of certain grave but, to the Church, atonable acts (like church thefts) as capital crimes. At the same time, the Polish Counter-Reformation, spearheaded aggressively by the Jesuits, was working to "re-Catholicize" the country.  Various Protestant denominations that had gained an early foothold, particularly in the western regions of Poznania and Silesia, quickly lost their bases.

In the eyes of the Counter-Reformation, few offenses were as odious as those committed against the host; indeed, to the Church, the most grievous heresy of Protestantism lay in its insistence that the wafer in itself was mere bread, a symbol but not the actual body of Christ. Among the numerous cases treated by Teter, the most convoluted involved a "miracle of the hosts" that had originally occurred in 1399 just outside the western Polish city of Poznań and was still being celebrated centuries later. The original tale concerned a farmer's son who witnessed three hosts hovering "like butterflies" over a marshy patch of land as grazing cows and sheep bowed in their direction. The vision was subsequently confirmed by the ecclesiastical authorities; by the late 16th century, the story had been greatly elaborated to include a scandalous crime: namely, the prior desecration of the three hosts by Jews.

Teter meticulously reviews the evolving iterations of the Poznań legend, demonstrating how the addition of the criminal Jewish element was almost certainly a function of the larger political and theological strife between Catholics and Protestants as well as competition among the various pilgrimage sites operated by rival Corpus Christi cults in Poland. Ultimately, the most heinous version of the story was the one accepted. In it, the Jews are said to have stabbed the wafers repeatedly, to have been covered by the "fragrant" blood the hosts emitted, to have tried but failed to destroy them by burning and hiding, and finally to have resorted to burying them in a distant marshland. The increasingly gory elaboration of this calumny led to the construction of a local Carmelite church of Corpus Christi on the land once occupied by the Jewish house where the desecration was alleged to have occurred.

Well into the 20th century, Teter chillingly reports, the version of the traditional Catholic hymn Kyrie Eleison ("Lord, Have Mercy") sung in the local Carmelite church included these stanzas:

Oh Jesus, unsurpassed in your goodness,
Stabbed by Jews and soaked in blood again,
Through your new wounds
And spilled springs of blood
Have Mercy on Us

The hearts of stone from the Jew Street . . . 
Sank their knives in you
In the three Hosts, the Eternal God
Have Mercy on Us, Have Mercy on Us, Have Mercy

As Teter convincingly establishes, not only was the alleged host desecration of 1399 untrue, but no indictment and no trial of Jews ever took place.

Among an assortment of other host-accusations, Teter offers a fine treatment of the notorious trial of Sochaczew, which culminated with the public burning at the stake of two Jews on May 15, 1556—three weeks before the arrival of a letter from the Pope commuting the sentence. This papal intervention, albeit failed, points to another theme in Teter's book. The medieval royal charters protecting Jewish rights, combined with the Jews' status in the Polish economy and their close ties to the aristocracy, often served to lessen sentences passed against them or to exculpate them altogether of their alleged sacrileges, a luxury, so to speak, not enjoyed by accused Polish peasants and most Protestants.

In her captivating narrative, Teter has painstakingly documented how the body politic and the body of Christ were inextricably bound together through the early modern period, and how the Reformation not only failed to diminish the host-desecration calumny but, at least in Catholic Poland, gave it new energy. Lest readers suspect, however, that Teter's accounts of medieval religious doctrine and the lethal cruelty of its enforcement even into the early-modern period are of merely historical interest, her study also helps to explain some of the more bizarre events in our own times, and in countries far less religious than Malaysia.

Indeed, Teter begins her introduction with a minor scandal concerning Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper. In the summer of 2009, at about the same time as the truly scandalous case of host desecration in Kuala Lumpur, Harper accepted a consecrated wafer during a funeral mass in Moncton, New Brunswick. Some of the worshipers insisted that they saw Harper, an evangelical Christian, discreetly slipping the wafer into his jacket pocket before leaving the church. Although the prime minister's office vigorously refuted the charge, asserting that he had consumed the wafer in accordance with Catholic rites, Harper was accused by many, from official Church spokesmen to pious bloggers, of having "out of ignorance and ill-preparation disrespected the holy Body of Christ."

Harper's spectacular victory in Canada's national elections just last week, celebrated as exuberantly in Anglo-Protestant Ontario as it was mourned in lapsed-Catholic French Quebec, may even suggest that despite some two centuries of Western law mandating separation of religion and politics, undercurrents of that stubborn medieval tangle endure to this day.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.


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