Just last week, I passed out guidelines for ethnographic projects to my students. This project is basically a field visit to a religious site of which they are unfamiliar, and because of this unfamiliarity, I spend much time on etiquette. Channeling my best imitation of an authoritative and slightly parental voice, I emphatically command, "You all are guests, and I expect you to be on your best behavior." This is followed by threats about how I don't want future students banned from particular religious sites because of the behavior of my current students. Despite my best efforts, some of my students still manage to do inappropriate things, but usually these actions are not traumatic for the students or the religious community.
This is why I was so surprised by the Sally Quinn's decision to take communion at Tim Russert's funeral. Russert was Catholic, and Quinn is not. Quinn is the co-founder of the "On Faith" blog co-hosted by the Washington Post and Newsweek, and frankly, I would think she should know better. The controversy over her decision has been more about her reaction to the experience. She wrote:
Last Wednesday at Tim's funeral mass at Trinity Church in Georgetown... communion was offered. I had only taken communion once in my life, at an evangelical church. It was soon after I had started "On Faith" and I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Last Wednesday I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I'm so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him. And it was worth it just to imagine how he would have loved it. After I began "On Faith," Tim started calling me "Sister Sal" instead of "Miss Sal. (For the full text, click here.)
At Slate, Melinda Henneberger, a Catholic, wrote about that Quinn's description:
This reads a little too much like a restaurant review for my comfort; Christ Almighty: Tangy Yet Nauseating? And good as he was, we don't really take Communion to feel closer to Tim Russert.
Not surprisingly, the Catholic League, headed by William Donohue, reacted quite vehemently to Quinn's commentary about being "nauseated." After being lambasted for her choice, Quinn used a "WWJD?" defense by suggesting inclusion should be more important than formal rules about ritual. She, additionally, claimed to pluralist in her response to various religions.
What proved fascinating to me about the whole ordeal is Quinn's lack of understanding of Catholic communion. Supporter of pluralism or not, she overlooked (perhaps, ignored) that for Catholics communion contains the actual presence of Christ. At America, James Martin, S.J., noted the importance of this ritual for Catholics as well as incredulity at Quinn's lack of knowledge:
Catholics believe in the "real presence," the actual presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist: the bread and the wine. It is a central element of our faith, and reception of Communion is something that a Catholic does not do lightly. Which is something of an understatement. "First Holy Communion" is an important passage to adulthood; and even afterwards adults are asked to approach Communion reverently and without being conscious of any grave sin. Catholics also know that the very word "Communion" means that you are in "communion" with the rest of the Catholic church, and accept its beliefs.
Therefore, it is probably not too much to expect that the co-founder of a prestigious online blog about religion run by two of the nation's premier journals, would understand something about the most basic practices of the Catholic church. Most intelligent people know a few facts about the Catholic church: this is one of them. And even if one doesn't know this, one would know to act with great care when in the midst of a worshiping community not your own. (For example, I am always exceedingly careful not to offend anyone's sensibilities when in a synagogue, a mosque or a Christian church or meeting place not affiliated with the Catholic church.) An essential element of respect for another religious tradition is approaching their holy places, people and ceremonies with sense of reverence, even awe.
That's why the words "transubstantiation notwithstanding" are difficult to hear. If one knows enough about Catholicism to mention "transubstantiation" then one should also know that the word "notwithstanding" makes little sense in that context.
Martin's uplifting of respect for religious spaces and peoples is not only necessary to prevent offense, but it is also about good manners. My students laugh at my focus on etiquette for their projects. I regale them with tales of past students and their snafus, but I also make it quite clear that sacred space should be approached thoughtfully and carefully. So hopefully, they leave my classroom prepared for encounters with those who are religiously different and with a sense that they should be on their best behavior because these are sacred spaces. I am still scratching my head at Quinn's actions, and in my next class, her actions will be a prime example of how not to interact with other religious peoples.