A Teachable Moment: Sally Quinn's Communion Snafu

Kelly Baker

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.


John G. Turner said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Art said…
Do you know if there's a current sociological analysis of Catholics and religious literacy of their own faith? The reason I ask is that I'm always surprised to see how few really "get" the theology of communion, transubstantiation, etc. Students and non-students alike tend to have a vague idea about the "real presence," but nothing more.

So when I hear Father Martin say "Communion is something that a Catholic does not do lightly," I want to respond, "Prove it!" I'll concede that he doesn't take it lightly, but I wonder how many Nine-Year-Old-First-Communion-Takers are more concerned about the flavor of ice cream at their forthcoming party than experiencing the real presence of Christ.
Brett said…
Martin probably can't prove it, but he's a priest--he should be allowed to speak prescriptively about Catholic practice and belief.

I'm not convinced that "getting" it is what gives theology, especially in practical contexts, its meaning. Theological literacy can only take you so far. "Real presence," "afternoon ice cream party," and "something a Catholic does not do lightly" may seem like non-sequiturs, but clearly they are related in practice.

Quinn's status as religion writer, or ours as religious studies scholars, doesn't give us a pass to tell the people we study that they're doing it wrong. I'm not saying that Art's comment is some sort of pass to do such a thing; I am saying that Martin is not so out-of-touch that he can't reasonably expect an apology from Quinn.
Art said…
To clarify, my above comment is an aside to Kelly's post, more about Catholic religious literacy than "Quinn's Communion Snafu." I agree with Kelly (and Martin) that Quinn violated a basic rule of religious courtesy. As Martin says, one should always "act with great care when in the midst of a worshiping community not your own." Accordingly, I’m certainly not chastening practitioners for requesting an apology. That’s their business. But, after reading his post, I don't think Martin is out for one. He covers the importance of communion, scratches his head over Quinn's actions, and acknowledges that at least she had good intentions. So his closing comment offers advice to both Quinn and the Catholic League: 1) respect your friend by respecting his tradition; and 2) recognize her good intentions and drop the ad hominem attacks. Three cheers for finding a reasonable middle ground!

Again, I lifted Martin’s quote (a statement he made on the way to an entirely different conclusion), simply to seek citations. As I said, in my classes and discussions with practicing Catholics, I’ve noticed a surprising lack of religious literacy. I’ve also listened to members of the clergy lament that they can’t devote enough energy toward Catholic education because their efforts are tied up elsewhere. But these are only my observations in a small corner of America. What would a large-scale study of the subject reveal? And, if there is a declining appreciation for Catholic tradition, does this help explain the declining ranks of American Catholics (as indicated in the recent Pew religion survey)? I can’t say, but it might be worth further exploration…
Brett said…
It would be worth more exploration, and I appreciate your request for some sort of data about what is happening in the Catholic Church. Another interesting question would be if Catholics who convert to some other denomination (I'm thinking especially here of Latino Catholics who have become Evangelicals) do so in part because they feel more "literate" or at least able to get religious education and training in their new religious settings.
Kelly Baker said…
Perhaps because I currently reside in a heavily Catholic culture, my Catholic students take communion very seriously because of the "presence" though I have to spend a lot of time explaining transubstantiation to my Protestant students. However, I am not sure they could explain to me exactly what is at stake in this position.

My Catholic and Protestant students, in general, tend to not to be religiously "literate." But, my Mormon students are a very different story.

On another note, I am intrigued by Brett's hypothesis about conversion and literacy. I wonder if there seems to be an "ease" to some traditions as opposed to esotericism of others. I have had many a discussion with a former Catholic who didn't "get" her/his previous religious tradition, but the new tradition was somehow easier to understand.

Granted, conversion narratives tend to run this well-worn path anyway, but I am curious as to what others think about Brett's suggestion.
Tim Lacy said…
I doubt there is a statistical stone relevant to Catholicism that Fr. Andrew Greeley has left unturned. I suspect that in one of Fr. Greeley's many tomes Art will find an answer to his question.

I agree with Kelly Baker that few subjects other than religion have more consequences for curious students not on their best behavior. - TL