Friday, July 11, 2008

The Case of the Communion Cracker

A member of the studio audience has written to me and asked that I pass moral judgment on The Case of the Communion Cracker.

In fact, there are several different moral issues now related to this event. We have the original event in which a student took a communion cracker from a church, the actions taken to stop the student from taking the cracker, the threats against the student, and PZ Myers’ response to those threats.

Let’s start at the beginning.

‘Body of Christ’ snatched from church, held hostage by UCF student

Student who took religious icon getting death threats

‘Body of Christ’ returned to church after student receives email threats

The facts of the case, as laid before me are that name walked into a church, went through the communion service, had a communion wafer placed on his tongue. He removed it, and he attempted to leave the church with it.

This is theft, plain and simple.

The communion cracker is the property of the church. It is given to parishioners under an implied contract where the person receiving the property agrees to certain terms and conditions – these being that the cracker will be eaten on the spot. The student, in this case, indicated his agreement to these terms and conditions by opening his mouth and allowing the cracker to be placed inside. That he had no intention of consuming the cracker demonstrates that he engaged in an act of deception (he lied) to acquire property that would not have otherwise been given to him. After obtaining illicit possession of the property, he attempted to (and succeeded in) removing it from the premises. This constitutes theft.

Having said this, we are talking about the theft of a cracker here. This is not a kidnapping, or anything on that order. Nor is it a hostage situation. It is theft. The cracker was the property of the church, and it was stolen.

The next issue before me is that people who noticed that the student was stealing church property attempted to use force to stop the theft. The student, in this case, claimed that the use of force was wrong.

The student, in this case, was mistaken.

If I noticed somebody had entered my home and was leaving with my property, I would be within my rights to use violence in order to prevent the theft. Some people would argue that I would be within my rights to shoot the thief. I would not go that far. However, grabbing the thief as he left my property and demanding by force or threat of force that he leave the stolen property behind would be within my rights – I would not be expected to be condemned for it.

Then there was the reaction of the Catholics after the student had successfully stolen church property – including death threats and alleged planned attempts to storm the student’s room to ‘rescue the hostage’.

These types of actions in insanely disproportionate to the crime that was committed.

In fact, it borders on criminal insanity.

Let’s say I have a favorite pet rock, Herbert. The neighbor kid stole it. To get the rock back, I break into my neighbor’s house, kill the kid, and take my rock.

It is my rock.

Then, the police start asking me questions. They find out that I believe that this rock is a real person – that if Herbert did not get his ‘medicine’ then he would suffer horrible agony, and it is to prevent this agony that I broke into the house, killed the kid, and brought back my rock.

That story that I told would be considered justification for locking me up as a danger to society.

There is nothing wrong with me having a special affection for my pet rock Herbert. However, when a person’s pet beliefs make them a threat to the well-being of others – when it makes them consider acts of extreme violence – then it is time for civilized people to recognize that the person who holds these beliefs are a danger to others, and to treat them accordingly.

The fact that there might be a large number of them may be relevant to their political power – which has important practical implications. However, it is not an argument against the fact of the matter, that these people are suffering from false beliefs that make them a threat to others.

Demagogues will take what I wrote above and twist it into saying that I think Catholics should be rounded up and hauled off into concentration camps for our own protection. These are people who are so fond of bearing false witness against others that they cannot resist the opportunity to find absurd interpretations of what other write.

A very small percentage of the Catholic population responded to these claims with death threats. A large percentage of the Catholic population would view the death threats as inappropriate and would condemn anybody who ever acted violently. So, a vast majority of Catholics show no signs whatsoever that their religious beliefs make them a threat to others – at least in this sense.

The blame among the Catholics belongs only to those who make the threats or who commit acts of violence, not to the whole Catholic population. Just as the blame for the theft of this communion cracker belongs to the person who stole it and not to the whole of whatever group he may belong to.

Of course, a few, who feed off of the fear and the hate that they grow in others, will ignore this set of facts and promote a gross misinterpretation of what was said – in order to grow the fear and hatred that they life off of.


Anonymous said...

This is theft, plain and simple.

I don't think it is that plain and simple. Your conclusion hinges on your following remark:

The communion cracker is the property of the church. It is given to parishioners under an implied contract where the person receiving the property agrees to certain terms and conditions – these being that the cracker will be eaten on the spot.

What makes you think that there is such an "implied contract"? There may be assumptions on the part of the priest as to what I should do with the cracker, but I would like to hear your evidence that these assumptions constitute a "contract".

The way I see it, the second the priest placed the cracker in the kid's mouth, I would argue that it became the kid's property. Since there is no expectation of payment, what other criterion would you use to define the point at which the cracker comes into the kid's possession? Would you still say that it is property of the church after it has been swallowed? After it has been digested? After it has been excreted?

There is another, deeper problem: if you are a Catholic (as the people in that church were), then you believe that the cracker is literally turned into the body of Christ by consecration. But clearly, the body of Christ does not belong to the church. This may be why (some) Catholics are treating this as a kidnapping rather than theft. But if we follow that logic, then they are also kidnappers: Christ did not enter the church voluntarily -- he was forced to enter it when the priest consecrated the crackers. In that sense, the kid was freeing a hostage, rather than taking one.

anticant said...

It is difficult to keep a straight face and discuss religious dogma rationally. However, I do think your approach in this instance is superficial, as you don't take into account the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation which, as Gregory says, renders the consecrated Host the actual body of Christ. As this is one of the deepest "six impossible things before breakfast" mysteries which Catholics are required to believe, their outrage at the misuse of the Host is understandable, however barmy.

And I don't think the Christ Christians believe in is 'forced' to do anything, being the Godhead and a free spirit [if he exists, that is].

Anonymous said...

Following Gregory Earl, even if there'd been an implied contract to eat the wafer, that the kid was given the wafer means that it was not a theft. A theft is unlawfully taking something, but you can't steal something that was given to you to keep (only the manner in which the wafer should have been kept is disputed here).

Only courts can enforce contracts, so grabbing the kid by the arm and trying to pry the wafer from him was clearly unlawful.

Tony Lloyd said...

"It's theft, plain and simple"

Ok, from others, it may not stand up in a court of law. But when was "standing up in a court of law" ever a good guide to morality. It was wrong, plain and simple.

I think Bill Donahue is losing it now. Some stupid atheist response has produced some stupid, hysterical, Catholic-Defence-League-Response.

To me the great divide is not between the atheists and the "faith-cummunity" but between half-way decent people and fundies. It's a pity that there are so many fundies on both sides.

Can't Bill Donahue and P Z Myers just have a beer together? Probably not. Depressing, isn't it?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In all instances what the Catholics believe about trans-substantiation is not relevant here.

On the issue of trans-substantiation, they are wrong. The premise that the cracker changes into the body of Christ is a false premise and there is no room for a false premise in trying to construct a sound argument.

As such, I am not going to follow the 'logic' of this absurdly false belief anywhere. There is no sensible place to go with it.

We're talking about a cracker.

The student clearly knew what he was communicating to the priest by opening his mouth at communion. He also knew that he was being deceptive - that what he was communicating was false. The priest would not have given the cracker to the student if the student had been honest, so the student did not acquire ownership of the cracker. He acquired wrongful possession - theft.

If the student (or anybody else at communion) consumes the cracker then he acquires it properly - then the terms under which the Church would have consented to giving the cracker have been met. This is honest possession and does transfer ownership.

Also, in the context of this essay - in the context of this whole blog (unless specified otherwise) - I am talking about morality, not law. Theft is the immoral taking of somethng.

Let the lawyers debate which laws were broken. It is possible to have just and unjust laws - laws that follow and laws that violate moral principles. I am concerned with what just law would look like.

If somebody walked into my house and started to walk out with something that was mine - even if I might have handed it to him under false pretenses (and immediately recognized the deception), I would be within my moral rights to use force to stop him.

If a purse snatcher tried to take my wife's purse, she would be within her moral rights to hit him with it.

Anonymous said...

Your anology of theft is just wrong.

He was allowed in, welcomed even. He was then given something. He wasn't given it for a short period of time. He wasn't given it to look at then expected to give it back.

He was just given it. Although they expected him to eat it, they did not expect him to give it back. One way or the other, that cracker was leaving that church.

The "theft" analogy, of someone walking into your house, you giving them something, and them leaving with it does not work.

A better analogy would be you inviting someone into your house and giving them a piece of paper. You say thaty they can leave your house with the paper. You expect them to put it in their left trouser pocket (but you do not tell them this, and you do not ask them specifically to do so). Then they put it in their shirt pocket and leave.

I can't really think of a better way to put it. This was not theft, in any sense of the word. It was simply not what they expected to happen. There is a significant difference there.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It is theft because the priest would not have given the student the cracker unless the student promised to perform a specific act.

It does not matter that this exchange of information was not made in words. It was made in 'sign language'. The act of stepping up to the communion, opening one's mouth, and taking the cracker is as much an act of communication as speaking the words (or signing the words). Everybody knows what this action means.

In this case, the student lied.

The priest would not have given the student the cracker if the student had told the truth.

This means the student wrongfully acquired the property of another person - and that makes it theft.

It is as if I gave a candy bar to my nephew after he promised to share it with his niece. He then takes the candy bar for himself. So I say, "Give it back to me!"

If he destroys the candy bar and cannot give it back, that does not change the fact that it was not his to destroy, since he lied to gain possession of it.

Burt Likko said...

Alonzo, what about Prof. PZ Myers and his response to this story? He hears about it, thinks the entire thing is utterly ridiculous, and makes an angry-sounding post to that effect on his personal blog. In his post, Prof. Myers asks someone to 'score' consecrated communion wafers and threatens to desecrate those wafers on a webcam in an unspecified manner.

The Catholic League of America then steps in, wielding a not inconsiderable (if not overwhelming) amount of political power, and calls for Prof. Myers (a tenured professor at a branch of the University of Minnesota) to be sacked for his "disrespectful" comments. The CLA links the university to the post by noting that there is a link to Prof. Myers' personal blog on his university profile.

My take on that phase of things is that Myers is guilty of immoderate rhetoric in offering his assessment of the underlying cracker-theft incident; he used some language that could be taken as disrespectful of Catholics. But no reasonable person could possibly suggest that Myers was either being serious or that he was attempting to associate the university with his terrible threat to desecrate a holy cracker. So the CLA's response to Myers is also astonishingly disproportionate to anything Myers did wrong. They would induce the university to breach its contract with Myers by stripping him of his tenure and firing him -- and this despite the fact that Myers has not actually even desecrated a communion host yet, although I'm not sure what difference it would make if he had followed through on his rhetorical threat.

Burt Likko said...

Also, by dwelling on the silliness of the religious dogma question, I think you're sidestepping the issue. Of course the cracker isn't really the body of Jesus. Nor should any sane Catholic consider it so. But the desecration of the cracker is a symbolic gesture of contempt and disrespect for the Roman Catholic Church.

It's one thing to make an argument, whether verbal or symbolic, that "Catholicism is a silly religion and you shouldn't believe in it." It's something else entirely to say, "It is good to anger and upset Catholics because of their silly beliefs." I would distinguish "holding the host hostage" from, for instance, publishing the Mohammed cartoons and angering easily-offended Muslims in that publishing those cartoons made political, social, and religious points. What the student who stole the communion wafer did was not done to make some kind of comment about Christianity but instead was a barely-articulate expression of anger and derision directed at the RCC.

Todd Sayre said...

“It is as if I gave a candy bar to my nephew after he promised to share it with his niece. He then takes the candy bar for himself. So I say, "Give it back to me!”

Now you've introduced an injured party, your niece, who isn't getting part (half? was her portion defined in the "implied contract"?) of a candy bar. It's more like you giving a (stale tasteless) candy bar to your nephew with the assumption that he will eat it while he's still over at your house but instead he sticks it in his pocket for later.

At least you didn't construct an analogy with something actually illegal in it.

bpabbott said...


Perhaps you might add a few words placing "This is theft, plain and simple" in a bit more context.

Is such consistent with the left of (1) a sugar packet from a diner, (2) a news paper from a news stand, (3) a can of soda from a convenience store, (4) something greater, or (5) something less?

Anonymous said...

Ok, let's take a purely moral perspective and let us disregard false premises. In this case, I don't think you have made a case for theft.

During communion, a priest places a cracker in some kid's mouth. The priest does so under the assumption that (a) the cracker is the body of Christ, and (b) BECAUSE it is the body of Christ, it must be eaten at once. Note that there is no other reason for the expectation of immediate ingestion. Nothing in the rules of Catholicism says that you must eat immediately anything that a priest may place in your mouth during communion. For example, if the priest noticed, while giving communion, that one of his flock, a known diabetic, is about to pass out, he could place a jelly bean in that person's mouth to prevent this. That person would be under no obligation to eat the jelly bean immediately. Likewise, the priest could give some unconsecrated crackers to a kid looking very hungry -- again, no expectation that they must be eaten at once. It is only the consecrated wafer that must be eaten at once (or at least during the ritual), since eating the body of Christ is what the ritual is all about. However, as you yourself admit, the consecrated communion wafer is NOT the body of Christ -- the whole ritual is based on a transparently false assumption, rendering any "implied contract" tied to the ritual and its assumptions null and void.

In other words, the priest placed a simple cracker in the kid's mouth. If someone places a cracker in my mouth, no matter where, no matter when, that cracker is mine to keep.

Maybe things would change if there were an injured party (see Todd Sayre's comment). The church members seemed to feel they were injured, but this feeling was, again, based on the false assumption that the communion wafer is the body of Christ. No body-of-Christ, no injured party.

This is no theft.

bpabbott said...

Theft or not theft?

There was a theft in the same manner that slipping a packet of sugar substitute in you pocket while having coffee at a diner is theft.

Just like the sweetener, the cracker was intended to be consumed while engaged in a particular activity. In neither case is the item expected to be remove from the establishment for some other activity or purpose.

However, that does not mean that any legally punishable offense took place. It is a moral offense, but too inconsequential to merit legal action (imo).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Todd Sayer

How can there be an injured third party if the nephew now owns the chocolate bar? The claim that there is an injured third party concedes the point - that it is not the case that a person becomes the rightful owner of property that he acquires possession of through fraud.

It is precisely because the nephew does not become the rightful owner of property that he has acquired through fraud that the niece is an injured third party.

Fraud being a subcategory of theft where the property is wrongfully acquired through deception, as opposed to stealth (burglary) or force (robbery).


The thief does not get to determine the value of the object stolen. The value of an object is determined by what the owner of the object would accept in trade for the object.

In economics, this is known as the indifference curve - the point at which a person is indifferent to being in state A as opposed to state B. In the case of taking a packet of sugar, it takes very little to restore the restaurant to the same indifference curve.

In the case of a communion wafer, it takes much more.

However, we then need to add in the fact that value grounded on false beliefs does not exist. If I have a painting that I think was painted by Monet, but which was in fact a cheap replica, the person who takes the painting is not morally charged with taking a Monet. He is charged with taking a cheap replica.

Finally, we do need to figure in symbolic value. A Distinguished Service Cross is, in fact, simply a piece of cloth and some metal. It's value is determined by what it symbolizes. The value of a Distinguished Service Cross to the person who has been awarded one is probably very high. That value needs to be included when determining the magnitude of the wrong done by the thief who takes it.

Anonymous said...

It is precisely because the nephew does not become the rightful owner of property that he has acquired through fraud that the niece is an injured third party.

No. The niece is an injured third party because she has been led to expect that she will get a share of the candy bar but now does not receive that share. The nephew is the one responsible for the injury because it is up to him to share or not to share the candy bar. What matters is that he is in control of the candy bar. Whether or not he is now the rightful owner is irrelevant to the issue of an injured third party.

In the case of the communion wafer, there either is no injured party at all (if you don't believe in transubstantiation) or the injured party would be Christ (if you do). Either way, the wafer no longer belongs to the church once it enters the mouth of a (sincere or insincere) participant in the communion ritual.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Gregory Earl

We do not need to assume that the niece even knows about the deal. Thus, no expectations.

Furthermore, what is it that lead the niece to expect that she will get a share of the candy bar? If the nephew becomes the rightful owner of the candy bar once obtaining possession (through fraud), then the niece's expectations become unreasonable. She may hope for a piece of the candy bar, but the claim that she has some sort of right to a piece of the candy bar would be in conflict with the claim that the nephew becomes the owner of the candy bar as a result of lying to obtain it.

There is no injured third party in the church case, because the 'injured third party' property is not relevant. The nephew does not become the rightful owner of property fraudulently acquired.

The rightful owner of property acquired through fraud is still the person who was defauded out of the property.

Todd Sayre said...

Alonzo Fyef,
The analogy you used went beyond simple theft by fraud and incorporated an example of theft by depriving as well. In your analogy the nephew not only stole from you by lying but also stole from your niece by not giving her the portion of the candy bar she was owed. My point was that your analogy incorporated two kinds of theft (fraud, depriving) whereas the original case incorporated only one (fraud). That breaks the analogy in my mind.

Unknown said...

The student, in this case, claimed that the use of force was wrong.

I know that shops have problems with this over here - They can not physically stop someone until they leave the store.

Doug Indeap said...

Analyzing this act in terms of whether or not it amounts to petty theft addresses one aspect of the morality of this act, but leaves out of the equation any consideration of the actor's motivation. I'm not talking about mens rea, i.e., the mental element (e.g., intent, recklessness, and the like) of any crime. Rather I'm thinking of the larger motivation of making a point.

The morality of acts of civil disobedience performed with the aim of making a point and perhaps engendering social reform of some sort, e.g., civil rights in the 60s or the Vietnam war in the 70s, cannot be fully analyzed only by treating them as petty crimes. The larger context warrants some consideration in ascertaining whether the actor's act was moral.

Ron in Houston said...

As a lawyer who believe strongly in civil rights (I'd love to say I'm a civil rights lawyer but unfortunately I've only done very few cases related to civil rights), I agree with transplanted lawyer.

PZ's post on the surface appears to encourages (I'm avoiding the term incites) people to go into Catholic churches to try to get him consecrated communion wafers.

Perhaps it was satire, but unfortunately, many people have problems with the distinction between satire and a true call to arms.

A UCF student for whatever unguided reason goes into a Catholic sanctuary, disrupts their mass, and takes out of their church what they view as most holy.

I don't think Mr. Cook at UCF had the intent to rise to a hate crime.

However, PZ's encouragement of others to emulate this behavior, is beyond the bounds of appropriate free speech.

I think atheists who value ethics, rights, and the rule of law should condemn PZ Myers.

Ron in Houston said...

Read twice post once.

My second paragraph unfortunately went horribly wrong in the grammatical sense.