When one examines the ideological groundwork for most modern-day political positions, one can’t help but notice something that is very out of place. Why is it that much of today’s political establishments hold so-called “post-ideological” liberal political views that are clearly grounded in a type of secular theology? Haven’t we (as an enlightened, progressive political society) moved on from such petty irrational sciences? Maybe we are not as post-theological as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. Why is this the case? I believe that one way we can answer this question is by analyzing the Enlightenment.
One of the primary aspirations of the Enlightenment was to create a civil religion, (something lucidly clear in the writings of Rousseau), a “surrogate forms of transcendence” that would replace the old forms of superstition.1 Rousseau, in The Social Contract, states that: “Anyone who ventures to say: ‘Outside the Church is no salvation’ should be driven from the state.” This bit of the text is telling for two reasons. Firstly, the quote seems to suggest that Liberalism by its very nature needs to resort to illiberal methods in order to maintain itself. Secondly, it is also implicitly admitting the surrogate like nature of its theology, and consequently, the political nature of theological statements. Catholics ought to recognize this attribute of theology and utilize it. For what is urgently needed is the creation of a thoroughly Catholic radical political theology based on an orthodox interpretation of the Eucharist.
The groundwork for this political theology should be a centering of the Eucharist as the political subject that inspires our conceptions of justice and politics. This political theology should fundamentally transform normative notions of political economy, value, and society. And by recognizing the importance of theology in the political sphere, we will be able to formulate new conceptions and ideological tools to counter liberal hegemony. This formulation will come about by rejecting both the pseudo-religion of liberalism, and by rejecting the political quietism of “respectable” traditionalism.
Furthermore, I believe that by reaffirming the material reality of the Eucharist, we will be able to combat the virus of practical unbelief that is so prevalent with the laity (even among the clergy!) The sad truth is that many in the mainstream church do not really believe – for it seems as if the new theological fad these days is neo-Zwinglianism. And this goes so deep that many self-described Catholics deny the Real Presence of the Eucharist, and even the necessity of mass!
This unbelief becomes extremely clear in one priest’s (Camilo Torres Restrepo of the Marxist-Leninist ELN) proclamation that: “I have taken off my cassock in order to be a truer priest”2 and: “I have stopped offering mass to live out the love for my neighbor.”3 But while the sentiment is laudable, it is still completely false. How does one come to such a completely off-the-mark conclusion? Besides the injustice of such a choice, isn’t celebrating the Liturgy actually the most radical thing a priest can do? Maybe we need a Catholic materialism. Not the vulgar materialism of the New Atheist crowd, but rather a materialism that takes into account the whole of the material. I mean if one truly believes the bread is flesh and the wine is blood, then is that not the ultimate affirmation of concrete reality?
This recognition of the realness of objects (physically and spiritually) allows for the barrier between the exterior nature of the Eucharist (its manifestation, it being a part of the world, its social being, etc.) and its interior attributes (its economic value) to be closed. The contradiction between material goods and spiritual goods is resolved. And with this new understanding of the Eucharist, one must take these things to their radical political conclusions.
By recognizing the Eucharist as the material and physical manifestation of Christ, one should also view it as a social object: an object that exists outside of the cold logic of Capital. This logic of Capitalism is best described by Friedrich Engels in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy where he states that for liberal society, “it is no longer a question of value; the same system which appears to attach such importance to value, which confers on the abstraction of value in money the honour of having an existence of its own — this very system destroys by means of competition the inherent value of all things.”4
The Catholic (as opposed to the Zwinglian) conception of the Eucharist subverts this logic by signifying something beyond itself. Signifying a value that exists beyond its physicality, while at the simultaneously retaining its symbolic value (or the accidents) of unleavened bread and wine. Contrariwise, the Eucharist also stresses the necessity of material goods. This recognition of the interconnected nature of the material and spiritual character of the Eucharist allows for a complete destruction of the so-called tension between politics and theology. The Eucharist is bread for our souls, but also for our stomachs.
Nevertheless, the problem of alienation seems to remain with us – be it alienated forms of gender, community, religion, labor, or consumption – and there seems to be no escape. State institutions and capitalist modes of distribution have failed to provide us with non-alienated forms of life. With a turn to the secular opposition, all we find is nihilism. Thus, for Catholics, all that is left to turn to is the liturgy.
Being the real manifestation of Christ on earth, the Eucharist overcomes the Protestant alienation (“I only know Christ through the Bible”, etc.) that produces the type of work ethic – as aptly noted by Max Weber – that so permeates our society today. Furthermore, when viewed within the context of state hegemony and power, the Eucharist becomes something that produces a counter-polis, a counter-hegemony against forms of domination. And in this sense, it manifests itself each time within the local community of believers and draws them together through the act of consecration. Each time a priest celebrates Mass, it becomes an act of resistance (inadvertently or not) against capital and an act of solidarity with the oppressed throughout the world.5 It becomes “a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” – manifesting itself in the corpus mysticum et politicum.6
By the same token, the Eucharist can be viewed as a counter-polis of the oppressed. This counter-polis escapes the alienating nature of liberal democracy through it being the concrete materialization of the community. In this sense, the community moves itself from an abstract concept to a concrete material existence. Individuals no longer face the concept of community as an abstract concept. The Eucharist removes the alienation from one’s community by formalizing and materializing itself as a literal and symbolic reference point where every act must spring from. Therefore, Eagleton is absolutely correct when he states that the Eucharist is “the symbolic transcendence of all historical alienation.”7
So – with this all said – Catholics ought to start taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as a deadening drug a bit more seriously. And maybe we should start by rejecting that tempting position known as political quietism. For – read properly – the Eucharist calls us to transform theory into practice; and, in the final analysis, political action.
1 McCarraher, Eugene // Dissent (00123846); Fall 2014, Vol. 61 Issue 4, p132
2 Ruiz, Bert. The Colombian Civil War. McFarland, 2001.
4 Engels, Frederick. “Outlines of a critique of political economy.” Retrieved August 1 (1844): 2008.
5 Psalm 9:9
7 Doody, John, Kim Paffenroth, and Kevin L. Hughes, eds. Augustine and politics. Vol. 15. Lexington Books, 2005
Albrecht Bastian is a freelance writer.