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July 12, 2008

Bill Donohue and the Catholic League bully PZ Myers over Eucharist joke

When PZ Myers joking suggested that his readers steal communion wafers, Bill Donohue and the Catholic League went ballistic.

PZ made the joke because he was exasperated by media reports of a Florida university student receiving death threats for walking out of church with some unconsumed Eucharist. Ironically, PZ was standing up for the rights of a Catholic student who was being harassed by fellow Catholics.

For the record, the student, Webster Cook, didn't even steal the wafer, it was given to him. Cook is Catholic and is entitled to receive communion.

He says he didn't intend to desecrate the wafer. He just wanted to show it to his non-Catholic friend, whom he had invited to church, before consuming it. It was an unorthodox move, but hardly a hate crime.

Cook says he only walked out with the cracker after a church member saw him take the blessed cracker and physically assaulted him in an attempt to retrieve the wafer. If that's what happened, good for him for walking out. People are free to worship however they like, but that freedom doesn't extend to enforcing their own rules by force.

PZ was joking about desecrating the Eucharist. In his view, the sheer absurdity of death threats over a cracker called for an equally outrageous rhetorical response. Along the lines of: Oh, yeah, I'll desecrate ten crackers Live! on the Internets!!!, what are you going to do about it?

It's called hyperbole, a tactic often used in the these "jokes" the kids enjoy nowadays. Bill Donohue is from an era when any harsh word against the church was punishable heresy. Somewhere there's an Inquisition missing its Inquisitor.

PZ called out bullying by attempting to provoke an even more disproportionate response from the fanatics. He succeeded.

Donohue and his ilk wrap themselves in the mantle of religious freedom, but they don't give a damn about the other part of the First Amendment: freedom of expression.
Some well-intentioned liberals get sucked in by the Catholic League's main rhetorical trick which is to construe any criticism or mockery as a hate crime.

The Catholic League likes to attack the livelihoods of people who criticize them, or run afoul of their proprietary vision of acceptable discourse about the Catholic Church. Donohue and his minions are doing their best to get PZ fired from the University of Minnesota.

Donohue has no religious credentials of his own and no official connection to the Catholic Church. He's not a priest, he's not a theologian. He's just a self-aggrandizing bully who likes to rail against celebrities and get bloggers fired. Why anyone takes him seriously is beyond me. Donohue managed to whip up a minor moral panic around Amanda Marcotte's joke about the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit--as if he and the Catholic League holds the copyright on the Virgin, like Disney does for Mickey Mouse!

For Donohue to construe that remark as hateful towards Catholics should be enough to permanently disqualify him as a cultural critic. Mockery isn't hatred. Being crass isn't a crime. 

Clearly, Bill Donohue can't take a joke. He is the self-appointed defender of one of the richest and most powerful organizations in human history and he has assigned himself the task of policing snark by atheist bloggers. Donohue's complete lack of perspective makes him ridiculous in the truest sense of the word.

If he had more shame, or less money, Donohue would be totally irrelevant.

I wonder how the Catholic League feels about the sale communion wafers as diet snacks in heavily-Catholic Quebec...

Making fun of people who liken the removal of a communion wafer to kidnapping and hostage-taking is A-OK in my book--especially when these folks seem surprisingly unconcerned about the alleged physical assault that preceded the removal, or the death threats that followed.

The Catholic League claims to be a civil rights organization. Yet it consistently targets high-profile atheists like Amanda Marcotte and PZ Myers and attempts to get them fired.  Draw you own conclusions. 


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I bet PZ Myers wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition.


Reminds me of Utah Phillips' line about the Catholic church in his town that had high-fiber, low-fat Communion wafers. They were called I Can't Believe It's Not Jesus!

On the serious: Good post, as usual. Thank you!

If you stand in line to receive Roman Catholic communion, the correct response after the priest or Eucharistic minister hands you the holiest sacrament in that Church is "Amen", not "sucker" to yourself under your breath. The standards under which the Church distributes are well-known: only Roman Catholics in good standing and free of conscious unconfessed mortal (i.e. serious from a Catholic standpoint) sin are eligible.

Cook tried to con the parishioners around him into thinking he had consumed the bread, but in fact was pulling a con to smuggle the bread to his buddy as a show-in-tell item according to reports. He also pulled a con when he stood in line by representing himself to be a Roman Catholic rather than an atheist looking to make a statement. By his first con, he fraudulently induced the priest or Eucharistic minister into handing him a piece of Church property: of minimal value to Cook and to atheists like you and me, of infinite value to the Church. His second con failed, and provoked understandable outrage. We do not make heroes out of wedding crashers but this was far more offensive.

Now Cook holds this deceptively acquired item for ransom of an apology by the diocese for, I guess, I am not sure what, since the parishioners who perhaps wrongfully grabbed his arm are not diocesan employees. ("perhaps" because it's sometimes reasonable to use non-lethal force to stop a non-lethal theft or con job.) It's clear that an apology has value; that's why Cook is holding the bread for it. The bread is not a hostage; stolen art held for ransom would be a better analogy.

I did not take Myers' comments as satire at all, but as a published call to his readership for deception, larceny by trick and trespass as a protest, to repeat Cook's act and to expand it nationwide and perhaps worldwide. Conning a priest into giving a communion wafer not for its intended purpose - and with intent to make a "civil" [sic] disobedience protest with same - is fraud, just as intentionally talking a McDonald's clerk into handing you a Big Mac without your then paying for it (under the theory that you did not "promise to pay") is also fraud.

I am an atheist and probably would have the same concerns about public university funding of religious student organizations and activities that Cook had. But I hope that Cook gets prosecuted at least for disorderly conduct (which is what this intentional disruption of a private religious service appears to have been) if not larceny by trick or its Florida equivalent, and that Myers either apologizes (perhaps he has in the interim, but not as of yesterday) or gets reprimanded or fired for moral turpitude: NOT for advocating the desecration a religious artifact but for issuing a public call for lying and stealing. Mind you, if he had ordered a thousand Bibles and burned them without lying or stealing, I would have no complaint, and might mail him one of mine (bought, not conned, into my library).

This in my mind is a world away from Donohue's media assassination of Marcotte, who is in my estimation strictly honest now and was then in all events before, during and after her vicious mau-mauing out of the Edwards campaign. From a realpolitik standpoint, I think it's a good thing for atheist/secular advocacy for Myers and Cook to crash and burn, to kill the claim that prominent atheists are protectors of and apologists for buncombe artists and trespassers. This incident may be worth millions in funding to the Catholic League; Myers might have thought about Catholic backlash for actually advocating that atheists and secularists infiltrate religious ceremonies for the purpose of the desecration of their activities.

You clearly have a much more positive view of Myers' conduct than do I, Lindsay, and since you take both philosophy and honesty strictly seriously, I would value your response to the foregoing. Perhaps I have made a serious error in my analysis, and you would be the best person I can think of to point it out. In any event, cheers.

Bruce, you think this was some kind of "con"? That it should be subject to prosecution? And you say you are an atheist? hooo boy.

Maybe you should follow up on the news. The wafer was returned, because of the death threats. Death. Threats. Do you have no sense of proportion?

And people made death threats over the publication of images of Muhammad. It doesn't mean that the death threats or the anger was rational, but it also doesn't mean that the publication wasn't motivated by ill will.

Of course death threats are outrageous. Of course the violent response of the Catholics is unjustified. Nevertheless, I, also an atheist, don't believe Cook's story. I won't shy away from making it clear that I don't believe in someone's god, but I nevertheless think they should be allowed to carry on their ridiculous worship unmolested.

Nobody deserves death threats, period. Any group that accuses a college student of hate crimes over a dispute about a communion wafer and remains silent on death threats emerging from the same incident forfeits all credibility.

And seriously, who really thinks PZ Myers expected anyone to steal communion wafers for him? He was being facetious.

All kinds of motives are being attributed to Cook, without much documentary evidence. The Catholic League's press releases appear to be the sole source of the "atheist steals cracker" hypothesis. There are rumors that Cook stole the cracker as some kind of atheist civil disobedience, but I wasn't able to find any evidence of those speculations.

Cook says that he didn't intend to walk out with the Eucharist until he got physically accosted by a church official and that he walked out with the Eucharist hoping to get an apology for the physical violence.

The Catholic League seems to be riffing off a couple sentences

"The church feels that I'm the problem here," Cook said. "The problem is actually that this is a publicly-funded religious institution. Through student government here, we fund them through an activity and service, so they're receiving student money."

Cook is upset more than $40,000 in student fees have been allocated to support religious organizations on campus for the 2008-2009 school year, according to student government records. He denied he is holding the Eucharist hostage to protest that support.

That's all the evidence I could find regarding the alleged connection between Cook's views on the student fees and the Eucharist. In fact, he has denied there was a connection from the beginning. The way the article is worded, it seems more likely that the university support angle was something Cook raised after the fact, not the motive for the incident in the first place.

There's no evidence that he's an avowed atheist.

The idea that he'd steal the Eucharist to protest student fees doesn't make any sense on it's face, especially when there's no evidence that he tried to take advantage of media exposure to advance what the Catholic League claims was his ideological agenda.

On the contrary, Cook has explicitly denied from the outset that the incident in church had anything to do with his position on student fees. If you're having a dispute with a church over an incident of alleged violence, it's quite fair and reasonable to point out that the church receives University support and therefore should be held accountable to university rules about non-violence, etc.

I'm also not convinced that "It was a joke!" is much of a defense of anything, any more than "I was being ironic!" is.

In any event, I'm not claiming that Cook is an atheist, that the Catholic League is being reasonable, that the Catholics at the university are being reasonable, or even that the use of public funds for religious student groups is legitimate. I think the opposite of all of those things.

Nevertheless, I don't believe Cook's story. I don't have documentary evidence, but then, neither does anyone else. All we have is circumstantial evidence. The "I'm not giving it back until I meet with the Bishop" bit seems like petty vengeance to me, and this comment seems like a non-sequitor:

""The church feels that I'm the problem here," Cook said. "The problem is actually that this is a publicly-funded religious institution. Through student government here, we fund them through an activity and service, so they're receiving student money."

I agree with him, but it comes out of nowhere. I am hardly certain, but I get the feeling that this is more about needling the Catholics than a chance misunderstanding.

But even Cook's motives were exactly as he says they were, I still think that PZ's joke is over the line. No matter how legitimate and excellent a point he may have intended to make, facetiously calling for people to disrupt religious services doesn't seem to me to be a good way to make it. I don't think anyone owes religion as such respect, but I also want people to be able to pursue their notion of the good life without harassment.

If people (other than the Catholic League) are genuinely concerned that their observances are going to be disrupted by interlopers intent on what take to be serious desecration, I don't see how "Can't you take a joke?" helps matters.

And to be clear, death threats and so on are always unjustified. The Catholics here are way out of line. The university shouldn't be funding them at all.

The Catholic League is trying to get PZ Myers fired for saying something tacky about the Eucharist. It was a crass joke. You can criticize his rhetoric all you want. Call it inflammatory, call it bad taste. The fact that something was meant as a joke doesn't excuse the joke, but it does undercut the hysteria of the pearl-clutching Catholic League which maintain that PZ deserves to lose his job.

But let's not recycle the Catholic League's propaganda. It looks like Cook is being framed as an atheist activist who made a premeditated attempt to sabotage the Mass. He's apparently being framed by the Catholic League, which has a record of attempting to destroy people when said destruction furthers its political agenda and Bill Donohue's facetime on TV.

Oh, of course. I don't mean to at all defend the Catholic League's attempt to get Meyers fired. I'm precisely disagreeing with Meyer's joke, both in substance and in rhetorical presentation. I think it's a crappy thing to do to ask people to disrupt others' religious services then say, "Just kidding!" when people get upset, even if you were just kidding all along.

But that just means PZ is being an asshole. It shouldn't affect his job at all. And of course, Donohue is a self-aggrandizing scumbag who got his start claiming that people claiming to have been molested by priests either making it up or asking for it.

But I take it as a given that we agree Donohue is wicked. I'm upset that the guy on my side acted like an asshole, though I of course agree that he shouldn't face threats for it.

I think we're basically in agreement, Thom.

There's a tension in religious protection here that might also be in play in Myers' response.

When Donahue calls for the expulsion of the student from school, he must think that that is punishment proportional to his violation of the law. Myers is provoking what he considers the non-proportionality of the proposed punishment to the prima facie act of taking a cracker.
In order to deal out a harsh punishment (which they haven't yet) the university authorities must at least indirectly aver that belief in transubstatiation is a rational possibility. That's what I think rankles Myers.

Hey anti-Catholic bigots;

It's not a "cracker" to us after it has been blessed, have a little respect for other people's beliefs, you don't go into someone's house and piss on the floor and expect nothing to be done to you.

When the bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, they cease to be bread and wine, and become instead the body and blood of Christ: although the empirical appearances are not changed, the reality is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit who has been called down upon the bread and wine. The consecration of the bread (known as the host) and wine represents the separation of Jesus' body from his blood at Calvary. However, since he has risen, the Church teaches that his body and blood can no longer be truly separated. Where one is, the other must be. Therefore, although the priest (or minister) says "The body of Christ" when administering the host, and "The blood of Christ" when presenting the chalice, the communicant who receives either one receives Christ, whole and entire.The mysterious change of the reality of the bread and wine is called transubstantiation.

I never assumed that Myers was joking. He may well be, but it doesn't matter.

I find his comments entirely reasonable. His frustration with religious lunacy is quite clearly apparent, and quite understandable. Any sane human being should be frustrated by a culture where abusing a cracker is an act of heinous blasphemy, one that can warrant numerous death threats. Why is he wrong to call this 'Dark Age superstition and malice'?

If you find yourself offended by his words, I'm sorry to hear it. Here's why I think that they're reasonable: what people (especially religious people) need to realize is that unless your beliefs have some basis in reality, other people have absolutely no obligation to respect them, no matter how strongly you hold them. I could very well deem eating donuts offensive as they are the living flesh of my toroidal lord incarnate, and this could inspire me to threaten people at dunkin donuts. If this were the case, a court would do well to find me insane and my acts criminal. Why should atheists and non believers respect beliefs that are by no means less absurd? The actions of the people who threatened Webster Cook are every bit as insane or criminal.

To repeat my point: if you can reason why your belief has any bearing in reality (personal convictions and supernatural deities aside), then you can expect it to be respected by a skeptic. Since I've never known religious beliefs to fit this criteria, I think that ridicule is a perfectly appropriate response. That it is considered rude does not make it any less pertinent.

And to answer to the anonymous poster above, by reality I mean the empirical reality that you so readily disregard. That's the only kind of reality that we can agree on. I don't grant that there is a holy ghost, the same as you don't grant that there is a donut lord. Now please explain to me what transubstantiation has to do with reality without invoking the Holy Spirit or any other supernatural cause. If you can't, then please stop eating donuts at once, you anti-Toroidal bigot!

As for the claim made by Bruce, that one is committing fraud by using a wafer for something other than its intended purpose, I don't believe the church can make any legal claim as to the intended use of their wafer once they hand it over. You may find it immoral, but I doubt it's illegal (whereas the subsequent bullying of Cook probably is) and to someone who doesn't accept transubstantiation it's hardly immoral. Calling it theft is certainly an exaggeration, and the fact that you call walking away with a cracker you were given to eat a 'non-lethal theft' that may warrant 'non-lethal force' is frankly more than a bit disturbing.

Please take PZ's message in context. He did not threaten anyone (the same cannot be said for the Catholics in this case). He simply suggested an act of protest against a campaign of intimidation and hysteria targeted against Webster Cook for no good reason.

Oh for the love of Christ. The kids in the apartment downstairs had a whole jar of host that they fed to their hamster, and they were as Catholic as the pope. (Maybe not the hamster – his cage hadn't any of the religious tchotchkes that cluttered the rest of the house.)

P. Z. Myers spends an inordinate amount of time waging the crusade against religio-nuttery and I think the source of his problem is revealed in the second paragraph of his post: “Here's a story that will destroy your hopes for a reasonable humanity”. A faith in a reasonable humanity, now or ever, is just as irrational as faith in magic crackers. Belief in gods, ghosts, signs, trinkets, tokens, and all manner of spiritual folderol is hardwired into mens' minds. If not sacred wafers, then sacred daggers, or feathers, or purple dirt, or who knows what.

I saw the power of the wafer when back in the eighties, I attended mass at St. Peter's in Rome. (Not Catholic, just happened to be on Rome on X-mas eve when the bars are all closed.) After spending hours packed as tight as toothpicks in a box listening to pope John Paul reciting the mass or whatever in every language from Andamanese to Zulu, the pope and a flock of cardinals, bishops, priests and a stray alter boy or two, made their way through the crowd (and past me by a few feet) to the door, swinging censers and handing out host like Mardi Gras beads. Hundreds of people pressed through the throng, tongue first, towards the pope. Once a priest or bishop had slapped a wafer onto their waiting tongues, many were very close to swooning. I had never seen religious ecstasy up close. I had the feeling I was crashing a nearly orgiastic party.

People take their religions murderously seriously. I generally just keep quiet and avoid eye contact when passing the faithful in the street. They're generally harmless, but don't get them riled.

Calling all discussion and criticism (even impolite) of dogma "bigotry" is not a sign of a healthy worldview.

"A faith in a reasonable humanity, now or ever, is just as irrational as faith in magic crackers."

That's true, though of course there are different levels of irrationality. And its still a bit shocking to see how many people subscribe to Dark Age-levels of insanity within a civilization that can manage an air-traffic control system, and which expects you to bathe at least every few days.

Bruce, I do not approve either of Cook's actions, or or PZ Meyer's article. Both are disrespectful of Catholic religious beliefs. I see no indication that PZ Meyer is joking when he calls for others to steal the Eucharist, and I agree that what Cook did was morally fraudulent. However, I'm rather surprised that you characterize it as larceny by trick or his behavior as disorderly conduct. Your understanding of the law is surely much better than mine, but I can't see how the fact that the Catholic church has an understanding as to the acceptable purposes and recipients of the Eucharist gives me a legal obligation to respect their understanding (I do believe it gives me a moral obligation to). I don't see how Cook can have been construed as entering into any sort of contract or agreement. They offered him a free wafer, and he took it. The Catholic church made a mistake as to what he was going to do with it, and what his status in the church was, but that's their mistake, not the result of fraud on his part. If I offer you a free Bible in the hopes that you will "read it with an open mind," but you take it only with the intent of making fun of it to your friends, or throwing it in the trash, that's surely not legally fraud, is it? As I said, I'm sure your understanding of the law is much better than mine, so I'd be genuinely curious how "larceny by trick" can be defined as to make Cook's actions illegal.

While I disapprove of Cook's actions, and PZ Meyer's article, I think it goes without saying that death threats and firing are not appropriate responses.

I do not see anything that indicates that PZ Meyer is joking, other than the fact that his suggested actions are outrageous. By this standard, any call for outrageous actions can be justified as a joke. More importantly, PZ Meyer is disrespectful of the reasons that Catholics might be angry about Cook's actions. While I personally believe that the consecrated communion wafer is simply a cracker, I think it perfectly understandable why Catholics who think it the body of Christ would be angry (again, death threats are not appropriate). I believe that the Koran is just a book, but do not approve of ripping them apart in front of Muslim prisoners. I believe that the bear in the Ainu bear ritual is simply a bear, rather than an incarnation of a mountain god, but I think it would be offensive to choose to participate in the ritual, and then start telling the Ainu that it's just a stupid bear. I would not walk into a Baha'i friend's house, point to their picture of Bahaullah, and say "you know he's just a man, right?" Of course, I have no obligation to believe what they do, and in fact find all of these beliefs rather silly, but there are appropriate and inappropriate (and grossly inappropriate) contexts to debate them and express my disbelief.

When thinking about why Catholics might be upset, I think I should think about what Catholics believe, even if I find those beliefs ridiculous (as I do), just as I would think about what the Ainu believe in judging their reaction to a disruption of their bear sacrifice. Catholics do not think that the Eucharist is "symbolic" of the body of Christ. Most Protestants think that, but the Catholics believe that it is the body of Christ. Stories of Quebecoids eating unconsecrated wafers for snacks, or kids feeding unconsecrated host to hamsters are profoundly irrelevant. Everyone, Catholics included, think that unconsecrated host is just a cracker. The consecrated host is something entirely different.

I can understand respecting another's beliefs, however absurd one may find them. What made Myer's response to this nasty episode both funny, and entirely appropriate, what that this supposed spiritual community is engaging in rank idolatry. Again, I believe in leaving other people's Korans, Buddhas, and communion wafers in peace. But if they become a pretext for engaging in a behavior so clearly against both reason and the spirit of the founder of the aggrieved religion, I say: bring on the mockery.

Actually, LB, it's not a "cracker" to Catholics. After a certain point in the Mass, we believe that is literally the body of Christ, and the purpose in our rituals is to place it under one's tongue. For years, the priests and lay servers did this directly. Hence, "no making off with the cracker" to show their curious friends. Now, parisioners have the option of of taking the host in their own hands, and immediately transferring it to their own mouth. But taking it out of the church? No. It's not given to someone, and then it's theirs to do freely with it what they like.

I'm sure if the friend was so curious, and was not intending to be disrespectful toward a spiritual tradition he didn't share, the priest or members of the congregation would be glad to have further instructed him. We're welcoming, catholic like that. (Look up the word, perhaps?)

Your "cracker" lines and Mr. Myers' "joke" come from someplace ugly though. Anti-catholic bigots, of course, are free to be, but it's remember everytime a Jewish symbol is desecrated, there are special laws in place, heck even "hate crimes" to be dealt with. Not true with Roman Catholics ... I wonder why that is?

Donohue and his minions are doing their best to get PZ fired from the University of Minnesota.

The man has obviously shown poor judgement, and again, that something lives within him that doesn't allow him to tolerate the religious beliefs of others. He has no place in a teaching university, unless he can demonstrate tolerance, respect, and better judgment.

Imagine if someone had offered money for a Torah stolen from a temple for the (joking) purpose of desecrating it. I think there would be plenty of Catholics calling for his resignation there as well.

I don't think Myers is the real issue here, I think that worthless chancre Donohue is.

He's a guy that can make anti-Semitic remarks on national television, get literally red faced ans spittle flecked over a movie like Dogma, and blame gays for the Catholic churches decades-long pedophilia scandal and STILL be given not only seat on television shows, but have more weight given to his ideas than Myers.

THAT is the issue, THAT is the problem.

Oh look, the knuckle-dragging religious fanatics are upset. So what?

The real question is how do we cut out people like Donohue and his ilk from the public square forever.

He should crucify it on a little teeny cross. That would be awesome.

How do we even know the "death threats" were credible and made by Catholics?

Perhaps they were just another lame bit of performance art by those standing outside afraid to come in, and looking to bring attention to themselves by pulling shocking stunts.

I agree with above commenters: this bit by Myers is not only immature, but really damages the atheists' good name -- those who understand they are free to believe or not as they wish, but are not free to disrupt religious services or steal from religous homes.

Btw, if Cook has a problem with student activity fees going to religious organizations, he should read up on his Supreme Court cases. This one was settled a few years back -- in universities, student money can go for religious funding, sex funding, and other art projects that naturally some small percentage of the student population would prefer not to fund with their own dollars.

The real question is how do we cut out people like Donohue and his ilk from the public square forever.

See now, if I were of a different makeup, I might just see a "death threat" in that language. Lol. If you want tolerance people, you have to extend it. Of course, tolerance is not what this is about. It's Catholic-bashing plain and simple because the Beyerstain's and Myers' of the world have no idea how to organize and earn themselves a community as Roman Catholics have done. Myers himself has no power, and he and LB are jealous of Donahoe's. And they still haven't gotten over that it was Marcotte's own poor judgment that got her fired. They want ... revenge!

Tolerance Mary?

Why should a free and enlightened society have to tolerate someone like Donohue?

We don't tolerate someone like David Duke.

" ... have no idea how to organize and earn themselves a community as Roman Catholics have done."

Oh, you want to "earn" a community the way Catholics did?

Well, you could always do it the Catholic way, through the violent encouragement of fear and ignorance.

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