Host desecration is a form of sacrilege in Christianity (most frequently identified as such in the traditions of Anglicanism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and Roman Catholicism) involving the mistreatment or malicious use of a consecrated host— the sacred bread used in the Eucharistic service or Mass. In Roman Catholicism, where the host is held to have become the body of Jesus Christ, host desecration is among the gravest of sins. Intentional host desecration is not only a mortal sin but also incurs the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae. Throughout history, a number of groups have been accused of desecrating the Eucharist, often with grave consequences due to the spiritual importance of the consecrated host.
Accusations against Jews were a common pretext for massacres and expulsions throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. Similar accusations were made in witchcraft trials; witch-hunter's guides such as the Malleus Maleficarum refer to hosts as being objects of desecration by witches. It is part of many descriptions of the Black Mass, both in ostensibly historical works and in fiction.
The Catholic Church, along with the Orthodox churches, believes that during the celebration of the Eucharist, the offerings of bread and wine are changed in substance into the body and blood of Jesus, while still maintaining all the physical (or in sacramental terms, accidental) properties of bread and wine. While the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was believed from the earliest days of the Church, during the Middle Ages Catholic theology offered the concept of transubstantiation to explain this change of substance which was believed to be actual and not merely symbolic. The concept, defined as a dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, holds that the substances of the offerings are literally transformed, while the appearance of bread and wine remain.
Christians believe Jesus to be "true God and true man." In the Catholic Church, therefore, his "body", "blood", "soul" and "divinity" in the form of the consecrated host are adored. Theft, sale, or use of the host for a profane purpose is considered a grave sin and sacrilege, which incurs the penalty of excommunication, which is imposed automatically in the Latin Rite (See Code of Canon Law, Latin Rite Code canon 1367, or Eastern Rite Code canon 1442.) It is widely believed among Roman Catholics that, under certain circumstances such as disbelief or desecration, the host could display supernatural properties.
Some Protestant denominations, especially Lutherans, have similar beliefs regarding the Eucharist and the Real Presence, though they differ about the rite and reject the concept of transubstantiation which Catholics and Orthodox Eastern Christians hold to.
Host desecration has been associated with groups identified as inimical to Christianity. It is a common belief that desecration of the host is part of Satanic practice, especially the Black Mass. LaVeyan Satanists do not typically perform Black Mass as a regular ritual, though "Le Messe Noir" from Anton LaVey's work The Satanic Rituals does include some elements.
Since the publication of a document called Memoriale Domini in 1969, the Apolistic See of the Catholic Church has allowed certain countries to allow communicants to receive the Host in the hand, rather than directly onto the tongue, reviving an "ancient custom". Communion in the hand is now widespread in many parts of the world. The practice means that access to consecrated Hosts is easier than in the past, since the person receiving it in the hand may pretend to place it in their mouth for consumption. However, recent statements and practices of Pope Benedict XVI have caused a recent shift in Catholic practice (notably at Papal Masses and amongst more traditional-minded Catholics) of receiving on the tongue while kneeling, which is also an ancient practice. (This practice was still performed commonly and consistently, even as recently as the early 1970s in America, and is still received orally in many churches and countries presently. Receiving on the tongue is still the official norm of the Catholic Church, while receiving in the hand [via the Memoriale Domini indult] is, in English-speaking countries, the practical norm.)
Medieval accusations against Jews
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Part of Jewish history
Accusations of host desecration (German Hostienschändung) leveled against Jews were a common pretext for massacres and expulsions throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. The libel of "Jewish deicide": that the Jewish people were responsible for the killing of Jesus, whom Christians regard as God become man, was a generally accepted Christian belief. It was spuriously claimed that Jews stole hosts (objects to which they attached no significance, religious or otherwise), and further spuriously claimed that they abused these hosts to re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus by stabbing or burning them.
It has been asserted by modern scholars, such as the Catholic priest Gavin Langmuir, that these accusations against Jews represented profound doubt about the truth of Christianity. Catholics were being told, in the transubstantiation doctrine, that they, by consuming the host, were eating human flesh and drinking human blood. To dispel their doubts about transubstantiation, Christians projected a system of belief onto Jews that was completely alien to Judaism and Jewish law where strict dietary laws forbid the consumption of blood; even when consuming kosher animals.
Jews in the Middle Ages were frequently victims of similar accusations, considered more serious desecration of other revered items, such as relics or images of Jesus and the saints. The accusations were often supported only by the testimony of the accuser, who may potentially bear a prejudice against the accused Jew or the Jewish people. Despite this, some alleged perpetrators were tried and found guilty, on little evidence or through torture.
The penalties for Jews accused of defiling hosts were severe. Many Jews, after accusations and torture, "confessed" to abusing hosts, and the accused Jews were condemned and burned, sometimes with all the other Jews in the community, as happened in Beelitz in 1243. in Prague in 1389, and in many German cities, according to Ocker's writings in the Harvard Theological Review. According to William Nichol in Christian Antisemitism, "over 100 instances of the charge have been recorded, in many cases leading to massacres."
The first recorded accusation was made in 1247 at Beelitz south of Potsdam. Tradition records that as a consequence the Jews of Beelitz were burned on a hill before the Mill Gate, which was subsequently, and until 1945, called the Judenberg, although there is no contemporary evidence for the burnings in documents of the 13th Century. Another famous case that took place in 1290, in Paris, was commemorated in the Church of the Rue des Billettes and in a local confraternity. The case of 1337, at Deggendorf, celebrated locally as part of the "Deggendorfer Gnad" until 1992, led to a series of massacres across the region. In 1370 in Brussels the charge of host desecration, long celebrated in a special fest and depicted in artistic relics in the Church of St. Gudule, led to the burning of twenty Jews and expulsion in the Brussels massacre. In 1510, at Knoblauch in Havelland 38 Jews were executed and more expelled from Brandenburg.
The alleged host desecration in 1410, at Segovia, was said to have brought about an earthquake, and as a result, the local synagogue was confiscated and leading Jews were executed; the event continues to be celebrated as a local feast of Corpus Christi.
Similar accusations, resulting in extensive persecution of Jews, were brought forward in 1294, at Laa, Austria; 1298, at Röttingen, near Würzburg, and at Korneuburg, near Vienna; 1299, at Ratisbon; 1306, at St. Pölten; 1330, at Güstrow; 1338, at Pulkau; 1388, at Prague; 1401, at Glogau; 1420, at Ems; 1453, at Breslau; 1478, at Passau; 1492, at Sternberg, in Mecklenburg-Schwerin; 1514, at Mittelberg, in Alsace; 1556, at Sochaczew, in Poland. The last Jew burned for stealing a host died in 1631, according to Jacques Basnage, quoting from Manasseh b. Israel. In some cases host desecration legends emerged without actual accusations, as was the case of the host desecration legend of Poznan (Posen).
The accusation of host desecration gradually ceased after the Reformation when first Martin Luther in 1523 and then Sigismund August of Poland in 1558 were among those who repudiated the accusation. However, sporadic instances of host desecration libel occurred even in the 18th and 19th century. In 1761 in Nancy, several Jews from Alsace were executed on a charge of host desecration. The last recorded accusation was brought up in Bislad, Romania, in 1836.
2008 controversy in the US
In his July 8 blog entry, University of Minnesota Morris biology professor Paul Zachary Myers criticized the reaction to a local student's perceived act of host desecration (the student had attempted to bring the host to a friend who was curious about communion). Myers described the level of harassment against the student and expressed his intent to desecrate the wafer, which Catholics consider a mortal sin.
Myers expressed outrage that Fox News appeared to be inciting readers to cause further problems for the student, and ridiculed reports that armed guards would attend the next Mass. Myers suggested that if any of his readers could acquire some consecrated Eucharistic hosts for him, he would treat the wafers "with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web."
A number of Catholics immediately reacted strongly. William A. Donohue of The Catholic League accused Myers of anti-catholic bigotry, described his proposal as a threat to desecrate what Catholics hold to be the Body of Christ, and sent a letter asking the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Legislature to take action against Myers.
Myers pierced a Host with a rusty nail, which he also used to pierce a few ripped-out pages of the Qur'an and The God Delusion, put them all in the trash along with old coffee grounds and a banana peel. He provided a photograph on his blog of these items in the garbage, and wrote that nothing must be held sacred, encouraging people to question everything. In addition, he described the history of allegations of host desecration, emphasizing the frequent use of such allegations in medieval Europe to justify anti-Semitism.
According to Donohue, as the Pharyngula website was accessible via a link from the University of Minnesota website, it should be bound by the institution's code of conduct which requires faculty to be "respectful, fair and civil" when dealing with others. Subsequently, Myers explained to the Star Tribune that while his post was "satire and protest", he had received death threats regarding the incident but was not taking them too seriously. The University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) Chancellor defended Myers, and stated: "I believe that behaviors that discriminate against or harass individuals or groups on the basis of their religious beliefs are reprehensible" and that the school "affirms the freedom of a faculty member to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint."
In 2009, two Muslim reporters from Al-Islam, a small Malaysian magazine, participated in a Catholic Mass, while undercover writing an article on cases of apostasy from Islam (murtad) and received Holy Communion. The reporters afterwards spat out the Host and photographed it to prove they had not apostatised themselves. The resulting photo was then published in their May 2009 edition. The magazine, which is owned by Utusan Karya, part of the Utusan Malaysia Group, sent its reporters including one Muhd Ridwan Abdul Jalil, to two churches in the Klang Valley, as part of a special investigative report. The act of desecration occurred at St Anthony's Church in Jalan Robertson, Kuala Lumpur.
After its publication, two lay Catholics from Penang, Sudhagaran Stanley and Joachim Francis Xavier, jointly lodged a police report against the reporters. The police took no action despite a potential charge under Section 298A (1) of the Penal Code for causing disharmony, disunity or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will, or prejudicing the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion.
The desecration caused widespread outrage and condemnation from non-Muslims as well as Muslims across the country. Parties including the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Murphy Pakiam; the Catholic Lawyers Society; as well as numerous editorials in the media, criticised the government and the Attorney-General for its failure to act. Many saw this inaction as a case of the government's double standards, when dealing with religious issues.
Some nine months later, in early March 2010, Al-Islam published an apology to the Catholic Church and other Christians for the article. It was posted on the website of its publisher. Archbishop Pakiam, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, accepted the apology and said that no further (legal) action would be taken. The journalist and his colleague have personally never made any public statements on the matter nor apologised.
- "Desecration of the Host", Jewish Encyclopedia, retrieved 7 May 2007
- Summers, Montague, ed. The Malleus Maleficarum of Kramer and Sprenger, 1948. Originally in Latin, Germany, 1487. e.g. Part II, Question I, Chapter IV:"...they are bound to observe certain other abominable ceremonies at the command of the devils, such as to spit on the ground at the Elevation of the Host."
- See the studies by: Rhodes, H.T.F. The Satanic Mass, 1954 and Zacharias, Gerhard The Satanic Cult, 1980.
- "Catholic Answers - The Real Presence (Fathers)", retrieved 15 May 2011
- "Sacrilege", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, retrieved 7 May 2007
- "Memoriale Domini", retrieved 7 May 2007
- In ‘Light of the World’, by Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict says: “I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself...The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point."
- "The History of the Jewish People", Beelitz 1843, retrieved 7 May 2007
- "Blood libel accusations against Jews", Religious Tolerance Organisation, retrieved 7 May 2007. 
- Magda Teter (2011). Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-05297-0.
- "Student Who Took Religious Icon Getting Death Threats". MY Fox Orlando. 2008-07-07. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
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- "Minnesota Prof Pledges to Desecrate Eucharist". The Catholic League. 2008-07-10. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- Myers, PZ (2008-07-24). "Pharyngula: The Great Desecration". Pharyngula. ScienceBlogs. Retrieved 2008-07-24., the picture
- WALSH, PAUL Morris chancellor defends instructor who defiled Eucharist, tore Qur'an Star Tribune, July 25, 2008
- Article "Al-Islam masuk gereja cari gadis bertudung murtad". May 2009 "Al-Islam enters a church seeking [muslim] girls hiding apostasy"
- AG should appreciate severity of Al-Islam incident: Catholic lawyers. (March 5, 2010). Yi Liang, Tan. The Sun. Retrieved March 15, 2010.
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- Agosín, Marjorie, and Emma Sepúlveda (2001). Amigas: Letters of Friendship and Exile. Austin.
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- Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, Yale University Press, 1943.
- Robert S. Wistrich Antisemitism; The Longest Hatred, Methuen London
- John Weiss Ideology of Death, Ivan R. Dee, ISBN 1-56663-088-6
- Christopher Ocker, Ritual Murder and the Subjectivity of Christ: A Choice in Medieval Christianity, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 153–192
- Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book: 315–1791, Atheneum, 1938, pp. 155–58. Primary source in respect of the Christian atrocities against the Jewish community living in Passau, Bavaria, in 1478.
- Gavin I. Langmuir, Toward a Definition of Anti-Semitism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990.
- Gavin I. Langmuir, History, Religion, and Anti-Semitism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.
- Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews, Yale University Press; London and New Haven, 1999.
- Stow, Kenneth (2006). Jewish Dogs, An Imagine and Its Interpreters: Continiuity in the Catholic-Jewish Encounter. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-5281-8.
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