Monday, April 24, 2006
Torture and Eucharist
William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1998) 286pp.
William Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. He is one of the leading lights of a new generation of theologians trying to forge a new conversation between theology and politics. Torture and Eucharist is a revision of his 1996 Duke University doctoral dissertation: “Torture and Eucharist in Pinochet’s Chile.”
The book is not really about him but about the embodied theological practices of Chilean Christians under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte from 1973-1990. Cavanaugh argues that when Pinochet rose to power, the church in Chile was dominated by a disastrous ecclesiology of Pius XI and Jaques Maritain that relegated all political activity to a merely social and secular sphere. Because of this, when Pinochet sought through violence and torture to impose a totalitarian state on Chile, the church was left without a sense of its own resources as an embodied political entity. The shepherd being absent the laity were left to act individually and impotently.
Telling the story of Pinochet’s inhuman regime, Cavanaugh contrasts a regime of torture with the eucharistic community: “[T]orture is a kind of perverted liturgy, a ritual act which organizes bodies in the society into a collective performance, not of true community, but of an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious (p.12).” As such, torture is “the regime’s strategy to fragment society, to disarticulate all intermediate social bodies between the individual and the state—parties, unions, professional organizations—which would challenge the regime’s desire to have all depend totally on it….Wherever two or three are gathered, there is subversion in their midst (p.38).
Cavanaugh writes that in the early years of Pinochet’s regime, the destructive ecclesiology in which the Chilean church had been formed failed them for it assumed a secular state that the church could then inhabit as conscience or soul. The church had no political sense of itself independent of the state and could not combat the violent fragmentation of society. Over time, however, the Chilean church discovered this political sense by ressourcement in the Eucharist. In 1976, Cardinal Silva formed the Vicariate of Solidarity which boldly reasserted the identity of the Church as a social body. In 1980, seven Chilean bishops began to excommunicate (literally, bar from the Eucharist) anyone who was participating in acts of torture. In 1983 the entire Chilean episcopal conference determined to do so as well. In fits and starts, the church in Chile constituted itself as “contrast society” with the Eucharist being a “counter-politics” to the politics of torture. In urging the use of the church’s unique disciplinary resources—Eucharist, penance, virtue, mercy, and martyrdom—habits and consciences are formed that subvert the totalizing vision of the state and transcend the secular-sacred dichotomy established by modernity.