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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Can the Catholic Church Recover Unlawfully-Obtained Consecrated Hosts?

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, there is an enormous discussion going on about a recent act of blasphemy by a university professor. Here is the background. In order to make some point about the irrationality of Catholicism, University of Minnesota professor P.Z. Myers at the blog Pharyngula requested that his readers mail him a consecrated host. Myers then pierced the consecrated host with a rusty nail and threw it in the trash with old coffeegrounds and a banana peel. Myers also discarded a few ripped-out pages of the Koran and atheist Richard Dawkins's book, The God Delusion, in order to cover all his bases of possible people to offend. (Warning: the links to Myers's blog and blog comments contain language that is highly offensive to Catholics. The entire event makes me sick to my stomach.)

The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy issued a statement calling for prayer and fasting in reparation for this ugly blasphemy. The Confraternity also stated that, "The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance." Professor Volokh, however, takes issue with their characterization of the law of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I think I agree with Volokh on this; the law in America permits people to say and do certain things that are offensive to other religions, and though this freedom can be abused, it is much better than the alternative of government censorship of religious statements and actions which other people might find offensive.

But this got me thinking. Freedom of speech doesn't permit every act offending a religion. Though I might have a right to dunk a crucifix in urine or burn a Koran if that crucifix or Koran is my own property, I don't have the right to go into a church or a mosque, steal a crucifix or a Koran, and then desecrate these objects, because these are not my lawful pieces of property. In these latter instances, the church or the mosque would have a legal way to recover the stolen objects or to obtain damages if the objects were destroyed.

What is the situation with a consecrated host? Is it my own property that I have a right under civil law to use in whatever way I want including desecration, or is it illegally obtained property that can be recovered by the Church if I intend to misuse it? Although hosts are freely given at Mass, they are given with an understanding that (1) the recipient is a Catholic in good standing with the Church, (2) who will not misuse the host but will consume it (or bring it to the sick or some other authorized use). If I stood in the communion line and told the priest that I was planning on mailing the host to Myers for desecration, the priest would not give me a host and I could not force the priest to give me a host; if I tried to take a host by force, there might be possible legal remedies against me for attempted assault, battery, and conversion. In the Myers scenario, any possible consecrated host that Myers received would have to have been obtained through some kind of fraud or breach of the implicit agreement of the communion line that the recipient is Catholic and intends to consume the host.

So here is my question. If someone announced to the world that he had obtained a consecrated host and that he was going to be desecrating it publicly, would the Church be able to recover the host through legal means?

(I realize that there are a number of practical considerations which might prevent the Church from having an actual legal case against the blasphemer: the negligible financial damage because the host costs less than a penny to make; the difficulty in showing that the host is consecrated; the difficulty in showing that the host was obtained fraudulently when the Church is so free in distributing communion to anyone who stands in line without checking anyone's Catholic credentials. Also, I'm only considering this problem from the perspective of civil law. I don't know if there are any canon law considerations.)