Catholics in the United States are in shock. In outpourings of distress, they are declaring themselves the victims of a "vile" act and hate crime, and are demanding redress for their sufferings. What has occasioned all this? One Sunday this summer, Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, attended Mass in the students' union and, instead of swallowing the communion wafer, made off with it.
Cook had tried to return to his seat with the wafer in his hand so he could, he claimed, "show it to a friend, who was curious about the Catholic faith". When a female church official attempted to wrest it off him, Cook shook off his assailant and hotfooted it out of the door. He returned to his dorm with the host and refused to return it until he had received an apology from the Church for his rough treatment at the hands of the church member.
It wasn't long before the hate mail started, followed by death threats. These can perhaps be explained away as the expected reaction of the Christian lunatic fringe, but the local Catholic diocese itself was only a little more measured. Here is the response of Father Miguel Gonzalez, a priest with the diocese: "It is hurtful. Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you made a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family. If anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it."
According to Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, it was even worse than that. Accusing Cook of holding the wafer "hostage", he went on: "It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ."
Clearly not wanting to take any chances, the campus Catholic ministry despatched a nun to stand guard over the Eucharist at future Masses. The university, perhaps doubting the power of a nun, took the step of sending in armed police officers. The ministry also called for Cook's expulsion from the university, and filed charges against his friend, whose offence was to have been present at the time of the incident.
Father Gonzalez acknowledged, though, that the church also needed to be absolved of sin - not for failing to turn the other cheek, nor for the threats of violence made in its name, but for having failed to protect the wafer. "We have to make acts of reparation," he said. "The whole community is going to turn to prayer. We'll ask the Lord for pardon, forgiveness, peace."
The story was taken up by P Z Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, on his blogsite (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula). Myers positively revelled in the sheer lunacy of the unfolding events, and responded to the priest's call to repentance with the words: "Get some perspective, man. IT'S A CRACKER."
In a rerun of the response to Cook's actions, first came the hate mail, next the death threats, and then the call for Myers to be dismissed from his post. He wrote on his blog: "I even have one email that says I should be fired, that the author would like to kill me, and that I only criticise because Catholics are so gentle and kind."
Happily, the University of Central Florida and the University of Minnesota have taken a saner view of the affair and decided - with an intimidated Cook now having returned the wafer - to take no action against the three men.
It is not necessary to condone Cook's behaviour to feel queasy at the sight of a church overreacting and indulging in bullying and, yes, hatemongering. Hypocrisy, too. Never mind the desecration of "the Body of Christ"; for far too many years, priests in positions of power and influence desecrated the bodies of young boys, and for far too many years these acts were hushed up because they were deemed to be "a Church matter". So, what a contrast when the abuse is perceived as being directed against the Church, rather than perpetrated by it.
Yet still the Church demands the right to be regarded as the moral compass of an increasingly secular world. Webster Cook's story shows the case to be thin. Wafer-thin, you could say.