Over at the blog of the Diocese of San Diego, John McAteer has argued that the practice of Communion without baptism is “essential for a proper theology of evangelism.”
Surely the Spirit of Christ draws us to God prior to baptism just as a fetus grows within its mother before birth. In most cases participating in the Eucharist is like a branch drawing nourishment from a vine into which it has been grafted. But for some, the Eucharist is an umbilical chord [sic] that brings life in preparation for a future birth in Baptism.
I admire McAteer’s attempt to reconcile two opposing ideas: on the one hand, God’s desire and willingness to draw all people to himself, along with anecdotal examples of how God does this through the Eucharist; on the other, the meaning of baptism as entrance or birth into the body of Christ that is the Church. How, McAteer asks, can we feed people yet to be born? Well, we feed them even when they are in the womb, he answers.
Except we do not feed them solid food, as anyone familiar with fetal development knows. We do not even feed solid food to newborns, as even the celibate St. Paul knew. Nor should we, if we want them to survive. Try feeding steak and potatoes and red wine to a newborn, much less to a fetus. On second thought, don’t: you would probably be arrested for child abuse.
The Eucharist is just that sort of solid food. Admittedly, I do not think we would say in sacramental theology that the accidental or misinformed ingestion of the Eucharist poses quite the level of harm to the uninitiated that solid food poses to a fetus — at least nothing that is worse in principle than the existing state of original sin. But it’s certainly not something we should encourage; it’s certainly not a practice that really coincides with any kind of traditional understanding of what the Eucharist is.
The weakness of McAteer’s metaphor also comes from its implicit assumption that there is only one form of spiritual food. What about the notion of the Word of God itself as nourishment (e.g., here, or here)? Or the notion of good works as food (e.g., here)? There, perhaps, we find a gentler kind of food suitable for catechumens, and of course it was so found in early Christian practice.
In any case, we are missing a significant aspect of baptism. Baptism is not just a birth. It’s also a death. And it has to be death before it can be birth. In baptism we are “buried with Christ” so that we can rise with him to new life. The old man dies so that the new man may flourish. The Sacrament of love means nothing to the old man, but for the new man it is the bread of life.
So giving the Eucharist to the unbaptized is not, in the end, simply like giving nourishment to a child in the womb. It is like giving nourishment to someone who is dead. It does not hurt. It may, in some roundabout way, lead to the growth of new life, to the Spirit’s regeneration in the soul (we are, before we receive the life of God, the walking dead, after all). But we have no reason to imagine this as the normative way of things.
In the end, the various metaphors come to a head in this paradox of life from death. For whenever we “do this,” we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. The Eucharist is a food of life, but it is also a food of death: it is positive nourishment, and it is negative prohibition, a kind of natural barrier against the regrowth of corruption. Its antiviral properties are dangerous to those who are alive in the Spirit yet corrupted by new death.
We always take the Sacrament at our peril (see 1 Cor. 11:27-34 or even Matt. 5:23-26). And perhaps this heady danger is precisely what is so missing from most of the arguments for Communion without baptism. They seem to imagine that the Christian life is just this happy, meaning-making existence that God wants for us wherever we are happy to be, regardless of our desire. But God wants more than that. He wants us to live. And living means repenting from sin and daily dying, taking up our cross to follow Jesus. Living means living through the death and resurrection of Jesus, not as one more “nourishing” human story among many, but as the single story that redefines all our personal stories and desires.
Perhaps the Eucharist can be, in some extended way (especially through the Eucharistic assembly), evangelism. But the good news always involves death. If we forget that, we might as well find some other food that tastes better to the senses of the body.