Saturday, October 16, 2004


A friend of mine, a Catholic girl, let's call her Jane, was once talking with a friend of hers, a former Catholic, let's call her Jill, about the Eucharist. Jill found it silly to the point of being absurd that Jane believed Christ was truly and wholly present in the Sacred Gifts. Despite her Catholic upbringing, Jill denied the Real Presence. Jesus is, after all, everywhere. She was pushing a sort of ubiquity argument against sacramental grace.

Now, Jane is hardly a cunning or aggressive Catholic. She just tries to live for the Lord. But I, a more cunning and aggressive type, have never ceased to feel a tingle of delight by the razor-sharpness of her simple, unassuming retort. Jane, who agreed with Jill that Jesus is everywhere, found it silly to the point of being absurd for Jill not to realize what this means. If Jesus is everywhere, then he's also in the Eucharist. QED. Jill’s ubiquity argument against the Real Presence had backfired.

The ubiquity argument is a common tactic when people, often Protestants, are grappling with the more concrete implications of Catholic and Orthodox theology. Ubiquitous spiritual power is more convenient than incarnational grace. If we can get grace anywhere, anyhow, then we needn’t listen to the strange man in the strange hat, let alone the strange man with the strange holy book. To most contemporary Protestants, for example, there is nothing special, nothing exceptionally special, about the Lord's Supper. It is merely one more act in the larger ocean of living faith. Likewise, the authority and chrism of the episcopacy over the laity is seen as a presumption against the ubiquity of the gifts of the Spirit. Are we not all priests? Are we not all one in Christ? How dare we limit God’s grace?

The ubiquity argument becomes especially handy when resisting the Petrine authority of the bishop of Rome. Protestant apologists are quick to remind us Origen, for example, said Peter spoke for the whole Church and that Christ gave the keys to the whole Church in Peter. Augustine, they also remind us, said Peter spoke for all believers, like any other believer, and that Christ spoke to the whole Church when he spoke to Peter like any other believer. These quotes from these two Fathers are favorites since, again, they ubiquitize and nullify any special, concrete grace the Pope might have.

But what hit me today is this: if it’s agreed that Peter could speak on behalf of the whole Church then, what prevents his successor from doing so today? If Christ could speak to Peter as the figure for the whole Church, why can't he do the same today? Like Jill’s ubiquity argument against the Real Presence, the arguable "ubiquitousness" of Origen and Augustine's views on Peter actually backfire, since they grant in and of themselves that Peter can be, and in fact was, the voice – and ear – for all believers. The first crucial shoe has dropped. The other shoe then drops when we balance their extremely (and uncommonly) symbolic exegesis in these cases with the numerous other Patristic (*and Augustinian*) cases of a robustly concrete Petrine theology.

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