The Ethical Dilemma: Vegan Communion

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Vegan Communion: If Catholics truly believe that the substances used in communion are the body and blood of Christ, can there be such a thing as a vegan or vegetarian Catholic? My mother thinks I’m stupid for even thinking about this but I want to hear someone else’s opinion.

—Animal Crackers

Dear Crackers,

I love your question. In fact, it’s very similar to one my son asked the same day I received your query. We were in Rome touring the Vatican and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and I was explaining transubstantiation (the Catholic belief you are referring to, in which the communion wafers and wine literally—yes, literally—turn into the body and blood of Christ), and he asked, “Then wouldn’t Catholics be cannibals?”

There are two ways to approach these questions: One is the logical, realistic one, which focuses only on the actual ingredients of the wafers and wine, which are legitimate concerns for Catholics who don’t consume animal products. Using that approach, since the wafers are made of wheat flour (no good for gluten-intolerant worshipers), water, yeast and salt, the yeast could be a problem for vegans. Similarly, the fermentation of the wine may or may not involve animal products. But vegan wines and crackers do exist, so a concerned vegetarian or vegan might check with the priest whether the items comply with their dietary standards. The sacrament would never qualify as cannibalism, however, since you wouldn’t find “human flesh and blood” on the ingredients label.

But that approach completely ignores the whole transubstantiation thing, which really must be acknowledged to truly address your question (and my son’s). Logic would seem to confirm that participating in communion is certainly not vegetarian/vegan, and that it goes beyond merely carnivorous to cannibalistic. After all, what else would you call literally consuming human flesh and blood? But logic doesn’t apply here. Thanks to the same magical thinking that turns wafers and wine into flesh and blood, and a trinity that is at once a mortal man and his own father who is immortal and a third component that is a holy spirit, one can just wave the wand and declare the flesh and blood to be beyond animal or human: Holy Spiritual. So eat, drink and be merry!

If you have some spare time, pose your question on Google and see all the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” types of discussions that come up. Beware: contemplating all the convoluted arguments could make your brains implode. But please don’t suppress these kinds of questions, no matter what your mom says. If people didn’t ask “stupid” questions like yours, we might still think the world is flat and the sun revolves around it. The best defense against swallowing a heaping serving of hokum is asking questions like yours, and being skeptical about answers that must be taken on faith.