To the outside observer, there is something mysterious about the Catholic mass. What with the funny costumes, various gestures, silent prayer, and even the Latin language, it would be easy to misconstrue what is going on with some magical incantation.

For just this, reason people have associated the origin of the phrase “Hocus Pocus” with the Catholic mass for centuries. While the actual origins of the phrase are unknown, all the way back in 1694 an Anglican priest suggested that it derived itself from the Latin phrase Hoc est enim corpus meum (this is my body) said during the Mass in Latin, a way for Protestants to make fun of Catholics. More recent speculators have even connected the “hokey pokey” dance to the same origin. And even though scholars have mostly debunked the former and completely debunked the latter, the fact that such ideas prevailed for centuries shows that there is at least an intuitive connection between the two. You can definitely see it being true, even if it isn’t.

Which presents an obvious question for us as Catholics: if what we are doing is not magic—and it most certainly is NOT—what is the difference between the sacraments and magic? An investigation of the two reveals differences in overall worldview, role of the minister, purpose of the ritual, and overall effect.

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In the 19th century, of the (many) reasons that Catholics faced discrimination from their Protestant counterparts was over the issue of sex. While many Protestants had been swept up in the Victorian-era repression of sex, believing that sex was merely a means to an end and should be avoided except for the procreation of children, that all sexual desire should be suppressed, Catholics took a slightly different approach. Not only did we emphasize the importance of pleasure in sex, we freely talked about it, with Church leaders routinely commenting on sex in homilies or letters to the faithful. For those who thought that what happened in the bedroom was private and was no one’s business in the Church (even God’s?), the Catholic Church was a strange and promiscuous institution that one should be wary of.

Funny how the more things change the more things stay the same. Today, we’re still looked upon as strange by the outside world, but instead of being promiscuous and free we’re now seen as repressed and stuck up. And while our teachings have stayed the same all of these years, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that few people actually understand what’s at the root of these teachings. Why do we say what we do? What is at stake in terms of our definition of the human person? How does sexual activity require responsibility, morality, and (dare I say) even some virtue? Even for married couples, even for those in the privacy of their own bedrooms, the Church stands firm in believing that everything we do should reflect our faith. Marriage does not give someone the free pass to do anything they want just as a driver’s license doesn’t give someone free rein of the highway.

Obviously, there are many ways to exercise this and some may faithfully approach sex without coming to the same conclusions that we do. In fact, even within the Catholic Church, among the faithful and clergy alike, there is great debate surrounding our sexual teaching. To say that simply because someone disagrees with the official magisterium of the Church means that they are not taking this sacred act seriously would be a serious overgeneralization. There are many faithful ways to view the same issue.

What I present to you this week, then, is not meant to be dogmatic teaching inherent to the very nature of being a Christian. What I present is an attempt to understand the logic behind the Church’s teaching. Not everyone will accept this, I accept, but that is not my hope in taking on this topic. In a world so divided on such a controversial issue, my only hope is that people may come to a greater knowledge of why our teachings are the way they are so to engage them more critically in prayer and conversation. We’ve gotten a bad rap on this issue for centuries, and while some of it is certainly deserved, I think the vast majority of it springs from misunderstanding.

Heaven is one of the most imaginative topics of our Christian faith. Because we have very few actual descriptions of it in scripture, and because no one has come back to tell us exactly what it’s like, much of our what we hold to be true about the afterlife comes form art and entertainment. In some ways, this can be a great thing, giving us vivid depictions for what we cannot rationalize ourselves; in other ways, though, this can be a negative thing, filling our minds with very un-theological beliefs about a very theological topic.

This week, I address one such un-theological belief that encountered in my conversation with a stranger and offer what I hope to be a better way of approaching life.

In some ways, the topic of this week’s Catholicism in Focus is a trivial one. It is the sort of topic that the Pharisees might have argued about, seemingly esoteric, having no effect on the lives of the poor and no relevance to a true faith.

In other ways, this topic finds itself at the very center of the most important aspect of our lives. How we answer this question is not simply a matter of preference or idiosyncrasy, but is rooted in the very theology that we bring to our Eucharistic celebrations.

Oh, and based on the comments on the video so far, it’s also a controversial question that is dictated more by emotion and nostalgia than a carefully tested Eucharistic theology…

The question that I tackle this week is of the placement of the tabernacle.

As you watch this video, I simply ask that you try to understand what the Church is saying and why it is saying it. Rather than trying to justify your own opinion or challenge what is being said, really try to get to the heart of the issue. In the interest of tradition and familiarity, many have already rejected the prescriptions of the Church, writing them off as irrelevant, out of touch, or just another mistake of the Second Vatican Council. They have looked to things they don’t like in the Church as a way to prove that this “new” practice is the cause. Even some bishops are trying to find their way around the rubrics and return to what the Church used to do. Try to fight this urge. Try to get beneath the surface, outside of your comfort zone, and see what is really at stake.

Reverence for the Eucharist is surely not what it should be. Our worship can definitely be lackluster at times. For some, this is reason enough to abandon our present practices and return to the old ones, a “magic bullet” to fix our issues. My opinion? While there are some obvious pastoral issues at play here and some clear problems that need to be addressed, the placement of the tabernacle is less of an issue than catechesis is. Putting it at one place or another might hide the issues we have, but it won’t actually address them if people don’t know what’s going on. Let’s address what’s going on under the surface, let’s correct what could be lacking in our Eucharistic theology, and none of this will be an issue.

It is often jokingly said that in the “divorce” of the Reformation, the Catholics got the liturgy and the Protestants got the Bible. A reflection of the fact that Catholics emphasized the sacramental nature of God’s revelation while Protestants whitewashed their churches and made the Bible the only thing that mattered, historically, there was definitely a difference in emphasis, and one can understand why the stereotype was born.

This annoys the heck out me.

Like all stereotypes, the kernel of truth that existed 500 years ago has been so overgeneralized that it is, at this point, more of an untruth than anything else, and serves to create a false dichotomy. Just because some Protestants made the Bible their only authority and rid themselves of all other forms of divine revelation doesn’t mean that Catholics have any less reverence for it or that Sacred Scripture is any less important to forming our doctrine. The Reformers may have given up a sacramental worldview, deferring that identity to the Catholics, but the Catholics never gave up their emphasis on Scripture (and, maybe more accurately, weren’t subject to overemphasizing its importance as the Reformers did.)

What I am getting at with this? Often, out of this misunderstood part of history, Catholics face a criticism from fundamentalist Christians that many do not know how to answer. Thinking that Catholics do not care about the Bible and seeing that some of our beliefs are not explicitly stated in Scripture, some will say to us, “Your doctrines are made up” or “read the Bible and you’ll see how wrong Catholicism is.” I would say that I get a comment on a YouTube video to this effect on a weekly basis.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I hope to address this issue by explaining the Catholic perspective on Scripture. We have the utmost respect for its words and maintain that it is the inerrant Word of God to guide our lives (not to mention that we proclaim as much or more of it at our liturgies than Protestants do). For Catholics, it is an essential form of divine revelation, but certainly not the only form. Looking at how the Bible was compiled, how God interacts with the world, and what Jesus did to form the Church on earth, we recognize that there is more to God’s authority than what is written in Scripture.