William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist

william t cavanaugh -- torture and eucharist 1

$40 for a paperback often feels more like torture than the Eucharist, but not this time.

William Cavanaugh is currently Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. He completed his BA (Theology) at Notre Dame, received both a second BA in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge University as well as an MA from the same, and finished his Ph.D. (Religion) at Duke University, under Stanley Hauerwas. Together with Hauerwas, he is associated with the Ekklesia Project [1] (under whose aegis he is an editor for two book series). The Ekklesia Project is a confederation of Trinitarian Christian communities, including both Catholics and Protestants, who see allegiance to the Kingdom of God as fundamental for Christians, and as exercising a critical function on what other kinds of allegiances and affiliations a parish and an individual Christian should have. This includes commitments that might suggest that inflicting violence is compatible with Christian discipleship (simply speaking: this project claims they aren’t). [2]

Cavanaugh is also connected to the Radical Orthodoxy movement most often associated with John Milbank [3] (who is mentioned several times in Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist). Radical Orthodoxy is known for its attempts to critique modernity’s “pre-theological” categories, to reaffirm theology –and not any secular discourse– as the foundation and true basis and description of the Church’s vision and ecclesial practices, and reinstitute theology as the queen of the sciences (this concern to veto the total reduction of the Church to sociological analysis is articulated explicitly in several spots in Torture and Eucharist [4]).

Cavanaugh writes and lectures on a wide range of topics, some on the Christian tradition but mostly within the umbrella of political theology – the intersection of politics and religion, the rise of the nation-state, the legitimacy and genealogy of “religion” as a category, the nature of torture, &c[5] There is an understanding of the modern nation-state as atomizing and intrinsically violent (even “founded on violence” [6]) in the background of Cavanaugh’s work, as founded upon a false myth of violence. [7] To varying degrees, these topics are all touched upon in Torture and Eucharist.

For seventeen months, from July 1988 to December 1989 [8], Cavanaugh “lived in a slum area of Santiago Chile during the military regime,” and “knew people there who had been tortured”. [9] He returned afterwards to Notre Dame as a Research Fellow for six months in 1990, to develop “a computer data base for researching human rights abuses using the microfilmed archives of the Vicariate of Solidarity”. [10] After this experience, it became a focus for his subsequent Ph.D. work. Cavanaugh returned to Chile in 1993 to conduct further research. [11] Torture and Eucharist is based on his doctoral dissertation. [12]

In Torture and Eucharist, Cavanaugh describes and analyzes the horrendous effects of silent abduction (being “disappeared”) and especially torture as a strategy employed by modern nation-states to dissolve the various social bodies that individuals are embedded within. Once citizens are torn away from these larger bodies, the state gains direct and unmediated access to each and all of its own, without the possibility of encountering resistance to its authority or facing the alternative claims of any rival. In Torture, Cavanaugh looks at this dynamic as it was in play in Chile during the Pinochet regime from 1973-1990.

Torture accomplishes both this disembedding of individuals and unmediated access to them, Cavanaugh argues, by breaking down the subjectivity of an individual, whittling-down one’s conscious world to the limits of one’s body (via pain), disentangling and then hacking away the person from the network of affective relations and dependences, erasing both past and future (during torture, nothing is remembered or expected but pain), so that nothing exists outside of the body except the all-powerful state and its vicar torturers (and faux benefactors). This whittling occurs within the ritual exchange of a demand for information that climaxes in the victim confessing him or herself as a filthy enemy of the state, reforging his or her identity and reinforcing the central myth by which modern nation-states legitimate their monopoly on coercion: that they alone can save mankind from the violence always-already present in society, and threatening its security. In torture, the state casts individual bodies into a script written by a regime. This is most potent when it operates invisibly but ubiquitously, never openly abducting or leaving visible scars (Pinochet’s regime would employ electrocution) or admitting to responsibility for such things. This power is unassailable to the extent that it is invisible, yet palpably evident; widespread fear and anxiety make it evident, as do missing and broken persons. Those who disappear, and those who return broken, spread fear and mistrust, dissolving the social fabric, leaving the state alone to orchestrate the individuals within its territory. Torture becomes an anti-liturgy. [13]

After looking at the ways in which torture does this, Cavanaugh then moves on to discuss the Chilean Catholic Church. The Church was initially powerless to resist or even to denounce disappearings and torture due to a faulty, but ingrained, ecclesiology.

This ecclesiology understood the Church to be an institution organically united to the state and concerned with assisting the state in its project of uniting all its citizens into a common fraternity. This fraternity occurred on two parallel and inter-penetrating, but semi-autonomous, planes: the temporal and the spiritual. The Church’s domain was understood as the “spiritual,” and the state’s domain was understood as the “temporal.” The spiritual plane was unintentionally (but effectively) in the service of the temporal, finally impotent to effect change or even protest it.

The temporal plane (where the state operates) is where people live as bodies, live together in communities, engage in various kinds of work, and where coercive force is released (by the state) upon bodies to protect the integrity of the state whose security is the precondition of the common good. The temporal plane is public, and bodily.

The spiritual plane is outside of the temporal, and is where the Church operates (also, where human rights flow from). Neither any natural activity (e.g., a given technical task) nor the common good itself has as its proper end a spiritual, supernatural good. Rather, these temporal activities can be infused with, can lead to, and can support the spiritual goods that are the supernatural (not temporal) end of the human person (natural or temporal goods are functionally atheistic). The spiritual plane penetrates and permeates the temporal from outside – not to redirect the temporal plane’s ends, but to suffuse the doing of them with a certain quality that does not change their form, nor directly assist them by bestowing technical excellence. The spiritual plane is private, and internal. (One’s conscience is on this plane.)

There can be no coercion in matters spiritual. The Church is the soul to the body of the state, and together they make the nation; she is organically linked to the activity of the state in a common attention to the nation as the object of concern. Since the internal and eternal is not the public and temporal, the Church’s role was understood to be compromised if she threw her weight behind a candidate, or suggested concrete political plans as a religious obligation. This would only bring conflict and strife to the people. Thus, she politicked only by fostering general spiritual-moral principles that made for good citizens, and which had no single necessary way of being implemented in legislation or political commitment. This fostering of spiritual principles could be effected only by appeals made to the individual’s conscience (the interior, proper domain of the Church).

The Church, as an institution, thus aimed at bringing about a “meta-political” unity of individuals, not as a single social body with her own characteristic disciplines and practices and visible boundaries of her own (for that was understood to be what the state was), but as a vague and invisible unity of faith on a trans-temporal plane, located not in any public space, but hiddenly in the heart of each individual, only intersecting with ordinary time and space via the decisions flowing from the inner consciences of the faithful. Though this was intended at finding a space outside of the strife of time (especially during times of war) where people could unite in a “country of souls,” it ended up, Cavanaugh argues, merely glossing over the fractured relations between people and nations with an appeal to (or an assertion of) a higher, interior, spiritual unity.

This faulty ecclesiology was widely spread at the time, but best propagated through the writings of the early 20th Century French Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain (but having roots that stretch back to the 11th Century, as Cavanaugh shows). Cavanaugh shows how this ecclesiology stacked the deck against the Church, disabling her from resisting the regime’s “anti-liturgy” because she had already been trained not to understanding herself as a distinct social body, and by concealing the politics implicit in her Eucharistic practice that could coordinate the bodies of the faithful into an effective counter-performance of a fundamentally different kind of power and sociality. Yet the two planes in fact quite frequently interpenetrate. By failing to grasp how the spiritual and internal is shaped by, and expressed in, the bodily and external, the Church had forgotten her own native disciplines, and was unable to understand them as essentially and perennially in tension with the discipline of the state, which, Cavanaugh argues, naturally seeks to eliminate all disciplines other than its own. The Church could not see how abandoning people’s bodies to the state also offered the state their souls, too.

The “New Christendom Ecclesiology” exemplified by Maritain was formulated as a way for the Roman Catholic Church to authentically respond to her loss of political power. It did this in several ways: by spelling out the rightness of the Church abstaining from the use of coercive force, by erecting fences around the appropriate spaces for both Church and state respectively, by attempting to draw to the surface the purportedly Christian origins of modernity’s manifold goods, by establishing an appropriate articulation of the foundation for human rights upon the Imago Dei, &c. It attempted to secure human rights by distinguishing between the human being as individual and the human being as person (i.e., the human as image), the former operating on the temporal plane and the latter properly oriented to the spiritual. [14] The spiritual transcends the temporal, so that the individual is not dissolved into the whole nor is the whole merely a sum, an aggregate of individuals and their goods – and so a course is steered between the individualism of liberalism and the collectivism of the totalitarianisms. There is, it was supposed, a real common good proper to the temporal plane (i.e., to the state), but this was not sufficient to protect the individual as person.

A boundary needed to be drawn that would protect state or Church coercion in matters of conscience, but allow state coercion for public order and the common good. This allowed the Church a place to serve the state by fostering a higher, interior unity amongst citizens, while also ostensibly protecting the realm of the personal (and thus the Church) from the power of the state, in a relationship that was supposed to be harmonious. And yet it was this fragmentation of the person upon two planes that dovetailed so nicely into legitimating the state’s exclusive power over individual bodies, leading to the gravest abuses. It led also to the Church’s inability to fight back on a plane that she had banished herself from, and state intrusion into what was supposed to be her territory: disciplining the body disciplines the soul. Through the state’s exclusive rights over citizen’s bodies, the whole realm of interiority also effectively became the state’s territory.

Cavanaugh argues that a properly Eucharistic ecclesiology would allow the Church to be a social body capable of resisting the various techniques of modern nation-states. The biblical and patristic models of the Eucharist, Cavanaugh argues, have the Church as a boundaried community whose limits are determined by Eucharistic participation, and that this Eucharistic participation both effects and demands the unity of the Church in ways both ethical and even politico-economical.

There are several ways in which these boundaries of the Church become clear. The Church is differentiated by the moral character of catechesis, by the form of episcopal and priestly mediation when intra-ecclesial conflicts arise, by the nature of the public prayers at the Eucharistic Liturgy, and by the various disciplinary measures taken by the Eucharistic presidents and stewards (the bishops) when a member of the community disrupts the public order and harmony of the body (i.e., excommunication).

This does not mean (says Cavanaugh) that the Church’s constitutive elements can be exhaustively explored by the tools of the social sciences, for the Church’s life is eschatological, and descends as it is given by the Spirit at the Eucharist.

It does mean (contra Maritain) that the Church is not a bodiless society of individuals who share in secret-invisible-interior blessings, apart from a shared concrete body distinct with its own practices. Excommunication, for example, in a state where tortured and torturers are both ostensibly Christian, makes clear the boundaries of the Church’s body as falling clearly with the tortured to the exclusion of the torturer. This is different from any attempt to gloss over the sin of torture, which essentially compromises the torturer’s identity with the body of the crucified and risen Christ. This stance is unlike the disposition flowing from the ecclesiology associated with Maritain, which would have the Church attempt to provide a common ground of spiritual and internal unity above and beyond such temporal and bodily divisions such as that reflected in torture.

The Eucharistic offering of oneself with Christ cannot be made by torturers, for it would be a lie (and potentially dangerous for them). One offers one’s own self in sacrifice, joining this to Christ’s sacrifice, at the altar – one does not offer up another. As all the members of the Church are participants in the Eucharistic Liturgy, and as that Eucharistic Liturgy is a participation in the gift of the Son who takes on our sin and suffering, so our membership in the Church means both an assimilation to Christ’s pain-bearing for others, and an offering of one’s consequently cruciform self as a gift to others – both inside and outside the visible, boundaried body of the Church. Thus, the visible practices of Eucharistic solidarity allow for several kinds of unity with the tortured, so that the pain of the tortured is no longer incommunicable to others beyond the confines of their body, for they share in one visible Eucharistic and ecclesiastical body with those outside of the torture chambers, even as it draws the snake of invisible state power out of hiding into a clearing where all can see its violence. The Eucharist is essentially linked with various kinds of martyrdom, and the disruption of the economy of violence.

Maritain, following a long history of liturgical and ecclesial malformation, atrophied the social dimensions of the Church and ignored the concreteness of Jesus Christ as enfleshed and engaged with the powers of this world. Maritain’s ecclesiology had no place for the solidarity of the Church in witnessing to Christ’s victorious self-sacrifice in acts of self-sacrifice, solidarity, and charity. Cavanaugh rejects this. The Church cannot effectively function in a modern world filled with nation-states, Cavanaugh argues, if she does not understand their true history and nature as essential rivals to the Church in several significant ways, and if she does not have a robust Eucharistic Ecclesiology to gather her members into one visible body ordered around the Eucharistic discipline of daily martyrdom, witnessing, in community, to the power of Christ against the more evil and predatory expressions of state power, or any other power.

[1] See their homepage: http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/, last accessed on 9/3/14.

[2] See the section titled “Shalom Centered” at http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/about-us/who-we-are/, last accessed on 9/3/14.

[3] He contributed a chapter to the flagship volume of this movement: see http://www.amazon.com/Radical-Orthodoxy-New-Theology-Routledge/dp/041519699X/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1320092406&sr=8-1-spell, last accessed on 9/3/14.

[4] See William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 9, 180-181, 269, which all cite Milbank by name – esp. pp.180-181. See also p.271, 2nd half of the first full paragraph.

[5] A list of his works can be found on his faculty page at works.bepress.com/william_cavanaugh/, last accessed on 9/3/14.

[6] See http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3308 (last accessed on 9/3/14), the section beginning with the question, “One of the assumptions of modern Secular politics”.

[7] Namely, that when a plurality of social bodies inhabit a given territory relations are essentially unstable and prone to violence, and that within such bodies individuals of a social body cannot be relied upon to deal justly with one another, so that the state must come in to rescue us all from violence.

[8] See p.20 of his CV, available at works.bepress.com/william_cavanaugh/cv.pdf (PDF file will download on clicking that link), last accessed on 8/6/16.

[9] Interview with Cavanaugh, found at: http://youtu.be/DVtEwlmnhqo, last accessed on 9/3/14.

[10] See p.20 of his CV, cited above.

[11] See Torture, IX.

[12] See Torture, X.

[13] The word “liturgy” is used both because it involves a disciplining of souls through a disciplining of bodies, and a co-ordination of many bodies into a coherent performance of an underlying drama. The drama, or “liturgy”, of torture climaxes in a confession of the State as savior. It is called “anti-liturgy” because the true liturgy, the Eucharistic Liturgy, does not scatter but gathers, does not isolate but brings solidarity, does not throw the bodies of others upon the altar of the State but teaches communicants to sacrifice themselves (in union with Christ’s sacrifice) for the life of the world and its salvation. Consistent with these terms, Cavanaugh rejects what he sees as the State’s narrative of a primordial violence from which it saves us, and advocates for a primordial peace, lost, but restored in Christ’s self-sacrifice (Torture, 11).

[14] This definition of the transcendence of the person is effectively a stripped-down transcendence serviceable for a pluralistic society: it does not violate the plurality of political affiliations characteristic of the temporal plane, nor does it employ coercion on the spiritual plane by requiring assent to certain characteristically Christian theological beliefs (see Torture, 168-169).

7 thoughts on “William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist

    • It’s funny that you mention the situation in Russia today: after writing this review in 2011, I did a project in 2012 on the Russian Orthodox Church’s understanding of the Church’s proper relation to the State, and to civil society. I’ve thought about brushing that up and posting it here. My conclusion was perhaps deliberately self-deluded so as to remain optimistic; my initial instinct was that institutions are primarily interested in perpetuating themselves, and so any goal they have is worlded and aims at some worldly good related to their own power and self-perpetuation; my final verdict was that the icon of Christ exercised a critical function over even rulers, so that rulers whose choices and character did not conform to the icon were not legitimate rulers. There was some evidence for this, even some Patriarchs who preferred martyrdom to complicity, but not as much as I’d have liked.

      Now (2014) I’m going through the documents surrounding the 11th century Investiture Controversy in the West, and I keep thinking about how the problems dealt with there, and the particular solutions advanced to resolve those problems, dovetailed straight into many of the Church-State relations that prevail today. They are certainly active in the background of the problems that Cavanaugh outlines.


  1. Reblogged this on contending with and commented:
    A good book, and post, to consider when examining: 1) the role of “spiritual” life in secular society. 2) the growing intimacy of Church and state in Russia.
    “This allowed the Church a place to serve the state by fostering a higher, interior unity amongst citizens, while also ostensibly protecting the realm of the personal (and thus the Church) from the power of the state, in a relationship that was supposed to be harmonious. And yet it was this fragmentation of the person upon two planes that dovetailed so nicely into legitimating the state’s exclusive power over individual bodies, leading to the gravest abuses. It led also to the Church’s inability to fight back on a plane that she had banished herself from, and state intrusion into what was supposed to be her territory: disciplining the body disciplines the soul. Through the state’s exclusive rights over citizen’s bodies, the whole realm of interiority also effectively became the state’s territory.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist | evergreen ruefulness

  3. Pingback: Excerpt #16 — Simone Weil on What is Sacred in Each Person | Into the Clarities

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