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Medieval manuscripts upend assumptions

NCR Staff

SAN DIEGO -- Gary Macy puts on a dentist’s loupe, the magnifying goggles used for close-up work. The only teeth that Macy is concerned about, however, are metaphorical: the teeth he sinks into medieval manuscripts he has stockpiled from his travels.

He pulls a manuscript up on his computer. The chairman of the theology and religious studies department at the University of San Diego, a private Catholic institution, is about to have some fun.

A self-described “demythologizer,” Macy specializes in sacramental theology of the Middle Ages. One of his favorite pastimes is scrutinizing cramped Latin script for whatever surprises it might reveal about medieval Catholic thought.

Aided by his goggles and Adobe Photoshop, a software program that magnifies and sharpens the letters, he reads the manuscript’s heading: Queritur de genere motus corporum (on the movement of glorified bodies).

In Macy’s pursuit of the past, he is driven by the present. In the context of the growing priest shortage and recent controversies over ordination, he brings forward little-known medieval discussions about the Eucharist. His findings so far, he said, challenge the official position of church leaders that, by unbroken tradition over centuries, the words of consecration were considered valid only if spoken by specially ordained men. According to Macy’s research, some medieval liturgists and theologians believed that when the words of consecration were spoken, bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ, no matter who spoke the words -- even if the speaker was a member of the laity. Even if the speaker was a woman.

If there is an effort Macy finds as rewarding as deciphering old Latin -- better even than live theater, Baroque music and sporting events, more fun even than the teaching, gardening, cooking and partying that he enjoys -- it is sleuthing around Europe for rarely-read, often uncatalogued, treatises.

“I’ve been forced to go to Paris, Rome, London,” he said wryly. “That’s a hurdle I don’t mind.” Macy anticipates his research will take him next to Cologne and Munich in Germany and Vienna, Austria. His reward for daily diligence in repositories of ancient documents is gustatory pleasures at the dinner hour.

Last summer, at the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Minneapolis, Macy, then sporting a short ponytail, spoke to the full assembly about the Eucharist and popular religiosity in the Middle Ages. “It’s never what we think,” he said, reflecting on that talk during an interview in his office. “There was a myth sold in the church from the late 19th century until about 1950 that the church had always been the way it was then, and that the papacy was always in charge. It just isn’t true.”

No line to toe

Medieval theology and practice suggest a far more tolerant perspective than is generally thought, he said. “Many people have a picture of the Middle Ages as a time when you had to toe the line or find yourself in prison for heresy.” In reality, he said, “there was no line to toe.”

He noted that the stereotype has even infiltrated Hollywood. “One of the real consistent themes” in television and movies is that the medieval church was oppressive, he said. He remembers watching year after year a spooky Halloween special set in a medieval village. “There were lots of dark shadows” and a narrator’s mood-setting words: “Once upon a time in the Dark Ages, when men’s minds were dark. ...”

Macy keeps on his bookshelves a book by an Italian scholar, Matteo Sanfilippo, who mocks such notions. It is titled Il Medioevo Secondo Walt Disney: Come l’America ha reinventato l’Eta di Mezzo -- in English, The Middle Ages According to Walt Disney: How America has reinvented the Middle Ages (Castelvecchi, 1993).

Even theologians feed the stereotype at times, when they reduce medieval thought to the writings of “one hefty Dominican,” St. Thomas Aquinas, while overlooking a wealth of other material, he said. “Thomas’ work, interesting as it remains, was an idiosyncratic voice in the 13th century and, by the end of that century, a voice which ceased to convince,” Macy told scholars last summer. “If historians are to fairly represent the theology of the Middle Ages, they simply must get beyond Thomas.” Disdainful of historians who start out with “preconceived notions,” Macy said medieval theology gets a “bum rap” when it is mined merely for discussions of transubstantiation. “That’s our obsession, not theirs,” he said.

From his reading of many brilliant medieval theologians, Macy recommends instead the “far more interesting and influential theology of symbol developed by Hugh of St. Victor and Alexander of Hales.” Alexander, he said, argued, partly against Thomas, that reception of the Eucharist depended less on the “miracle of transubstantiation” and more on the “intentionality of the receiver” -- an understanding that was adopted by a majority of 13th and 14th century theologians.

Beyond Macy’s historical work, past, present and future intersect in his surroundings in a variety of ways.

Although the University of San Diego is only a quarter-century old, its cream-colored Spanish colonial style buildings symbolize a centuries-old convergence of cultures. The hilltop campus overlooks San Diego’s Old Town and Presidio Park, site of a Spanish fort and mission established in 1769 by Capt. Gaspar de Portola and Franciscan Fr. Junipero Serra. In the distance is Point Loma, where explorer Juan Cabrillo landed in 1542, and, beyond that, the Pacific Ocean. The bulbous dome of a church dominates the campus that is replete with carved stone, iron work, fountains and arched walkways.

“We are very much aware of our location” on the U.S.-Mexico border, Macy said. “The future of the church is Hispanic, and we (as a church) haven’t dealt with that yet. That’s part of what drives our work in the department,” he said. Among some 15 professors are two prominent Latino scholars, Fr. Orlando Espin and Maria Pilar Aquino. Espin started the Journal of Hispanic Latino Theology at the university in 1993. (It has since moved to St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y.) Recently the department began an exchange program with the Tijuana branch of the Jesuit-run university Ibero Americana, just 30 minutes away. Other nontraditional department specialties include Native American religions (Kathleen Dugan), and Japanese Buddhism (David Gardiner).

A Puritan past

Macy’s personal history takes him back along another path. Among his father’s ancestors was a Puritan named Thomas Macy who was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for harboring two Quakers in 1635. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a ballad about Thomas Macy and his wife Sarah, describing their flight to the island of Nantucket, which they and some friends had purchased. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Nantucket whalers, including one named Macey, were described as “Quakers with a vengeance,” he said. His great-grandfather married a Polish Catholic woman in Milwaukee and became a Catholic, and all of his maternal ancestors, French and German, were Catholics, he said.

“One thing I can say is that, for good or for ill, I’ve been completely untouched by Irish Catholicism,” he said.

Macy, 47, said he’s wanted to be a scholar as long as he can remember. He learned all the Latin he’s ever needed in a minor seminary operated by Salvatoran priests in central Wisconsin, where he briefly considered becoming a priest. He graduated magna cum laude from Marquette University in Milwaukee, his home town, focusing on English, theology, history, philosophy -- the subject areas that would become his career -- and stayed at Marquette to earn a master’s in historical theology. He studied under Tad Guzie, sacramental theologian, and Keith Egan, medievalist, who, together, pushed him toward Cambridge, England, though it took him a while to get with the program.

“When they first mentioned Cambridge to me, I told them, ‘Great. I’ve got a girlfriend in New Jersey. That’s close to Cambridge,’ “ Macy said. “They said, ‘Not that Cambridge, you idiot.’ “

Theology of the Eucharist, subject of Macy’s doctoral dissertation at Cambridge, remains one of his most urgent topics, in part because it has caused so much division among Christians since the Reformation and, more recently, among Catholics. “What was lost in the Reformation was not just Christian unity, but toleration of pluralism,” he said -- a pluralism that he believes is revealed by any honest search for the Christian past.

His first book, The Banquet’s Wisdom: A Short History of the Theologies of the Lord’s Supper (Paulist Press, 1992) traces the path of Eucharistic theology from the first 1,500 years of unity in diversity through the bitterly fractured divisions of the Reformation era. “The real question that emerges from that era,” when Christians were torn apart over how the risen Lord was present in the Eucharist, is not so much which beliefs and structures are correct but “who, ultimately, has the authority to decide,” he wrote.

No absolute distinction

Despite the assumption, common among liturgists and theologians, that from the fourth century on, or certainly from the eighth, liturgies could be celebrated only by “ritually ordained ministers,” Macy said a “new reading of the evidence” presents the intriguing possibility that until the late 12th and early 13th centuries there was “no absolute distinction between laity and the ritually ordained.”

He told members of the Catholic Theological Society that some liturgists and theologians of the 12th century, including the renowned Bernard and Thierry of Chartres, held that “there was no necessary connection between consecration and sacramental ordination.” The first appearance in official documents of a clear distinction between laity and ritually ordained clergy was in the documents of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, he said.

Until the late 12th century, the term “ordination” often referred to people who were assigned certain roles, including that of celebrating a eucharistic liturgy, rather than to people who were ordained to a permanent clerical state. He notes that a set of instructions for Communion services from the 10th to the 11th centuries uses feminine pronouns, indicating “that women officiated.”

“Those women may not have been functioning as priests as the term is understood today,” he told theologians last summer. Rather -- and possibly more relevant, given a current trend to celebrate with Eucharist unofficially, in small groups -- the women were probably regarded as laity, he said.

Abbesses clearly retained the practice of acting as confessors to their own nuns through the late 12th and early 13th centuries, he said. Nor was preaching reserved to clergy, he said, noting that Hildegard of Bingen made a preaching tour in the mid-12th century to admonish wayward clergy. After priesthood was formally defined as a permanent state requiring ordination, Franciscans sometimes changed written records, Macy said, posthumously ordaining non-ordained members who had acted as confessors.

Macy finds it notable that the practice of “spiritual communion” emerged in popular religiosity at a time when the power to consecrate bread and wine “was being claimed as an exclusively clerical preserve.” In other words, people found a way to resist the growing clerical culture and bypass the power of the clergy without challenging it outright, he said.

Currently Macy is working on publishing a short guide to the work of medieval theologians and, separately, a collection of his essays. Boxes of microfilmed manuscripts -- souvenirs of his travels -- rest on a bookshelf in his office. As time permits, he scans the manuscripts into his computer and gradually is transcribing them onto compact discs so that he can search and compare and “begin to see who borrowed from whom.” He keeps close at hand the Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, an alphabetized list of abbreviations frequently used by medieval scribes.

His scholarly enthusiasm, while contagious, prompts a primary question: Why would this hip-looking character of the sometimes ponytail with wide-ranging interests who’s known by his colleagues to be a connoisseur of wine and food -- in short, someone clearly not a nerd -- want to devote his life to such arcane pursuits?

“Don’t underemphasize the fun,” he insists. “That’s the main reason I do it.”

And then there’s the connection between now and then: diversity, pluralism -- what he sees as the true Catholic heritage that conservatives are trying to stamp out.

“For the first time in 700 years, something really new and wonderful is stirring,” a new form of Catholicism, reflected in parish rituals, that neither church officials nor theologians can stop, Macy said. “I would only point out that, from a historical perspective, the clear and careful separation between clergy and laity established in the 13th century is quietly disappearing from parish life.

“Things have changed before, and we need not fear them changing substantially again,” he said last summer. Paraphrasing historian Walter Principe, he said, “History is freedom from the tyranny of the present.” Macy said his job as a historian “is to pull the rug out from under the dogmatists” -- proponents of “big-book theology,” who think the answers are contained somewhere in one big book. “They say that’s our tradition, and it isn’t so.”

Meanwhile, in his office a human skull holds a place of prominence on a shelf behind his desk. “It’s real,” he said -- on loan from an anthropologist. “I’m told it’s female.” He imported the borrowed bones last year as a way of reviving the medieval and early modern custom of memento mori (remembering that you are going to die).

“You see a lot of skulls on desks in paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries,” he said. It was a time-honored way of “keeping things in perspective.”

Macy’s talk will be published early this year in the 1997 Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 1998