So what does the fall of the Roman Empire have to do with Freud? It may well have nothing at all to do, but somehow I make this leap of thinking.
We all know you can pacify a dog by giving it meat. Now the traditional Christian parallel involves eating bread and wine in remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But some strange things happened with the Catholic Church during the middle ages. There began to be what we would now call an obsession with the connection between physical objects and the spiritual powers they represented. Nowadays there are still many varieties of this basic human impulse. In addition to the continually held official beliefs of the Church, the TV show Antiques Roadshow, for example, demonstrates that physical objects with a connection to history are still believed to have magical power which makes them worth more than simliar objects without such connections. But this religious tendency reached a peak in the middle ages.
I believe it was because physical objects provided a focal point which allowed the possibility of people’s containing many instincts which, before the discipline of the Christian age, commonly were let loose onto the world. To emphasize the importance of the spiritual power contained in physical objects is both a very irrational thing to do and also a very effective container for emotions and desires which might otherwise tyrannize both the individual and the world. The continued (although waning) power of the Catholic Church today relies on the principle that many people are not good enough at containing their instincts to be able to look at holy objects and see a metaphor as opposed to the more appealing notion that they are witnessing the actual power itself.
A very important point of note is that Islam managed to solve the instinct problem in a different way, so much so that the Islamic leaders of the middle ages would mock the Christians they defeated in humorous ways. The one I know is the military leader Suliman, who, upon recovering a fragment of the True Cross, had it placed in the ground under the path to his chamber, forcing anyone who wanted to negotiate with him to trample on it. The lesson is not that the Muslims were superior in being able to deal with their instincts, but rather that they found an entirely different way to deal with them, which allowed them to highlight the irrationality and quasi-stupidity of the Catholic obsession with physical objects.
The most central of all the physical objects thought to contain the spiritual presence of God are the bread and wine of the Eucharistic ceremony. The issue of whether the Church is truly able to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood is extremely important. If they can’t genuinely transform the substance, then the Church is unnecessary. It’s a big power issue. Much of Church history revolves around this question.
It’s funny from an atheist perspective to wonder why someone would care whether the bread and wine were truly transformed. If, as the atheist believes, Jesus was not resurrected, then there’s no event to celebrate, either symbolically or in actual substance. Yet it tore Europe apart and was the source of many wars.
I believe it’s important to examine what the effects are of the Church’s declaration, that its priests alone can perform the service which transforms the bread and wine. If the Church were suffering secretly from a feeling of inferiority, with secret questions as to whether it needed to exist at all, a certain amount of public prestige could be gained by changing the doctrine, from the Eucharist being a way to remember Christ, to the Eucharist being a way to ingest Christ, and the only way to get to heaven. The age must be one in which people want to get to heaven, needless to say, but to nominate oneself as the only way to do it can certainly boost one’s self-confidence. I’d like to acknowledge this very selfish style of reasoning. I don’t think it’s the only reason the Church does what it does. To conclude that would be narrow-minded, and it would indicate a desire to ignore the issue’s historical complexity. But let’s get the obvious out of the way first. If there’s a way to draw attention to yourself, and make yourself out to be important, most people would take it, and I’m sure to some degree that’s what the church has done over the years.
I believe that the real reason people need to believe in the miracle of the Mass is that it represents to them a thin cord to God which might break if it were invalidated. If people need to believe in something, maybe it indicates that they find themselves in a perilous state to begin with. I would suggest that the perilous state from which the Catholic believer was and is saved is the threat of inner instinct overwhelming their outer rational mind and reason. And here’s the connection with Freud. The first fixation Freud mentions is the Oral Fixation, which suggests that so long as the instinct associated with the mouth is not satisfied or at least reconciled, it will persist and cause problems. I believe that the Mass was a collective way of appeasing the threat of the Oral Fixation. I believe that it enabled people to detach their reason from their instincts and therefore paved the way for the intellectual advances of the middle ages, which of course led to ours.
That the Mass could remain so significant for so long proves that it serves some very important function to the mental health of its participants. Built into that function is a contradiction which we now know about all too well, which is that it can be frustrating to see some (literally) holier-than-thou priestly heirarchy claiming to be able to do something no one else can do, to effect a transformation of matter which confounds rational thinking and is and always has been invisible to scientific measurement.
Yet the lesson I believe we can all take from it is that there is some instinct associated with the mouth and the need to eat which is considered so dangerous that it cannot be ignored, and that has been considered so important, at least unconsciously, that wars were worth fighting over it. Indeed, the basic difference between the Protestant and the Catholic attitude can be discerned by looking at what is believed about the Mass. If you really are eating the body and blood of Jesus Christ himself, then intellectually it may be very confusing, but your stomach, i.e., your lower instincts, is satisfied for the time being. Thus the problem is with intellectual reconciliation of the irrational nature of the rituals. The Protestant rejects the food, as it were, thus appeasing his or her intellectual condition. Yet the storm can brew from below. The Protestant must deal with the torrent of instinct which results from precisely his lack of irrationality.
Where does the atheist fit in then, if Protestants are so “rational”? Well, I guess atheists are in some ways even more removed from their instincts, but permit themselves unrestricted use of their analytical capacities. There is an interesting gradation from Catholic to Protestant to atheist in this regard. For the atheist, the Catholic idea that not only did Jesus rise from his grave, but also that he can be eaten and drunk physically, but only when a priest from hierarchy of the Catholic Church which is the one True Church, having survived through the ages since Jesus himself instituted it two thousand years ago, performs the correct ritual on a piece of bread – it’s so irrational that it’s kind of funny.
But still, does the atheist gain the silent benefits of participating in this utterly irrational act? And why is anybody with a brain Catholic? Yet there are Catholics with brains. Maybe it’s because of the efficacy of the Mass in appeasing the Oral Stage Freud was talking about.