Thursday, September 18, 2014

What is a consecrated host under the law of property?

On the first day of property class in law school, it is common for the professor to grab a book off a student's desk and ask the student: How do you know this is your property?  In most cases, the bewildered new law student cannot show conclusive proof that he lawfully owns much of anything, unless he keeps his car title in his pocket.

Who owns bread consecrated for religious purposes?  Is it lawful for someone outside a faith community to take something sacred to that community and publicly destroy it?  In some cases, no, in particular, if the bread is a conditional gift or gift in trust.


In recent months, first in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Satanists have scheduled Black Masses in which they were to desecrate a consecrated bread wafer of holy communion.  That is, they wanted to mock the Christian religion by taking the most sacred thing in the Catholic Church and corrupting it with urine, spit, and semen.  In Cambridge, the event was cancelled under public pressure, but in Oklahoma City, Archbishop Paul Coakley filed a lawsuit after the leaders of the Satanist group refused to return to the consecrated host to him.  There will be certainly be plenty of discussion, reverent and irreverent, about Catholic teachings, but Archbishop Coakley's lawsuit to recover the consecrated host is based upon solid principles of property law.

Let's say I invited you to my home and gave you a valuable diamond ring under the condition that you would always wear the diamond in its original setting, and if you took it out of the original setting, you had to return it immediately.  Let's say that you received the ring supposedly in good faith but later pulled the diamond out of the setting.  I would have right under the law to repossess the ring on one of several theories: e.g., your breach of the trust agreement or possibly theft by conversion.

In Oklahoma City, Archbishop Coakley is custodian of the Catholic Church's treasures.  No state law requires anyone to value those treasures.  You have every right to yell from the housetops whatever you want to say about the bishop, the sacred bread, and the Church's teachings.  However, if you enter a Catholic parish and receive a consecrated host, you do so under the condition that you eat the consecrated bread immediately; it is not yours to do as you wish.  Otherwise, Archbishop Coakley, as the person duly authorized to set conditions on the gift, has the right to demand the return of the consecrated bread.

As it was, the judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Satanists from "concealing, damaging, destroying, or removing" the sacred bread from the county.  The Satanist group reportedly returned the consecrated bread to Archbishop Coakley, and the Church dismissed its lawsuit.  If the Satanists' attorneys believed that their clients had sound defenses in property law, they likely would have fought the suit in a state whose population is only about 13 percent Catholic.

More here.  Update: And here.