Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Wafergate”; or, The Importance of Briefing Executives on Religious Protocol

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has gotten himself into a bit of trouble with some Catholics this week, following his acceptance of a communion wafer at the funeral of former Governor General Roméo Leblanc in New Brunswick last Friday. Video of the funeral shows the Prime Minister taking the wafer in his hand, but doesn’t show him consuming it (though nor do I see Mr. Harper pocketing the host in this YouTube video, despite its poster’s claim).

Mr. Harper is not Catholic, but an article on the CBC website today describes him as a “devout Protestant.” Media coverage of this story provides opinions from Catholic priests on both sides of the debate as to whether a Protestant should be receiving communion in a Catholic church at all – but since there appears to be disagreement even among priests, I think Mr. Harper’s in the clear on that one.

On the issue of what he did with the wafer after receiving it, though, not so much. One of the things that differentiates Catholics from other Christians is their belief in the transubstantiation – that is, that the bread and wine used in the celebration of communion actually become the body and blood of Christ. Accordingly, Catholics treat the communion wafer reverently. They practice how best to receive it (to avoid dropping it) when preparing for their First Communion, and consume it immediately upon receiving it from their priest.

So when Mr. Harper was shown receiving the communion wafer and not consuming it, people (including, according to, Monsignor Brian Henneberry, Vicar General and Chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John) were upset. Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, today called some critics’ charges that Harper had pocketed the wafer “absurd”, telling CanWest "The priest offered the host to the prime minister, the prime minister accepted the host and he consumed it." Noel Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate, reportedly confirms that account, saying he was seated close by and saw the Prime Minister consume the wafer. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, he didn’t do it immediately – which would have been in line with Catholic custom, and would have been caught on camera, to boot.

I’m certain Mr. Harper meant no harm or insult or disrespect in all this – he likely just didn’t realize the implications of waiting momentarily before consuming the host. But as the outrage and media coverage show us time and time again, that doesn’t always matter in the court of public opinion.

Before attending a state funeral in a church of an unfamiliar faith, Mr. Harper should have had a full briefing as to expected protocol. He then would have known how he should receive the wafer – and that he should consume it immediately.

Also, if the PMO was asking my PR advice (which it hasn't!), I would recommend against addressing an inadvertent insult (i.e. the wafer issue) with an intentional one (i.e. 'your impression/recollection is "absurd"'). I'm just saying.

On a related note, Mr. Harper is now in Italy, and has an audience with the Pope scheduled for later this week.

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