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THE REAL PRESENCE The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist CHRIST IN THE EUCHARIST

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Transubstantiation and Reason

John Young

Protestants reject transubstantiation, and so do many Catholic scholars. The average Catholic is vague concerning the nature of the Eucharistic presence of Christ, and one can sympathize with him, in view of the lack of clear teaching about the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The basic objection to the Catholic doctrine of the real presence is not that it is against Scripture, but that it is against reason. The words of Jesus seem plain enough. "This is my body." This is my blood." "Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you." "My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink." When some of his disciples complained, "This is a hard saying; who can accept it?", he didn't explain that he had not been speaking literally in saying he would give his body to eat and his blood to drink. Instead he let them go. As St. John tells us, many left him because they would not accept this teaching.

Our Lord's words are not interpreted non-literally because that is the obvious way to interpret them, but because a literal interpretation seems to be repugnant to reason. The conservative Protestant theologian Louis Berkhof, in his famous work Systematic Theology, insists that the Roman teaching "… violates the human senses, where it asks us to believe that what tastes and looks like bread and wine, is really flesh and blood: and human reason, where it requires belief in the separation of a substance and its properties and in the presence of a material body in several places at the same time, both of which are contrary to reason." [1]

Among Catholics firmly committed to all that the Church teaches, one finds much confusion and various misunderstandings regarding Christ's Eucharistic presence. Take these questions: Do we receive (for instance) Christ's head and arms and feet? If the accidents of bread were removed, would we see the substance of his body, as though a curtain had been drawn back? Are the bread and wine converted into his soul and divinity? Attempted answers to these questions show up the confusion existing in the minds of most Catholics.

Then there is the grave situation of those Catholics who think transubstantiation is against reason. Common sense and science, they believe, demand its rejection. It is an impossible theory based on the erroneous natural science of Aristotle.

This denial is extremely serious, for the Church teaches infallibly that Christ is present through transubstantiation. As the Council of Trent says, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats: "… by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation." [2] Trent pronounces an anathema against those who deny transubstantiation. [3]

Substance And Accidents

If one thinks transubstantiation is repugnant to reason, this may be due to not having understood what substance is, and how it is related to accidents. We can't see a substance or touch it or taste it, so it may seem unreal. Perhaps we tend to think of it as an inert something, having no function except to support the active qualities shown by the senses. George Berkeley (1685-1753) declared material substance to be a meaningless term. He says: "It neither acts, nor perceives, nor is perceived: for this is all that is meant by saying it is an inert, senseless, unknown substance: which is a definition entirely made up of negatives, excepting only the relative notion of its standing under or supporting." [4]

That notion of substance is grotesque, but it does not seem so to an empiricist philosopher because of his reduction of all knowledge to sense knowledge; and it continues to influence some theologians when they think about transubstantiation. That is one reason for the widespread rejection of this dogma, and the substitution of transignification or transfinalization.

The truth is that denial of the reality of substance is a contradiction of common sense. For something must either exist in its own right, such as water, a tree, a cat: or else it must exist in something else, such as color or shape. What "stands on its own feet," as it were, is a substance; what exists in something else is an accident. Denial of substances leaves color, size, weight and so on without a subject of inherence: which implies a color which is not the color of anything, size which is not the size of anything, weight which is not the weight of anything.

The substance is the essence, the nature, of a thing which exists in its own right. It isn't inert, as Berkeley imagined, but dynamic, for it is the source from which all the powers and activities emanate. The accidents depend on it for their existence and their operation.

Take a stone, by way of example. We experience its hardness, its smoothness, its color, its shape. But the substance that has these attributes eludes our observation. Even were we to break the stone in two we wouldn't see the substance; if we broke it into a hundred pieces we would be no more successful. So we might try some scientific tests, but still the results would be in the order of phenomena.

The substance of the stone is material, but it is not sensible. Yet it is not unknown, for its accidents manifest it. From the accidents perceived by sight and the other senses, the intellect gains an insight into the essence (the substance). Therefore words like stone, water, tree, horse have meaning: each brings to mind the thing named, and we have in our intellect the essence of the reality in question, although never perfectly, for no substance can be perfectly understood through abstraction from sense knowledge.

The dogma of transubstantiation teaches that the whole substance of bread is changed into that of Christ's body, and the whole substance of wine into that of his blood, leaving the accidents of bread and wine unaffected. Reason, of course, can't prove that this happens. But it is not evidently against reason either; it is above reason. Our senses, being confined to phenomena, cannot detect the change: we know it only by faith in God's word.

After the priest consecrates the bread and wine, their accidents alone remain, without inhering in any substance. They can't inhere in the bread and wine, for these no longer exist; nor do they inhere in Christ's body and blood, for they are not his accidents. The Catechism of the Council of Trent says: "… the accidents which present themselves to the eyes or other senses exist in a wonderful and ineffable manner without a subject." [5] St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that God directly sustains the quantity of bread (or wine) in being, and that the other accidents inhere in the quantity. [6] For quantity is the fundamental accident: the others, such as color, exist as quantified—as having extension. There is no such thing as a non-extended color.

Answers To Some Difficulties

I quoted Louis Berkhof's assertion that separation of a substance and its properties is contrary to reason. If we said this happened naturally it would indeed be contrary to reason. But what we say is that it happens through the supernatural action of God. He holds all things in being simply by an act of his will, the accidents depending on their substances as on secondary causes; and in the Eucharist he dispenses with those secondary causes.

What of the objection, also given by Berkhof, that a material body cannot be present in several places at the same time? Well, a substance becomes present in a place because of its quantity; substance of itself is indifferent to place. So when this unique conversion occurs, caused supernaturally by God—a conversion of substance into substance—Christ's body can be present in any number of places, being related to the place by reason of the accidents of bread which are situated there.

Berkhof asserts that it is a violation of what the senses show to be asked to accept that what tastes and looks like bread and wine is really flesh and blood. But what are we tasting and seeing? The accidents of bread and wine which remain after the consecration. They have not changed, and they taste and look as they did before the consecration. There is no denial of what the senses show.

Earlier I mentioned confusion among Catholics about the implications of Christ's Eucharistic presence, and I posed the question: Do we receive (for instance) Christ's head and arms and feet? Many today would be uncomfortable with an affirmative answer, which would savor, to them, of a grossly materialistic view of the Real Presence. Yet it is the right answer. Suppose we didn't receive those parts: then the same would have to be said of all the other parts of his body. So there'd be nothing left! We would not be receiving his body. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent says, in this sacrament are contained "… all the constituents of a true body, such as bones and sinews…." [7]

Another question noted earlier asked whether the accidents are hiding the substance from our gaze, so that their removal would be like drawing back a curtain, allowing us to see Jesus' body. If one is tempted to say yes, a moment's reflection should show that the right answer must be no. A substance can't be seen or tasted or experienced by any of the senses. To think otherwise would reduce substances to the status of accidents, thus making it impossible to see what the dogma of transubstantiation means, and inevitably leading one into bewilderment when trying to explore the teaching.

A third question asked whether the bread and wine are converted into our Lord's soul and divinity. Most orthodox Catholics will instinctively answer yes, because they know well that we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. But that cannot be the answer, for it would involve the absurdity of a piece of bread becoming God. It would be converted from bread into divinity. A finite piece of matter would become the Infinite Spirit.

The Church teaches that the bread is changed into Christ's body and the wine into his blood, and that his soul and divinity become present through concomitance. He is one indivisible being, so when the bread is changed into his body, the whole Christ necessarily becomes present. But the actual transubstantiation—the changing of one substance into another—is only of his body and blood. It is the change of a material substance into another material substance.

As the Council of Trent says, the body is "… under the species of bread, and the blood under the species of wine, and the soul under both, by the force of that natural connection and concomitancy whereby the parts of Christ our Lord, who has now risen from the dead, to die no more, are united together: and the divinity, furthermore, on account of the admirable hypostatical union thereof with his body and soul." [8]

What of the accidents of Christ's body? They too are there; otherwise he would not be fully present. As St. Thomas says: "… since the substance of Christ's body is not really deprived of its dimensive quantity and its other accidents, hence it comes that by reason of real concomitance the whole dimensive quantity of Christ's body and all its other accidents are really in this sacrament. [9] But the mode of their existence is conditioned by the fact that Jesus becomes present through transubstantiation. Substance is converted into substance, and the accidents, consequently, are there in the manner of substance.

Think of quantity. It is the fundamental accident, as we have noted. Normally it is the accident whereby its substance occupies a place; but the essential thing it does is to give the substance parts. And in the Eucharist all the parts of Christ's body are present and are situated relatively to each other. But because of the unique way in which the quantity is there—in the manner of substance—the parts are not spread out in relation to the surrounding place. To put it another way: substance as such is distinct from quantity, and it occupies a place only because of its quantity. But when quantity becomes present through transubstantiation it exists in the manner of substance, and therefore without actual extension.

An insidious obstacle to an understanding of the Real Presence (of course it can never be fully understood in this life) is the almost overwhelming influence of the imagination. The imagination is a picture-making power which accompanies all our thinking; but it is distinct from the intellect and it deals only with what can be seen, touched or in some way sensed. The deeper level of being, accessible to the intellect, is beyond the reach of the imagination. However, the imagination still provides images, and these easily mislead us.

For example, the statement that Jesus is in the Eucharist with all his parts may bring a picture into the imagination of a tiny body small enough to fit in the host. We know it's not like that, but the imagery can still distort one's thought, or block it, or even tempt one to discard the Real Presence in favor of a symbolical or "spiritual" presence.

Deepening Our Faith

A clearer understanding of what God, through his Church, tells us about the Eucharist, and a consideration of the objections to the doctrine, should deepen our faith. Vagueness and perplexity about it are often associated with errors lurking deep in the mind—errors which, if allowed to surface, can bring temptations against faith. A right understanding will dissipate the errors and show that reason need not be embarrassed by transubstantiation, even though it far transcends reason.

Not only that, but exploration of the doctrine makes it more real to us. We realize more clearly that the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ are as truly present as they are in heaven, or as they were when he labored in his workshop in Nazareth. While that realization is dominant, every genuflection will be a conscious act of adoration of the Incarnate God; the Consecration will always absorb our attention; we will never want to hurry out of church as soon as Mass is over.

Jesus comes to us physically because of his great love for us. Anyone who loves wants to be physically close to the one who is loved, but it is sometimes impossible. It is not impossible for God. Divine power changes bread and wine into the real body and blood of Christ, and he dwells physically on earth in every tabernacle, and comes physically into us in Holy Communion.


[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1958, p. 652.

[2] DS 1642; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1376.

[3] DS 1652.

[4] George Berkeley, On the Principles of Human Knowledge, section 68.

[5] The Catechism of the Council of Trent, translated by McHugh and Callan, Sinag-Tala Publishers, Greenhills, Phillipines, p. 229.

[6] Summa Theol., III, q. 77, a. 2.

[7] Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. 233.

[8] DS 1640.

[9] Summa Theol., III, q. 76, a. 4.

Mr. John Young, B.Th., is associated with the Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre in Marylands, N.S.W., Australia. He has taught philosophy in three seminaries, and is the author of an introduction to philosophy, Reasoning Things Out, published in the United States by Stella Maris Books, Fort Worth, Tex. Mr. Young writes on philosophical and religious topics for Australian publications. His last article in HPR appeared in March 1997.

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