A point has been made recently in an RCIA class I attend, and it is a point I have made myself on various occasions before, that the Catholic Church is not dogmatically bound to the language of ‘Transubstantiation’. In fact, the language is only just ‘recommended’ by the Council of Trent as being most appropriate. However, this ‘Aristotelian’ language is obviously part of the theological currency of the Western Church, and often it is thought to be enshrined as ‘the Church’s language’. Thus Protestants ‘protest’ that this language is a latter Medieval accoutrement which is alien to the faith of the primitive Church (and they are, in one sense, quite right). Further people like the early and extremely influential Protestant Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli accused Catholic Scholastics of mis-using Aristotle’s language to make it say something which cannot fit with Aristotle’s worldview at all, thus undermining the very legitimacy of adopting Aristotle’s philosophical language. The appropriate Catholic response to this is and has been that this is true; Aristotle could no more have accepted ‘Transubstantiation’ as possible than he could have accepted ‘creatio ex nihilo‘ as possible. His philosophical system simply does not and strictly cannot allow such things. However, when Western Theologians like the Scholastics adopted this language to express the mystery of the Eucharist, they were well aware of the limitations of such language, and its inadequacy. They made use of Aristotle’s language for pastoral and scholastic agenda’s; they wanted to explain what is meant by the mystery of the Eucharist in terms which people of the day could make sense of. Because of how useful this language has been found to be in the life of the Latin Church, it has become the standard form of expression in that tradition. Catholics have, however, often overstated the case when identifying such language as the language of the ‘Catholic’ Church; this isn’t fair, as this language is not as common in the life of the Eastern Church, and even in the Western Church there is some flexibility of language on this point. In this post I want to distinguish the doctrine (teaching) of ‘Transubstantiation’ from the Dogma it is intended to communicate of the Real Presence of Christ. In the end, I will argue that the distinction between the articulation and the mystery ought to be recognized, but ultimately that the articulation of ‘Transubstantiation’ ought to be preferred to any alternative.
Some (not by any means all) essential features of the Dogma/Mystery are:
- That there is a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, such that the recipient of the Eucharist under either species is receiving the whole person of Christ: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
- There is a real absence of bread or wine, as the Eucharistic elements are no longer in any sense bread or wine – or, in other words, that the Eucharist is the presence of Christ which is presented in such fullness as to exclude the co-presence of anything else along with him.
- That the Bread and Wine Become (Eastern confessions often read ‘change into‘) the Body and Blood (and Soul and Divinity) of Christ.
- The entire person of Christ is fully, really, locally, ‘substantially’ present wherever the Eucharist is.
Now, with that in view, let us look to what Transubstantiation as a standard expression communicates:
- There is some difference between the appearance (accidents) and the ‘substance’ of any-thing, such that the thing itself is more than (or ‘other’ than) the sum of all its parts, since accidents (or qualities) cannot exist except in some ‘subject’ to which they belong (or in which they inhere).
- In the Christian Liturgy (the Mass), at the moment of consecration, the elements of bread and wine, although retaining their appearances (accidents), are utterly transformed into Christ (Thus a Trans-Substanciation: since what is being transformed is the substance – the thing itself).
- That the Substances of Bread or Wine are not annihilated and replaced with Christ, nor do they exist alongside Christ (which would be ‘Consubstantiation’) but rather that they are themselves ‘transformed’ into the substance ‘Christ’.
- That the Eucharist also retains the properties which belong properly to the former substances of Bread and Wine respectively, thus the Eucharist under the second species may have the property of being able to make one drunk, or under the first species it may have the property of nourishment.
Catholics often, of course, express serious reservations about alternative language to express the Eucharist, such as the language, sometimes proposed, of ‘Transignification’. This concern is altogether legitimate for a few reasons. First, because the language of Transubstantiation has, in the life of the western Church, ‘stood the test of time’ so to speak, where no other language has. Moreover, most other articulations have been shown to be less promising, and sometimes pastorally dangerous. For instance, the language of Trans-signification often sounds, and is taken at face value to mean, something like a change in the ‘significance’ which a community of faith gives to the liturgical elements of bread and wine, making Christ the object of presence signified by the elements in the same way as the presence of Frodo Baggins may have been signified in a different religious community (this example is stolen from Alexander Pruss) by the element of Lembas bread. That kind of reductionistic impression is a far cry from the profound mystery of the Eucharist Catholics encounter in the Mass. However, in principle, alternative language could legitimately be used by the Church, and sometimes (though rarely) such alternatives are found in some Eastern or Oriental traditions (though they haven’t stood the same ‘test of time’ in quite the same way because their coherence has often gone untested by the challenges of modern philosophy).
That said, however, there are two significant points to be made here about the deficiency of the language of ‘Transubstantiation’. First, the language of Transubstantiation is often found to be so archaic and pre-modern that it is difficult for people today to make sense of ‘substance’ in general, and thus of ‘transubstantiation’. Indeed, it is psychologically impossible to conceive of substance in general apart from any of its predicates, which is a point Leibniz brilliantly makes when arguing that it is nevertheless absolutely philosophically necessary to recognize ‘substance’ in some sense (and in this more rigorous sense even Hume must be committed to ‘substance’). However, most modern people are simply not philosophically in-formed sufficiently to make meaningful sense of all this strange language; transubstantiation is often confused for some kind of supernatural chemical reaction. Moreover, it has the disadvantages of implying to modern ears that God is ‘hiding’ behind the appearance of bread and wine in such a way that makes the appearance of the Eucharist seem like at best a ruse, and at worst an act of deception or even an outright lie on God’s part. Therefore, it seems as though the Church’s language does not have the pastoral benefits it once did of helping people come to terms with the Eucharist on even an elementary level.
Moreover, there is a really devastating disadvantage which is not often recognized by Catholics, which I hinted at near the beginning; namely: that Transubstantiation, strictly speaking, is not even sufficient for the Catholic Dogma of the Real Presence. A great example of this in the experience of the Western Church is its encounter with Leibniz; probably one of the sharpest intellects and greatest innovators of modern Philosophy, if not all Western Philosophy. He had developed a metaphysical system which he called “the Monadology” in which he eloquently explains how the world works in an extremely satisfying way (satisfying at least in the sense that it resolved scientific and metaphysical puzzles which were then thought indissoluble). Most people, upon encountering his strange philosophy, think he is simply crazy (of course, I think he’s on to something, but then, it has been pointed out that I am crazy too). The point, however, is that Leibniz, though not himself a Catholic (he was Lutheran), was extremely ecumenical and concerned himself with ensuring that his metaphysical system could be plausibly accepted without difficulty by Catholics. He demonstrated that his system technically satisfied transubstantiation completely and entirely, and argued that Catholics should not be shy about accepting his system because of theological problems. He was quite right: his system completely allows one to satisfy the definition of Transubstantiation. However, the Catholic response was not as charitable as he had hoped. The problem was that even though he had satisfied Transubstantiation, he had not satisfied implicit features of the Dogma of the Real Presence.
Alexander Pruss writes:
Leibniz, while not himself a Catholic, for ecumenical purposes and/or to gain a wider following for his views, attempted to show that his metaphysics was compatible with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. To that end, in his correspondence with Des Bosses (Leibniz 1989; 197 ff.), Leibniz claimed that his monadic metaphysics was compatible with the idea – to which he was not committed – that a material substance required the existence of a ‘substantial chain’. the basic item in Leibniz’ ontology is the monad, which is a substance that has no parts… More precisely, to each sutstantial chain there corresponds a collection of monads that are its members, i.e. which stand in a special member-of relation to the chain… Leibniz’s proposal, then, was to say that in the Eucharist the monads of the bread and wine become members of the chain that constitutes Christ’s body… this kind of partial presence would not only not be doing justice to the idea of a real presence, but would also not match the devotional tradition’s focus on Christ’s self-giving to us in the Eucharist… since his giving us his hair to eat would not seem to have the kind of depth of self-giving that is ascribed to the Eucharist.
~Alexander Pruss, The Eucharist: Real Presence and Real Absence, p. 516-517 of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology
In other words, even though Leibniz satisfies the doctrine of Transubstantiation, his system implied that the Eucharist was the body of Christ in the sense that it was ‘part-of’ the body of Christ, like his toe-nail or finger are ‘part-of’ his body, whereas the Catholic Mystery implies that the entire body of Christ is present in the Eucharist.
All these points weigh in as evidence against the unqualified use of ‘Transubstantiation’ as satisfactory language. However, in my view, Catholics are justified in continuing to use the language of Transubstantiation for a number of reasons: first, because a change in this language may be (or would inevitably be) interpreted on the lay-level to be a change of the Church’s faith in the Eucharist, because Catholics are so horribly Catechized. The shift in language would thus cause scandal beyond what is an acceptable cost for so little a benefit. Moreover, there is no alternative language (of which I am aware) which shows promise in this respect: that it may be more pastorally beneficial over all. Certainly no language proposes itself with the same credentials that ‘Transubstantiation’ has earned itself in the Latin tradition, but it isn’t even clear whether any alternative language can do better (a point to which I shall shortly return). Also, it is interesting to note that, although Transubstantiation is often accused of being a ‘western’ or ‘Latin’ term, it appears also (and with significant prominence) among the Eastern Fathers! The first to use the word ‘metousiosis’ (Greek for literally ‘trans-substantiation’), was Gennadius in 1453, and his explanation of the doctrine is nearly identical with the Latin tradition, for which the language had been standard since Berengar of Tours. Furthermore, he goes rather further:
He says that each fragment is the whole body of Christ, and that the body of Christ in heaven and on every altar on earth is one and the same, being that body which was born of the Virgin, was once on the cross, and is now in heaven (the full text of the Sermon of Gennadius is found in Migne PG 160:351-374).
Moreover, the language of ‘transubstantiation’ has been officially used by the Eastern Orthodox Church ever since the Eastern heretic (heretical because he adopted a Calvinistic idea of the ‘Real Presence’) Cyril Lucar, who denied the language of the Roman Church of ‘Transubstantiation’ which he accused of being “vainly invented.” The Eastern response to this Patriarch was terse: The Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church of 1640 pulled no punches on using the language of ‘transubstantiation’. The later council of Constantinople in 1642 is just as explicit, and in later statements of the eighteenth century the Eastern Church was quick to claim that it’s use of the language of ‘transubstantiation’ was NOT imported from the west but rather drew from it’s own Holy Tradition. Moreover, even the much later council of Constantinople in 1727 says about Transubstantiation that: “it is “the most fitting statement of this mystery” and the “most accurately significant declaration of this change””
Therefore, although it often goes unrecognized (sometimes even denied by modern Eastern Orthodox apologists), the language of Transubstantiation actually has significant ecumenical value for the Latin tradition. (I highly recommend a read through the article linked to above, from which much of this material comes, and in which much more can be found).
Finally, though the language of Transubstantiation falls short of being wholly sufficient and satisfactory, this may not be the fault of the ‘Aristotelian’ language, but rather of Language itself. As Herbert McCabe, a Dominican priest, puts it:
Transubstantiation, like creation or
incarnation, does not make sense within the
limits of the Aristotelean world-view. St
Thomas uses Aristotle’s language, but it
breaks down in speaking of the Eucharist. It
does not break down because there is some
more accurate language in which the whole
thing can be explained. It breaks down because
it is language. We are dealing here with
something that transcends our concepts and
can only be spoken of by stretching language
to breaking point: we are dealing here with
Thus, in conclusion, I find myself in agreement with the statement of Trent:
“But since Christ our Redeemer declared that to be truly His own body which He offered under the form of bread, it has, therefore, always been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy council now declares it anew, that by the consecration of the bread and wine a change is brought about 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 properly and appropriately calls transubstantiation.”