This article written by Mike Filce was originally published on “The Devout Life,” a blog by Mindy Goorchenko. Reprinted with permission.
A Church Divided
We are a church divided. And though it is a division that goes unspoken and unseen, it is one that tears at the very heart of our Faith. This is not a division over abortion, premarital and extramarital sex, or other hot-button issues, but one more firmly rooted in the foundations of our faith than any other issue. It is over the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
The Singularly Defining Doctrine
We Catholics promulgate the idea that “Jesus comes to us physically because of his great love for us,” and that “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.”
Yet many who profess to be Catholic do not fully embrace this singularly defining doctrine.
When we strip away the creeds that we espouse, when we remove the icons, vestments, the accoutrements of Mass, the Penitential and Communion rites, the Liturgies of the Word and the Eucharist, even the Sacraments as a whole, what makes the Catholic faith different?
While all these are certainly integral and vital elements of our faith, the greatest difference, and arguably the most controversial, is the Catholic belief in the doctrine of Transubstantiation. It is our understanding of the Eucharist and what happens to it during the consecration, that separates Catholics from all others. This one issue raises the stakes. It defines and distinguishes Catholics from all other Christians.
Transubstantiation v. Consubstantiation
The Fourth Lateran Council first used the term “transubstantiation” in 1215 to explain Christ’s remarks, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” (New American, Mk 14:22, 24) as applied to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
Two key events highlight the origins of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. First, in Capernaum, Jesus said to the Jews:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (New American, John 6:53–58) Later, at the Last Supper, we hear that Christ…
“…took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to [the apostles], saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.’”(New American, Luke 22: 19-20).
In 1517, just over three hundred years from the Fourth Lateran Council, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses appeared, attacking the Catholic Church. Luther essentially believed in Consubstantiation, a term meaning that Christ is present, but the bread and wine are present as well. This is opposed to the Catholic view that the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine, but truly and actually the body and blood of Christ.
Hardly a distinction, some might say, but a distinction that defines, separates, and challenges the very core of our faith.
What the Church Teaches
Partly in response to Luther and others of like mind, The Council of Trent later reconfirmed the Catholic dogma in 1551, declaring “anathema” anyone who denied “that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood” (Session 13, Canon 2).
From that moment forward, to deny this doctrine became “extremely serious, for the Church teaches infallibly that Christ is present through transubstantiation.” Thus, whatever its origins, “the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation sets up a mighty bulwark around the dogma of the Real Presence and constitutes in itself a distinct doctrinal article.”
In recent times, the doctrine has been reaffirmed, as in Pope John Paul II’s 2003 Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharista, “The sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, crowned by the resurrection, in the Mass involves a most special presence which—in the words of Paul VI—“is called ‘real’ not as a way of excluding all other types of presence as if they were ‘not real,’ but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present.” This sets forth once more the perennially valid teaching of the Council of Trent.
In order to reach an even wider audience, the following passage was included in the Second Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1374):
“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” (St. Thomas Aquinas) In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.”
In short, the Catholic Church is unambiguous in its interpretation of the last supper and the Eucharist. The unequivocal truth, according to Catholicism, is that the bread and wine, at the time we receive them, ARE the body and blood of Christ.
It Goes Against Reason?
Nonetheless, for many it is a difficult doctrine to “swallow.” According to John Young, theologian and philosopher, “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.”
He further asserts, “The basic objection to the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is not that it is against Scripture, but that it is against reason.” Theologian and professor at Virginia Seminary, Charles P. Price similarly believes that “most Catholics, without realizing it or perhaps considering it, actually believe in Consubstantiation,” as did Luther, and even a Catholic would be hard-pressed to refute the allegation.
And so, we go about the practice of our religion—attending mass regularly, supporting our parish schools, participating in the sacraments, and most importantly, walking up the aisle, answering “Amen,” and taking the host into our body, returning unchallenged to our pews. No one stands up to declare us “anathema” if our acceptance is less than wholehearted, for who besides God can know what is in our hearts? Even if we also participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation and confess our sins, Transubstantiation is not a regular topic in the confessional. We remain safe in our unbelief or willful ignorance, by which I refer to the choice not to think about this doctrine. The choice not to discern what precisely it means or what precisely is in our hearts, simply because it is easier that way.
The challenge before the Church and all of us who form her is two-fold: For clerics, perhaps the exigency of the moment is to address this perception directly, to challenge congregants to think deeply, to pray about their faith, because it is faith that is at issue here. Specifically it is that murky region in which reason does not necessarily promote faith. For the laity, it is a call to reflect, to pray, to explore our faith and probe our doubts. Faith is above reason, but faith is not unreasonable.
An Arbitrary Hierarchy
As we do so, we might consider that our faculty of reason is indeed a God-given gift, but it does not make us gods. A brief review of the renaissance or the enlightenment would tell us that our powers of reasoning are evolving, for better or worse, and there is no evidence that this evolution is complete. There is no reason to believe that we are at the apogee of human reason.
From this patently clear truth, it requires no great leap to realize that placing reason before faith, or before anything else for that matter, constitutes an arbitrary hierarchy at the very least. We return to the urgent question before us: Does our faith require reason? Can it only be made secure and abiding through reason? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then we are talking about something other than faith. Perhaps credence or open-mindedness instead. If, on the other hand, we can acknowledge that reason may not be the highest authority, that reason—perhaps the greatest source of hubris—may in fact tempt us away from belief, then we are much closer to embracing this doctrine, and reaffirming the foundation of our Catholic Faith.
Bromiley, G. W. Elwell Evangelical Dictionary. BELIEVE Religious, Information Source. 22 September 2005.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Vatican City: Liguori Publications, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
John Paul II. Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 17 April 2003.
The New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1987.
Pohle, J. “The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. K. Knight: Online Edition, 2003. 22 September 2005.
Price, Charles P.. “Consubstantiation: General Information.” BELIEVE Religious.
Young, John, B.Th.. “Transubstantiation and reason.” Catholic.net. 23 September 2005.
Mike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. His wife, Anne, is a teaching-principal at St. Theresa Catholic School; his daughter, Cara, attended St. Theresa School since kindergarten and is now a 10th grader at South Tahoe High School; his son, Charlie, is entering the eighth grade at St. Theresa.