Aquinas and Explaining the Real Presence Today
|Stephen Boyle FAITH Magazine January-February 2009|
Fr Boyle, Parish Priest of New Addington, Surrey, brings out aspects of St Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical explanation of Transubstantiation which need development in the light on modern scriptural scholarship and scientifc knowledge.
"It is not bread or wine, it is Jesus". Such is the clear teaching of Sr. Joan O'Donoghue, the chief catechist in this writer's parish, to children preparing for their First Holy Communion. It is something which needs to be repeated not just in First Communion preparation but also from the pulpit. However, this is undermined by real confusion concerning the metaphysical implications of the doctrine of the real presence. To support a coherent approach in sermons and catechesis, it is important for this to be resolved.
A few years back Cardinal Avery Dulles convincingly praised Aquinas' middle way between a "too carnal [...] naive realism" and an approach that is too "mystical" or "figurative". Counselling against "inquirpng] too curiously" he concludes: "It is better simply to accept the words of Christ, of Scripture, of the tradition and of the Church's magisterium which tell us what we need to know: Christ is really but invisibly present in this sacrament."
But it is not clear, this writer would suggest, that the adjective 'invisible' is consistent with such faithfulness to Christ's teaching. We do indeed need to avoid that "naive realism" which claims per impossibile that the Sacred Host acts and reacts in the way Jesus' body did when walking in Palestine, that they both have exactly the same set of physical (that 'material' realm which is the object of sensation) properties in the same regard. But to avoid this we should not and do not need, we suggest in this piece, to deny in any way Christ's actual physical identity to the intrinsic bread-like properties of the Blessed Sacrament, as prominent scholasticism seems to do. We will argue that we do actually see Jesus upon the altar, but not that He physically winces in pain at thefraction.
Our key will be to remember that the vocation of the physical flesh of Christ differs in at least one important respect from the physical flesh of us human creatures - His flesh is our nourishment for eternal life, our Bread of Life - a vocation and a Body which encompasses the physicality of his pre-crucifixion life, as well as of his glorified Body.
Below we hope to indicate the teaching of the Church on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and, in the light of this, to show the need for a development in the way we have traditionally explained 'Transubstantiation'. Briefly we will suggest that Edward Holloway offers a way forward.
Clear Teaching of Jesus on the Real Presence
"Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man you will not have life in you" (Jn 6:53). We believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist because Jesus has said it and his word is Truth, and the Catholic Church, the body of Christ, faithfully transmits this truth to us. But what is the manner of this presence?
We first of all turn to the words of Jesus,."He who eats my flesh"(Jn 6:56). John invokes the Incarnation by using the
Greek word Sarx for flesh. It is the same Greek word used at the beginning of the Gospel, "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (Jn 1:14). The most straightforward way to interpret this, and the one which, we would affirm, has been the preference of the magisterium, is to assert an identity between the earthly presence of Christ 2,000 years ago and the Eucharist in their whole respective existential realities.
In the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible series the commentary on John's Gospel has an exegesis of John 6:54 which emphasises the dramatic nature of Jesus' words. Here it is in full:
Jesus is to be real food. This real food is the Incarnate God, the Word made flesh.
The Teaching of Trent
The Incarnation, the Word made flesh, is to continue through space and time. The body of Christ is to be concretely, historically, physically, wholly present to men down the ages and across the globe.
The Council of Trent said that Christ is present in the sacrament, "truly, really and substantially". The word 'truly' was used to refute the assertion of the 11 th century heretic Berengarius and some of his followers in the 16th century that the sacrament was a mere sign, pointing away from itself to a body that is absent, perhaps somewhere in the heavens. The affirmation that the presence is 'real', was to combat Zwingli, who believed that Christ was present in and through the faith of the participants, that this presence was not tied to the elements and depended completely upon the faith of the communicants. The Catholic teaching is that it is not faith that makes Jesus present, but the proper performance of the rite by a duly ordained minister.
The Council said that presence is 'substantial' to refute Luther, who believed that Christ's body and blood were present in the sacrament "in, with, and under" the elements of bread and wine, Consubstantiation. The key consideration for this article is the meaning of the belief that Jesus is present substantially in the Eucharist.
In the Council of Trent, the definition of transubstantiation was thus:
The use of the word 'species' refers to the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist. While Trent says "the true body of our Lord and His true blood together with His soul and divinity exist under the species of bread and wine", this in no way implied that Jesus was present "in the bread and wine". The council emphasises the completeness of this change by affirming that Christ is present "whole and entire (totus et integer Christus)" under both species.
This implies the 'concomitance' of the whole Christ. The words of consecration said over the bread render present the whole substance of our Lord's body. Yet because that body is the real body of Christ the substance of his body must imply and include all that is substantially one with Him. So for example in communion under one kind, the faithful receive the whole Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity.
We have seen the literalist character of the teaching of Christ, speaking to his followers, and of the teaching through the Church concerning transubstantiation.
Through the lens of the traditional substance-accident and form-matter distinctions some prominent Catholic philosophers depart somewhat, I would suggest, from such literalism. Here is a representative definition of the concept of 'substance', from a respected Catholic professor of philosophy:
Fr. Holloway made the same point in suggesting, concerning the Thomism he was taught in the 1940's, "When as a Thomist, I elevate the Host at the Consecration, do I see Christ? No, I do not. [...] We see only the physical accidents of bread, but we know that the reality which defines the totality is Christ. Nevertheless we do not see Christ".
St. Thomas' actual teaching in this area provided a magnificent defence of orthodox doctrine which has borne much fruit over the centuries. As rehearsed numerous times in these pages his metaphysics of matter has come under justifiable pressure from our modern understanding of matter-energy. This dynamic has had in recent times unfortunate repercussions for describing transubstantiation.
Jesus, for Thomas, is really present in the Eucharist, and is the perfective principle of all the sacraments. Not only that, he indicates that for Christ to be close to us it must be through the flesh. He states that the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist
He clearly sees transubstantiation as a unique incidence of what scholastic philosophy termed substantial (or formal) change. The accidents in the real presence have a unique status:
The accidents exist in a miraculous way without a substantial form, through the power of God. The qualities of porousness, brittleness, and density all remain in the sacramental 'species', the Sacred Host as it interacts.
This is explained in this way: "the dimensive quantity of the bread remains after the consecration, while only the substance of the bread passes away. [...] The dimensive quantity of the bread and wine retains its proper nature, but it miraculously receives the power and property of substance"
This non-present substance to which the accidents have miraculous reference seems to be bread not that of Our Lord. When Thomas considers whether the species can nourish he comes to the conclusion that it is the species of bread, and not the body of Christ that can satisfy hunger and inebriate. For Thomas, of course the substantial Body of Christ is present, and its accidents by concomitance but these are not the accidents we sensitively encounter:
"It is evident to sense that all the accidents of the bread and wine remain after the consecration. And this is reasonably done by Divine providence. First of all, because it is not customary, but horrible, for men to eat human flesh, and to drink blood."
"Sight, touch, and taste in thee are each deceived." This is one of the lines of St. Thomas' famous hymn to the Eucharist. It would seem however that for St. Thomas the "species" is more than just the appearance of bread and wine. We see, touch, and taste the existential accidents of bread. At the level of sensation we do not encounter Christ. The real presence can be better explained, as St Thomas himself does, as a spiritual, non-visible presence, by the power of the Spirit.
This is the position succinctly summarised by Cardinal Dulles in the quotation at the beginning of this piece. Raniero Cantalamessa, recent preacher to the Papal Household, also took such a view, in his 2005 Good Friday homily at St. Peter's, Rome:
Fr Cantalamessa sees the modern temptation to a 'consubstantial' view of the real presence:
Cantalamessa is not wedded to the Thomistic view. He points to the use of the word 'Sarx' by the evangelist John, to indicate his belief, contrary to "Scholastic theology", that just as in the Incarnation we do not speak of Jesus becoming flesh but becoming man, so in the Eucharist we have Jesus' soul as well as his body by the power of the sacrament, and not just by 'natural concomitance'. While using Johannine theology so potently here, it would be this writer's opinion that Cantalamessa needs to follow this all the way and say that Jesus is truly bodily present not only substantially but also in his accidents, or better 'appearances', and thus in a material way, by the power of the sacrament.
With the view that transubstantiation is a one-off special case of there being formal change without material change after the consecration, it would also seem difficult to see the Eucharist as a true extension of his Incarnation. In the Incarnation we have Jesus: body, blood, soul and divinity. How we can truly speak of the real 'body' of Christ in this 'Eucharistic' presence is hard to tell if it is only a spiritual presence.
And how can a union with God through the Eucharist be seen as a fully human union, when there is no real material union with the body of Christ? With such a view it would seem that the fact that we are matter-energy is not fundamental to the meaning of the Eucharist. The Eucharist surely has a fundamental place in the plan of God for man. If accidental matter, in its own fundamental, existential reality, is just a sign but not the reality of Christ, then one can question the real meaning of the matter of man in his fulfillment. Are we just fallen angels, with the real nature and vocation of Man applying only to his spiritual soul?
Overview of Holloway's Approach
There is a need for a development in the teaching of Eucharistic doctrine. As has been discussed in these pages before, in the Greco-scholastic definition of substance there is a lack of the sense of the essential place of matter-energy relationships. Fr Holloway attempts to provide this and so offers a development in the explanation of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This vision manages to avoid naive realism as well as, doing justice to the realistic understanding of the Eucharist given to us in the scriptures and the magisterium.
As Aquinas brought out, for our union with God to be fully human, we must receive his body to eat, and his blood to drink. It is the vocation of the flesh of Jesus to be food for our souls. He really is the Bread of Life for human beings on earth. The matter-energy of the Eucharist truly becomes one in existential identity with Christ's incarnate body.
Holloway's seminal development in this area is in Chapter 19 of his book Catholicism: A New Synthesis. There is no space to develop that here, fortunately for this writer. We would refer to our September 2006 editorial for aspects of the realignment we offer of scholastic hylomorphism.
Suffice to say here that for Holloway the identity of any physical entity is intimately linked to its environmental relationships, and what it does for and receives from that environment. This is all controlled and directed by the Mind of God. When the Divine Mind uttered "Let there be light" He created and organised matter-energy relationships. When He says "This is My Body" He develops upon this in a completely harmonious manner
The Holy Eucharist as our food of life does something radically greater and different than what bread does. It feeds and 'environs' our whole personalities in a manner that works for us, in a very human, very physical manner, in a manner of which the mother giving of her body to her baby in the form of milk is an analogy. This Gift is to be one with the very nature of the flesh of Christ from the Annunciation up to its glorified fulfillment in heaven. For the Word was made flesh that we might be 'environed' by God and divinised. His body's low
level properties appear like bread, our basic foodstuff, which is how they should appear in order, under the wondrous plan of God, to be what they actually are, the properties of Christ the Bread of Life, as He intimately, sacramentally, ministers across the ages.
As Holloway says:
"When...Christ says 'This is Me' then the matter concerned is conjoined to the organic unity of the body of Christ, vivified by the same human soul, in the unity of the Person of God the Son. It is now Him, and we mean no qualification whatever of that literalness."
Fr. Holloway summarises what we have tried to outline thus:
"It is fair to ask - did the Apostles around the table of the Last Supper, when they heard the Master say, 'this is my Body', and 'this is the chalice of my Blood' think that what they saw were the accidents of bread and wine, held by miraculous power in metaphysical real existence, and upheld by the underlying substance of the Body and Blood of the Lord? Did they not think rather that in all simplicity, they saw what the Master named and promised - Himself, in all that they saw and touched and took? This is not a capricious point, for the development of the notion of a doctrine of Faith should not belie the first simple apprehension of its generalised meaning before development of the content of the doctrine. We are called to look back at the Last Supper, and acknowledge the true faithof the apostles, and thus keep our understanding of the Eucharist in relation to it."
 Christ's Presence in the Eucharist, Spring McGinley Lecture, Forham University,
March 2005, p.46- published by adoremus.org
The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, The Gospel of John, Ignatius Press, San
Francisco, 2001. P.31.
Council of Trent, Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, 4. DS 1642.
Jose A. Sayes, The Eucharist in the Council of Trent, L'Osservatore Romano, 23rd
February 2005, p.5.
Council of Trent, Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, 3, DS 1641.
Joseph M. de Torre, Christian Philosophy, 1981, Vera-Reyes, Inc(Philippines) p.86.
'Ronald Knox, God and the Atom, Sheed and Ward, USA, 1945, p.35/6.
Edward Holloway, Perspectives in Philosophy, Faith Keyway Trust, Vol 1, 48.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 77,1.
"STh III, 76,4.
S Th III, q.77, art 6.
S Th III q.75 art 6.Reply to Objection 2. Also see "From bread and wine to flesh and blood", by Roy Abraham Varghese. Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Feb 2007.
"STh III, 75, 5.
L'Osservatore Romano, 6th April, 2005. p. 2.
Raniero Cantalamessa, "This is My Body", Pauline Books & Media, MA, U.S.A., 2005, p.58.
Ibid: p. 59.
Somewhat more speculatively one might add to this vision the fact that its physical properties also include the symbolic and ecclesial context in which the bread becomes the Body of Christ — which elevations, associated words and rites are imposed upon the matter-energy species by Christ in the Church, with Whom it is now in organic unity. Bread has not had the words of Christ "This is my Body", uttered by Christ over it through His minister in whose hands the Sacred Host is held. Even its physical relationships are then changed by being in and under an ecclesial intentionality and within a Tradition that goes back to the Word made flesh in Palestine.
Edward Holloway, Catholicism: A New Synthesis, Faith Keyway 1976, 331.