National Catholic Register


Transubstantiation: Change We Can Believe In

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 11/11/11 at 1:00 AM


A reader wrote:

My son has a facebook page.  Recently, he put up a little quip about transubstantiation: “Change we can believe in”.  His uncle commented that it could be proven to still be bread and wine at the molecular level, after consecration.

Is there a short answer for this?

I fielded the question to the able Mike Flynn, who eats a Summa for breakfast each morning and then spits out great novels like Eifelheim each evening.  He replies in his inimitable fashion:

Sure.  Accidents and substantial form. 

The Church has always taught that it remains bread and wine “at the molecular level.”  The error lies in supposing this to be the only level. 

Consider Darwinian evolution.  Once upon a time there was something that we might call an “ape-man.”  It had the appearances of a human being, it was “biologically human” and you could go down into the molecules and see that.  But then one fine day, one of these ape-men was given the ability to abstract universal concepts from concrete particulars, so that when he uttered the hunting cry for “bison!” he no longer intended that particular bison currently over there where he was pointing; but meant the bison they had hunted the week before, or the bison that they might hunt next week, or just bison in general.  This does not show up as molecules. (If the uncle claims otherwise, let him produce the molecules.  That is the way of science.)  So, in evolution, the appearances, even the molecular appearances, of the old species remain, but the substance is that of a new species. 
Consider the myth of transhumanism.  Suppose one day we learn how to “download” the mind of the uncle into a computer, so that he puts away the corruptible body and takes on a new incorruptible body and liveth for ever.  Would the computer be the uncle or not?  Yet if we examine the body of the computer, you could go all the way down to the nuts and bolts and molecules and it’s still… just a computer. 

Consider a poem.  Suppose that an influential critic finds a new meaning in the poem, that there is a different way of interpreting the imagery.  But a close examination of the words reveals that the words are just the same as they always were.  The material is the same; but the substance is different.  The uncle may not appreciate poetry, however; since bloody literal-mindedness oft gets in the way. 

Consider a word like “evolution.”  At one time it mean the opposite of an involution.  That is, it meant an “unrolling” as of a scroll.  Now it means the transformation of a species into a new species.  Yet, if you measure the lengths and widths of the letters, or the molecules of ink in which they are realized, you will find that they are exactly the same letters arranged in exactly the same sequence.  Yet they are somehow a “different” word!  (It may be that the uncle’s materialism will fail him at this point; for there is a weird tendency on the part of some to suppose that the “meaning” is somehow physically present in the ink marks and strokes themselves, and not something given to them by their creator.

So as to differentiate shapes and other accidental forms from the type of form that gives unity to a nature, philosophers label this a natural form or a substantial form —a form that underlies its attributes and make it an enduring substance. Changing attributes and properties they then refer to as accidental forms. These are forms that modify the substance in various ways. Accidental forms may vary in degree, or in presence and absence, without affecting the basic character of the substance.
It is this natural form or substantial form that we apprehend when we grasps the nature of a thing and attempt to define it. Then it becomes a universal as described in our last lecture. It is given in sense experience, but it requires an intellectual process of abstraction—the first degree of abstraction—to be apprehended by us. When the universal is grasped, whether it is the nature of lead, copper, oak, mosquito, or kangaroo, it becomes appicable not only to this or that lead, copper, oak, etc., but to each and every instance of them. Were this not so, it would be impossible for us to have universal knowledge of the world of nature, and a fortiori any science of nature.

Then we have Ed Feser saying this, as part of a longer essay on something else:

Now, Dale might respond: “That’s fair enough as far as it goes. But what happens when we apply Loyola’s principle, as you claim it should be understood, to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in particular? In at least that case, isn’t the result pretty much the view I attributed to Loyola – namely, that we ought to reject what sense perception tells us when it conflicts with tradition, or at least with the formal pronouncements of the Church?”

But that is not the result; or, if the result is that we ought to reject what sense perception tells us, this is so only in a loose, innocuous, and uncontroversial sense. To see how, consider Jim and Bob, who are identical twins with similar personalities. You approach someone you take to be Jim, begin a friendly conversation, and after a few minutes say “Well, I’m late for a meeting. Nice chatting with you, Jim!” He responds: “I’m not Jim, I’m Bob!” If we conclude that your senses deceived you, are we committing ourselves to a shockingly irrationalist skepticism about sense perception? Are we endorsing a bizarre Bob-oriented fideism according to which “Bob’s say-so trumps sense perception”? Obviously not. Indeed, strictly speaking, it wasn’t really your senses that deceived you in the first place. The man you were talking to really does look like Jim; your senses told you as much, and they were right. The trouble is that you drew the wrong conclusion from this fact, because you failed sufficiently to consider that Bob looks and acts the same way.

Something similar can be said of one’s sense perception of the Eucharist. One might judge that it is bread that one is looking at, touching, tasting, etc., even though it is not bread at all, but the Body of Christ. But to say that one’s senses are deceiving one in this situation is to speak loosely. As in the case of Jim and Bob, strictly speaking your senses are not really deceiving you at all. They told you that the accidents of bread were present, and they really were present. (Aquinas thinks so. Why? Precisely because “it is evident to sense” that they are.) The trouble is that you drew the wrong conclusion from this fact, insofar as you assumed that the presence of the accidents entails that the substance of bread must be present as well. That is to say, you failed to consider that the accidents might still be present even if the substance is not. As in the case of Jim and Bob, what is going on here is not that what sense perception tells you should be “trumped” by something else. It is, in both cases, something far more mundane – the senses are accurate as far as they go, but haven’t given you the whole story, and since you failed to realize this you drew a mistaken conclusion. This happens all the time, and hardly only when non-Catholics come to Mass.