Transubstantiation May Be a ‘Hard Teaching,’ But It’s a True Teaching

Recovering the “real” in the Eucharist is not just about the Eucharist.

Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, “La Obra Representa Alegóricamente la Adoración de la Sagrada Eucaristía”, c. 1650
Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, “La Obra Representa Alegóricamente la Adoración de la Sagrada Eucaristía”, c. 1650 (photo: Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, “La Obra Representa Alegóricamente la Adoración de la Sagrada Eucaristía”, c. 1650 / Public Domain)

The 2019 Pew report that disclosed the pathetic state of American Catholic understanding of the Eucharist should have been a wake-up call for the American hierarchy. Two years after that report came out, and after more than a year of lockdowns on celebration of the Mass from sea to shining sea, as the Church is tentatively returning to “normal” (a “normalcy” I have questioned here and here), the Church’s Lectionary has afforded us an opportunity to address the deficits in Eucharistic catechesis. From July 29 to Aug. 22 (except for the Solemnity of the Assumption Aug. 15) all the Sunday Gospels focus on the Eucharist, including a continuous reading of John 6.

John 6 lends itself perfectly to addressing American Catholic Eucharistic illiteracy, precisely because Jesus is tackling the same question. Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors rejected his teaching that he could be “really present” through eating in someone’s souls. Despite Jesus’ clear emphasis on the Eucharist as his Real Flesh and Blood, most of those who had come to follow him when they thought the program was “Jesus’ Plan for Free Lunches in Galilee” left him when he demanded something else.

In my “Scripture and Art” blogs, depicting the Sunday Gospels in painting, I have tried to address the theological truths that need to be emphasized in these weeks. Today, I want to offer some thoughts about why the larger culture needs us Catholics to be clear about what we understand the Eucharist to be.

The larger culture generally does not really care about the Eucharist. They’ll think it’s just a theological issue and, since they don’t share the theology, they don’t really care what we think. I get that. 

But our understanding of the Eucharist also involves certain philosophical understandings. Now, I know that the faith is not wedded to one particular philosophy, but it is wedded to reality.

There have been attempts to rethink the philosophical underpinnings of how we understand the Eucharist, to get beyond the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding that supposedly Catholics no longer understand. 

But not every philosophy lends itself to Catholic thought. Materialism, for example, is never going to be useable in Catholic theology. Neither will some version of Kantianism that excludes the possibility of understanding things-in-themselves.

The Pew Report showed that many American Catholics have an essentially Protestant understanding of the Eucharist. For them, the Eucharist is not the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a symbol of Jesus. It “reminds” us of Jesus. But it is bread and wine. Perhaps Jesus is “also” “spiritually present” in this “symbol” (whatever that means). 

But the idea that, at consecration the bread and wine, while retaining outward appearances, become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ … well, alas, lots of Catholics either don’t understand that or, like the Jews of John 6:60, decided “This is a hard teaching! Who can accept it?”

Transubstantiation is a “hard teaching.” But reality is hard.

Jesus speaks of the Eucharist in a world in which reality exists in itself. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ because it has become the Body and Blood of Christ, not because the Christian’s mind has made it into the Body and Blood of Christ for him. The transformation is real and it comes from God. Those who deny the Real Presence deny the transformation is real and make the change come from man.

We shouldn’t be completely surprised at this. This way of looking at reality has been the mainstream of Western philosophy since the 17th century, although arguably it has roots going all the way back to the 14th.

Descartes destroyed the idea of a real world with his systematic doubt. Instead of a real world confronting man, the Cartesian world is built from man’s head out: “I think; therefore, I am,” versus “I am; therefore, I think.” I would argue that all subsequent efforts to make reality inaccessible — Kant’s noumena and phenomena, the pure phenomenologists’ quests, and many others in between — are all essentially variations on a theme that start when reality (at least as far as it matters) originates in the thinking subject’s head rather than the reality itself.

Descartes, in my judgment, put Western thought on a fruitless path, but the damage was already done in the late Middle Ages with the nominalism of William Ockham. Ockham, taken by God’s omnipotence, essentially made reality — at least in morality — a matter of divine will. For Ockham, it’s not that “God forbids murder because it’s wrong” but “murder is wrong because God forbids it.” The Divine Will could make good evil and evil good.

Solid Catholic philosophy and theology, of course, recognized that Ockham was wrong. God, who is Truth and Goodness as well as omnipotent, cannot make a moral order that contradicts himself. 

Ockham might have been forgotten were it not for a German monk named Martin Luther, who imported nominalism into Protestantism. While Luther pretended that his “Eucharist” was Jesus in bread and wine, in his own day Ulrich Zwingli pointed out the philosophical contradictions involved with Luther’s “bread god.” We know, of course, that for most of the rest of Protestantism, the Eucharist is just a meal in which we remember Jesus, but there is nothing else there (except, for some Anglicans, maybe some gauzy “spiritual presence”). 

Nominalism infected Protestant theology in other ways, too. Consider Luther’s understanding of “justification,” what makes us right before God. For Catholicism, grace changes us: the sinner is freed from sin. For Protestantism, grace changes how God sees us: we are as corrupt as we were, but God plays supernatural peek-a-boo, not seeing (“attributing”) our guilt. We are foul, like feces. God’s grace doesn’t change that; it covers it, like snow covering the ground. But what’s under the snow remains.

Since Protestantism embraces Eucharistic theologies which, whether they admit it or not, are essentially “Real Absences,” those who hail from those traditions are accustomed to speaking about things as labels. The Eucharist is bread and wine, but we “call” it the symbolic Body and Blood of Christ. Grace “saves a wretch like me” not by making me less wretched, but by covering up and perfuming the stench. 

Catholics, emphasizing the Real Presence and the real transformation of grace, were the last major cultural force holding out for reality being reality. Transformation comes about by God’s Love, not by switching labels. That’s why, out of God’s Love, five loaves and two fishes become food for others — not by getting people to open their picnic baskets but out of Divine Grace alone — while mere power plays (“turn these stones into bread”) are rightly rejected as the temptations of the Devil, denying the autonomy of created things. That’s why, out of God’s Love, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ — and not just coexisting in bread and wine (as Luther claimed), because persons are superior to things.

Western culture has coasted on the gasses of nominalism and human-constructed reality for several centuries, but its full implications have not been apparent because those fumes kept those implications from being apparent in their stark reality. But in a world where people no longer believe in God (or at least deny any right to speak of him in polite or public society), divine omnipotence has now become human omnipotence, where man himself “changes” reality by changing labels. Science has nothing to say about when life begins as long as we change the labels to “fetus” or “product of conception” and feign agnosticism about the connection between biological continuity and humanity. Even “man” and “woman” are increasingly devoid of meanings in themselves but, instead, must be determined by probing the mental states of particular persons.

We should not be surprised. Our culture has been on a trajectory of evading philosophical realism for at least half a millennium, and some even call it “Enlightenment.” Catholic theology was one of the few places that, contrary to those who disparagingly called Catholic Eucharistic theology magical hocus-pocus (a word that originated to poke fun at the Latin formula of consecration, Hoc est enim corpus meum), insisted on reality-in-itself, rather than reality constructed out of the believer’s (or anybody else’s) heads. Catholic theology insisted reality was reality, with its own inherent essence, and not just a label that can be changed at will.

The fact that even Catholics are not getting that shows how much we have been “acculturated” by a hostile worldview rather than our having evangelized the culture in which we live, move, and breathe. It also shows why recovering our true Eucharistic theology, while first and foremost about our faith, has implications that don’t end there. Either reality begins from its essence out, or it becomes a label pushed in.