Saturday, June 14, 2014

On the Theology of the Eucharist: Beyond Historical Divisions

According to a survey led by a sociologist at Catholic University and published in The National Catholic Reporter, forty percent of 1,442 American Catholic adults said "you can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ—a core doctrine of Catholicism.” A reporter opines that this “could reflect the decline in Mass attendance. The survey finds it’s fallen from 44% attending at least once a week in 1987 to 31% in 2011, while those who attend less than monthly rose from 26% to 47%. When asked why they don’t go to Mass more often, 40% say they are simply not very religious.”[1] What does it mean to say that someone is or is not religious? Looking back at the history of religion, a neutral party might half-joke that the adjective refers to the proclivity to spar over puerile theological distinctions as if Creation itself hung in the balance. In this essay, I illustrate how such a distinction bearing on the Eucharist (i.e., Holy Communion) can be diffused of its alleged historical significance as warranting Christian division under the taskmaster of (cognitive) uniformity as a placeholder for unity.

The Catholic doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is called transubstantiation. It is the belief that the substance, or essence, of the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. The term “substance” can be misleading. It does not refer to what we moderns understand as chemical or physical material or matter; rather, the notion of substance here is that of Aristotle, who distinguishes it from accidents, or the qualities/attributes of something. The accidents include something’s physical or chemical material as well as other qualities. The real presence in transubstantiation is the Aristotelian notion of “substance” (or essence) applied theologically rather than metaphysically. The body and blood having a real (theologically!) presence in the Eucharist are of Christ’s post-ascension, resurrected body.

Lest one object that Jesus resurrected asks for a fish and thus has a physical dimension, it is the post-ascension resurrected body and applied theologically. In other words, the real presence is real theologically. We tend to think of “real” metaphysically as in terms of reality, and this in turn in terms of real substance as matter. We have almost lost the ability to think in terms of theological essence. I contend that the theological essence from applying the Aristotelian notion of substance (or essence) theologically to the Eucharist as real presence is virtually the same as the Reformed spiritual presence. The Lutheran consubstantiation—that the Aristotelian substance or essence applied theologically is real presence coheres with the “substance” or essence of bread and wine remaining. My point is that all three views contain a spiritual (or “real” theologically) presence, in contrast to Zwingli’s view of communion as a symbol.

To grasp Aristotle’s notion of substance and how it may apply to theological concepts, consider the following analogy. For a person to say that the house (or apartment) he or she grew up in was his or her home is to say that the “substance” or essence of the house changed to, or included, being home. It makes no sense to say that the presence of home is a material substance even though home is really present as felt. Materially, the house may be made of wood and/or brick, but this is almost beside the point. At some point after a couple moves into a physical house, it becomes home. The “substance” or essence changes (or is added to)—the difference with respect to whether the essence changes or is added to doesn’t really matter if one’s focus is on home. So what it is also still a house? My point is that home has its own sort of real presence, and it doesn’t make any sense to speak of it in terms of other domains, such as materials science. This doesn’t mean that the presence of home is any less real. Anyone who has had one's house or apartment broken into and trashed knows that the "substance/essence" or real presence of home can be wiped out in a day. The difference between the house being one's home and being the house in which one lives is unmistakeable and thus the distinction is taken as real in a certain, non-metaphysical sense. So too, the presence of the body and blood of Christ is taken as real in a spiritual or religious sense.

I suspect that real presence and spiritual presence refer essentially to the same thing, given that Christ is present “bodily” in a distinctly religious or theological sense, rather than in a metaphysical or empirical sense. The bottom line may be that for a disciple of Jesus, home is really (i.e., religious sense) present at the table. In other words, the essence is that of being home, just as Jesus feels at home going alone to pray on a mountain. Being a child of God is to be home where God is felt to be. Religious, or transcendent, experience is really present for such a person. Ultimately, I think the real presence at the Eucharist is precisely such an experience. In it, the Kingdom of God within is experienced as truly present. One is part of the body of Christ. In other words, the body that is ingested is distinctly (and delimited as) theological in nature, and thus spiritually present—and no less real (in a religious rather than metaphysical sense). Ultimately, home is felt as really present as a matter of the heart, rather than being a place or material substance that could be bottled.

If I am on the right track in tracing the distinctly spiritual real presence of the body of Christ to its roots in a distinctly religious experience, then at least some of the arguments or fighting between the Reformed, Catholic and Lutheran sects historically was based on  mere misunderstandings. Take, as another example, the doctrine of justification by faith (solo fides). The Catholic position does not deny this, or interlard works or the efficacy of the sacraments as additional requirements for justification. Rather, taking communion is part of the process of sanctification, which follows justification.

Also, the Catholic position does not maintain that the sacrifice of the Mass substitutes for Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, as one Reformed historical document claims. Indeed, Catholic priests say that their ordination enables them to share in Christ’s sacrifice, rather than substitute for it. After centuries of misunderstanding rolling over the division from generation to generation without any thought or reflection, perhaps we can finally step back and marvel: So much for the vanity that presumes human disagreements to have any real significance!

Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the sheer intransigence of apparent historical differences can block perceptual opportunities. For example, given their doctrine of spiritual presence, which at the very least is a presence in a religious sense, Reformed churches could conceivably have provide the spiritual presence of Christ in chapels to be adored under the specie of consecrated bread. The assumed spiritual presence could serve as an anchor making possible a sustained presence of intense religious or transcendent experience isolated as though a precipitate of ongoing practice. Out of such practice naturally comes a distinctly spiritual sensitivity, which in relation to other people we feel as compassion. In the context of such a religious core, theological disagreement itself is naturally relegated or sidelined as extraneous just as one does not pay so much attention to the materials of one’s house if it is also one’s home.

Who would willingly go from the warmth of a hearth into a cold room unless to pick a fight? And what does it matter anyway what the fight is about to the persons staying near the hearth? I suspect that the Catholics who view themselves as “not very religious” have simply not been shown to the hearth, even in Church; to them, it is a cold room guarded by too many control-freaks (who themselves know not the hearth). Who could blame people for resisting the cold—yet if they are given a taste of warmth would they want it? I think this depends on the person. Perhaps a church is in essence (or ought to be in practice) delimited by experiencing a distinctive warmth.

1. Cathy L. Grossman, “Survey: U.S. Catholics’ Religious Identity Slips,” USA Today, October 25, 2011.