Transubstantiation Isn't a Disconnected Doctrine

The recent Pew Survey results, suggesting that only a minority of Catholics accept their Church’s teaching on Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, have led to widespread hand-wringing in the Catholic community. Concerns about failed catechesis abound, though one commentator suggested this was in fact the result of the success of a certain kind of catechesis. More prominent than the last time this happened (it has happened before) were calls for more reverent liturgy, noting that it is hard for people to believe that the Church is serious in teaching that Christ is really present if almost nobody acts as if he is.

A different kind of response was to look carefully at the survey question itself. Here it was noted by some that the survey used a term, “actually,” to describe Christ’s presence that the Church itself does not use, leading, perhaps, to confusion (and false negatives) on the part of respondents. Moreover, it was pointed out, the question seemed to presume a dichotomy between sign and reality that is foreign to Catholic sacramental theology.

Which brings us to the topic of transubstantiation. For while the Church does not anywhere teach that Christ is “actually” (or, for that matter, “physically,” or “literally,” to take two other terms of indeterminate meaning and no theological pedigree) present in the Eucharist, it does teach that he is really, truly, and substantially present. Moreover, this last adjective, substantialiter in the Latin, made its emergence in the history of theology right when the Church needed a way of speaking about Christ’s Eucharistic presence that accounted for both the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and for the fact that that reality is, as with any sacrament (just check your Baltimore Catechism) mediated through signs.

It is probably helpful, at this stage, to point out just what the theological tradition has meant by “real.” For contemporary people, “real” often means simply physical, existing in space; “actual” might suffer from the same interpretation. But many (even most) of us believe in things that are not “real” in this sense. “Justice,” for instance, or “truth,” or, perhaps, “the soul,” or, preeminently, “God.” What the Church has meant by “real” in the case of Christ’s Eucharistic presence is, in fact, something quite precise, namely, that in the Eucharist God is the actor who determines the reality. Christ’s presence is not, then, something a group of humans conjures by their own powers of memory or of symbolic meaning making, as formidable as those powers may be. It is a gift of God, a gift of the creator who makes things to be what they are.

Where Did “Transubstantiation” Come From?

To understand just how substantialiter and, following that, transubstantiation came to be the preferred way (Trent calls it aptissime, “most apt”) for the Church to articulate just what kind of presence we are talking about when we say Christ is present in the Eucharist, we need to look into Church history. It is remarkable to consider that Christ’s Eucharistic presence was so uncontroversial a doctrine in the early Church that the first seven Ecumenical Councils, where the Church spent centuries hashing out the doctrines of Christ’s two natures and of the relations between the three persons of the Trinity, seem almost unaware of it. There was simply no dispute to be had. This untroubled time was not to last, however. And the first hints we have of a shift are in 9th century France, at the monastery of Corbie.

For it was at Corbie that the question that was to bedevil Eucharistic theology henceforward was first put to the theological guild. The Emperor Charles the Bald asked his theologians at Corbie whether Christ was to be understood as present “in figure” or “in reality.” The finer details of this episode are recounted in many fine histories of Eucharistic doctrine (and in my own, recently published, Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity). For our purposes here, we can note simply that, instead of rejecting this dichotomy as false, one theologian at Corbie, Paschasius Radbertus, put in his vote for “in reality” while his confrere, one Ratramnus, opted for “in figure.” We have no evidence of any real controversy between the two men. Both carried on as theologians in good standing with the Church, celebrating the Eucharist together in the same monastic community.

But the seeds of controversy had been planted. Whereas earlier Christians (look at Augustine as the paradigmatic example in the West) saw no need to choose between symbol and reality when discussing the Eucharist (they were basically cultural Platonists, for whom symbols really did participate in the realities they represented), in a new philosophical and cultural context this question became more and more urgent.

Though he was not condemned in his lifetime, Ratramnus’s answer became more and more suspect as time went on. While it seems likely that he only meant to deny Christ was present in reality in the sense of physical reality (a perfectly orthodox position), the language of his denial was difficult to square with the constant belief of the Church. Radbertus’s answer, on the other hand, slowly gained the field. It seemed, at least, to be more in keeping with the faith of the Church. But an affirmation of “reality” that opposed it to symbol actually distorted what the Church had always taught, and language started to drift in a direction that was increasingly difficult to distinguish from cannibalism.

Things came to a head two centuries later when Berengarius of Tours, a popular teacher and a man more than happy to engage in public controversy, denounced this increasingly “realist” trajectory as both logically incoherent and out of step with the tradition of the Church. Theologians agree both that Berengarius was correct to challenge this new realism from the point of view of traditional sacramental theology and that he wildly overshot his mark. For Berengarius was not as traditionally Augustinian as he himself imagined. Whereas Augustine would have contextualized realistic claims within sacramental categories, Berengarius simply rejected realistic claims in favor of symbolic ones. The rift between symbol and reality that first opened at Corbie was now a yawning chasm. The magisterium of the Church was obliged to step in.

And step in it did! Berengarius was forced to swear an unfortunate oath, drafted not by a theologian, but by a rather impulsive statesman, Humbert of Candido-Silva, also famed for precipitously dropping the writ of excommunication for the Patriarch of Constantinople on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The oath’s graphic language about crushing Christ’s body with teeth was supplemented by the choice of the adverb sensualiter to describe Christ’s presence. Sensualiter means, essentially, in the realm of the five senses. But this led to awkward, and untraditional, conclusions, e.g., that our senses were deceived in the sacrament, since (excepting Eucharistic miracles) we do not “sense” Christ’s body and blood after the consecration.

Back home in Tours, Berengarius renounced the oath, claiming it had been sworn under duress, and continued his assault on the regnant “realist” school. But now the theological community was catching up. They recognized that, while Berengarius’s critiques did have merit, he himself offered no real solution. Consequently, they began constructing a new language that could defend Eucharistic realism against his attacks, while also giving symbol its proper sacramental place. Twenty years later, Berengarius was back in Rome, swearing a second oath, this one crafted by competent theologians, in which sensualiter was replaced by substantialiter—substantially. This one stuck.

Substance, of course, already had a theological pedigree. It was used in early Christology to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father—consubstantial with the Father, as we say in the Creed. While sensualiter talked about things present to the senses, substantialiter indicated that which is present to the mind or intellect. To take a simple example, a person encountering sugar perceives, with their senses, granularity, sweetness, whiteness, smallness, etc. But, working with this input from the senses, the intellect perceives sugar. The senses perceive only adjectives. It is the mind that can affirm the presence of nouns. Substance, then, was an ideal category for thinking about something in which a change and a subsequent presence is affirmed even while what is available to sense perception does not change.

Within a generation of the introduction of the language of substance into Eucharistic theology the new term, "transubstantiation," was coined. It originally meant, simply, a change of substance. In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, the term makes its debut in official Church teaching, though at this stage it still admitted of a variety of interpretations. Things we would today recognize as consubstantiation or annihilation/replacement theories of Eucharistic change were not yet distinguished from transubstantiation and were, in practice, included within it. Lateran IV did not try to define the term, but simply used it, rather casually, in a decree against those denying the necessity of the sacramental priesthood. It was only in the work of Thomas Aquinas, later that century, that the term came to maturity.

Enter Aquinas

Aquinas’s work on transubstantiation is rightly recognized as the classic articulation. Trent quoted it almost verbatim three centuries later (basically changing one technical term to make the point that one does not need to be an Aristotelian philosopher to affirm transubstantiation). Other theologies of transubstantiation that followed Thomas are almost universally seen as regressions from the ideal.

What makes Thomas’s work so perennial in this arena? It is, quite simply, that, better than anyone since, Thomas managed to articulate a presence that is undoubtedly real—in a certain sense more real than physical reality—and undeniably sacramental.

In my book, I spend the bulk of a lengthy chapter walking through Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation in the tertia pars of the Summa Theologiae demonstrating just this. In question 75, Thomas spends one article comparing transubstantiation with consubstantiation and the next with annihilation/replacement. Consubstantiation is rejected as, essentially, unsacramental. Ditto for annihilation/replacement. But what many fail to recognize is that neither are sufficiently eschatological. In the work of redemption, God does not leave unchanged or annihilate creation, but transforms it. The bread and wine cannot exist alongside Christ’s body and blood. Nor can they be replaced by Christ’s body and blood. They must become Christ’s body and blood. In this they are the catalysts for the change that the Eucharist effects on the whole world.

Though much of Thomas’s argumentation is couched in terms derived from an Aristotelian philosophy of nature, it is important to recognize both that this was an apologetic move—the rediscovery of Aristotle was transforming the discourse in European universities at the time—and that Thomas’s deeper goals are theological. Indeed, Thomas radically transformed Aristotle before employing the Greek philosopher’s categories to talk about the Eucharist.

Aristotle, Creation, and Transubstantiation

In the last article of question 75, Thomas undertakes another comparison to help his reader to better comprehend what is and is not indicated by transubstantiation. In this article transubstantiation is compared with two other kinds of “change”: natural change and creation ex nihilo (out of nothing).

Allow me a brief digression. When I was a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic, my advisor (the late, and much loved, Margaret O’Gara) wanted me to write on something that, while specific enough to make a contribution in the academy, also provided me with a wide set of transferable skills and knowledge to do theology more broadly. When I wrote a paper for her on Christ’s Eucharistic presence in ecumenical dialogue, she knew she had it! I should write on transubstantiation.

This would seem hopelessly esoteric to many. How could something so utterly specific, not to mention outdated, possibly be the best option to give me the tools and knowledge to work more broadly in theology? I should note—as a theologian who works in a diocesan office, not a university—I do not teach graduate classes on highly specific theological questions. I teach intro to everything.

It has been said that the theology of Thomas Aquinas is like a hologram. Every part contains every other part. Therefore, to study any question from his corpus in depth is to get an introduction to his theology as a whole. This was certainly my experience. And my study of transubstantiation has equipped me to write and teach about not just the sacraments, but Christology, ethics, Christian anthropology, ecclesiology, eschatology, the doctrine of God, even Scripture. The laser beam that shot out from the doctrine of transubstantiation and subsequently unfolded the whole hologram of Thomas’s theology for me was undoubtedly his doctrine of creation, specifically, the way Thomas understands the relationship between God and creation.

Which takes us back to Aristotle and article 8 of question 75 of the Summa. Aristotle believed in the eternity of the universe. Since something exists, something has always existed. It is only the Judeo-Christian understanding of a radically other and transcendent God that could make any sense of the universe having a beginning, of a creation out of nothing. And of such a God Aristotle was quite innocent. Aquinas, though he finds Aristotle’s categories quite useful, breaks with Aristotle on the foundational question of the eternity of the universe. And this has radical consequences for the way he can use Aristotle in his theology, not least on the question of the Eucharist.

This is because it is only a creator God like the God of the Judeo-Christian biblical and philosophical tradition that could possibly change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood without transforming their physical characteristics. In article 8 of question 75, Thomas distinguishes transubstantiation from natural change, or transformation, because in natural change natural causes act in natural ways to produce change. So, for example, a fire can turn a wooden log or plank into smoke and ashes. But he also distinguishes it from creation ex nihilo, which is not, properly speaking, a change at all, since there is literally no thing that becomes some other thing. While it is unlike both natural change and creation ex nihilo in these ways, transubstantiation is like natural change in that one term becomes another term, and like creation ex nihilo in that only the power of a transcendent creator God could effect it.

Because a creator God gives existence, and is always giving existence, the meaning of existence itself shifts radically from Aristotle to Aquinas. For Aristotle, existing substances are radically independent. For Thomas, even the independence of existing substances is being given, moment by moment, by God. The very independence of the creature depends on God. This metaphysical move makes what many have observed is impossible in an Aristotelian universe—the conversion of one substance into another without a concomitant change of physical characteristics, what Aristotle and Thomas call “accidents”—possible in a world held in being by a transcendent creator God.


And this, I suggest, is the bigger question behind the Pew Survey results. As disappointing as the results were, they are not surprising. And not simply because of irreverent liturgies or inadequate catechesis. The deeper issue underlies those realities as well. We do not live in a world where people, even many Christian people, have a sense of the transcendent power of God and of God’s intimate, but non-competitive, relationship with creation.

The doctrine of real presence is not the only thing affected by this. We can easily imagine disappointing results on similar survey questions asking things like: Do Catholics believe Jesus is God or a great human teacher?; Do Catholics believe in creation or evolution?; Do Catholics believe in God’s providence or in free will?; Is Scripture is the infallible word of God or a culturally conditioned artifact (instructive, it is implied, but not authoritative)?; and, Is contraception wrong? (This latter fits the pattern because the question in the background of it, and of any similar ethical question, is something like: “Is morality derived from the nature of things as given by their creator or determined by Church authority?). Every one of these is, at root, a false dichotomy that is posited because God is imagined to be in competition with creation.

Transubstantiation is not, then, one disconnected and esoteric doctrine that a Catholic can take or leave. It is an articulation of faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist seeking understanding in the theological context of a deep appreciation of the relationship between God and creation. To affirm it is to affirm something foundational to the whole Christian worldview. Not to put too fine a point on it: it affirms that God is God and creation is creation.

O salutaris Hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium.

Featured Image: Fran Angelico, Institution of the Holy Eucharist in San Marco, 1441; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and is the co-host of the Thinking Faith podcast. His latest book is Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity.

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