Monday, September 21, 2009

Is Transubstantiation a Physical Change?

In response to my last post about Eucharistic Adoration, a commenter, "Adoro," says that we do not and should not say a "physical" conversion occurs. This is my response.


Hi Adoro,

You should consider using your real name. It adds authenticity, relatability, and contributes to trust in this virtual world we call the Web. As our Lord said, I have said nothing in secret; the Gospel is not an anonymous matter.

Anyways, I don't know about not saying "physical." Nothing I've read (St. Thomas, Cath En, Catechesim, Trent, and more) says we shouldn't or don't say "physical." Granted, most of them also do not use "physical"; rather they say "substantial" and say "body and blood."

Catholic Christology hashed out at some pain that Christ has both Divine and human nature, i.e., part of his substance is human, and we say we partake of his "body and blood," both of which are physical in nature. Our doctrine is very clear that none of the substance of the bread and wine remain (and surely bread and wine are physical substances). In fact, Trent condemned as contrary to the faith the idea that "only the substantial form (forma substantialis) of the bread underwent conversion, while the primary matter (materia prima) remained."

That's why I say it is proper to say "not only physical," while it is not proper to say "not physical."

Now, I think the crux of the matter is a question of one's understanding of "physical." You and McBrien seem to mean it only to refer to the physical attributes (what in Aristotelian thinking are called "accidents"). In that sense--in terms of accidents or "species"--yes, there is no physical change, but that is precisely why there is a distinction made between accidents and substance in this matter--to highlight that the change affects the entire substance while retaining the outward appearances (accidents). As noted, substance in this case includes the physical because the substance of both bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ have a physical nature--not just in the outward forms but essentially. And because the substance/essence of Christ includes natures that are not just physical but also spiritual, and not just human but also Divine, we also say that we partake "body and blood, soul and Divinity."

Regarding the concern about folks who take the understanding of the conversion to inaccurate extremes, that is no argument against transubstantiation itself (or a substantial physical change, which, again, is implied in the doctrine). Our doctrine also tells us that Christ's whole substance is contained in each and every particle of the consecrated host (see CCC 1377 and Trent Canon III of the 13th Session), so that excludes the idea that breaking or scratching or otherwise tearing the host injurs or tears Christ himself apart. People who think that need to be taught a right understanding of this doctrine, not to be taught that it is outmoded or have it substituted for a vague term like "sacramental," which while true does not help understanding much.

Now I acknowledge that these distinctions are unfamiliar to the average contemporary mind. But that does not mean that they are beyond the modern mind. We can have things like stem cells explained to us enough so that we grasp the important bits, even if we don't have degrees in advanced biology. In the same way, we can learn the stuff needed to get a sufficient understanding of transubstantiation.

Finally, to reiterate why all this is important, I'd like to quote a bit (more) from the old Cath En: "So the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation sets up a mighty bulwark around the dogma of the Real Presence and constitutes in itself a distinct doctrinal article, which is not involved in that of the Real Presence, though the doctrine of the Real Presence is necessarily contained in that of Transubstantiation. It was for this very reason that Pius VI, in his dogmatic Bull 'Auctorem fidei' (1794) against the Jansenistic pseudo Synod of Pistoia (1786), protested most vigorously against suppressing this 'scholastic question', as the synod had advised pastors to do."

So we see that this tendency to dismiss transubstantiation as a "medieval" anachronism is not new at all; instead, rather, it is considered a "mighty bulwark." This is what I was trying to point out in my last post--that a proper understanding of and belief in transubstantiation is key to a proper, healthy understanding of the Real Presence. As McBrien and others have shown, one's understanding of this has very practical implications in how we worship God, and how we understand our relationship to him and to others, especially in the context of our liturgy.

I ask you, which abuse would be worse: an inaccurate, extreme concern for the Eucharist or a disregard, irreverence, and devaluing of it? So, even granting that an inaccurate understanding of transubstantiation can lead to the former, I suggest that this possibility is much less dire than the latter, which is a fruit of being wishy-washy and vague about the Real Presence.

Peace be with you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eucharistic Adoration: A Step Forward

Dear Anna Arco tweeted today about Fr. McBrien's latest spiel on his blog with the statement "NCR's Fr. O'Brien dismissively calls Adoration a "step backward". He neglects to explain why." Needless to say, that grabbed my attention. Not because I latch onto every apparently unorthodox thing Fr. McBrien says--I don't have the time for that--but because I have relatively recently come to a very personal, experiential appreciation for Eucharistic adoration.

The "old" Catholic Encyclopedia speaks about the "adorableness of the Eucharist." I just love that phrase; I can't help it because I look over at my youngest son of 7 months and think about his adorableness. Of course, we're talking about totally different meanings of "adorable," but there is something in the deep movement of affection that is common to both.

Unfortunately, it wasn't until recently that I really knew this. Of course, that we can and should adore the Eucharist follows from what we believe about it--that it is truly, really, actually the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The change is not temporary; as long as the host remains incorrupt, the real presence of God remains. This I knew since well before I became Catholic and gave complete assent to.

And yet, despite this mental assent, I was reluctant to actually practice it. I think this was mainly due in part to laziness and in part due to some clinging on of my Protestant predispositions. Thankfully, my lay Dominican chapter president, Mr. Robert Ellis, O.P., decided to make Adoration a part of our monthly gathering. It was thanks to him, doubtless the Spirit working through him, that I was first exposed to Adoration experientially.

Adoration is one of those things that is truly ineffable. Because of that, there is little point my trying to describe it, but I'll just say that it has had a rather profound impact on my life. It sort of reminds me of runners who say that you just have to do it in order to understand why they like it. It's a kind of high, but instead of a natural, it is a supernatural high. At least that's been my experience.

Now Fr. McBrien comes along and says that Adoration is a step backwards. He says that Adoration is only good for pedagogy--for teaching people about the Real Presence. The thing is, Fr. McBrien seems to be confused as to the nature of the Real Presence. He says, "The transformation (the medieval word was 'transubstantiation') is sacramental, not literal or physical." Then a bit later, "they have been changed sacramentally, not literally or physically, into the body and blood of Christ."

I think maybe I can begin to see the root of the problem. He seems to have a very vague and somewhat inaccurate notion of the Real Presence. He claims that transubstantiation is a "medieval word." It is true that it was coined then, but the Church has kept and cherished that word and even uses it today as the most fitting description of what happens (see Catechism #1376). I've run into even orthodox priests who seem to belittle transubstantiation as some rarified or antiquated way of explaining things, so I don't fault McBrien too much for his implicit attempt to marginalize it.

And yet I must blame him and them, because it is important that we be clear on this. Even if you don't understand the fineries of Aristotelian categories, it doesn't take a PhD to understand the basic ideas of substance and accidents. Indeed, it seems these days it takes a PhD to not understand them! Or at least to attempt to divest them of their power in explaining things.

The Church has been painfully precise and clear in defining the Real Presence. The CathEn goes as far as to say "Eventually the West became the classic home of scientific perfection in the difficult doctrine of Transubstantiation." And ecumenical councils, catechisms, and doubtless every official means through which the Church lays out our doctrine has confirmed the understanding conveyed by transubstantiation.

So it seems pretty arrogant, if done intentionally, to cast the term aside today. And whether or not it is arrogant, it certainly should not be done without offering a better substitute.

And what does McBrien offer? Not only does he say, vaguely, "sacramentally," but he also seems to explicitly deny a right understanding of the Real Presence by saying "not literally" and "not physically." If it is not literally changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, then how is it changed? Imaginarily? Allegorically? If it is not physically changed into our Lord's Body and Blood, then how is it changed? Spiritually? Ideally?

He says "sacramentally." Of course it is sacramentally changed! It's a sacrament! Can you be more vague? Coupled with his denial of a literal and physical change, the reader is left to come up with all kinds of imaginings as to how the change occurs.

The Church, on the other hand, is very clear on how it is changed. It is changed substantially, and not just partially substantially (i.e., it does not retain any of the substance of bread and wine as in impanation or consubstantiation) but fully substantially--there is no substance of bread and wine left. It must be admitted that both the Body and Blood of Christ and bread and wine have physical substance; therefore, it is not accurate to say that the change occurring at the consecration is not physical. You could say it is "not only physical," but you can't just say "not physical."

And what can we say about "not literally" beyond verbalized puzzlement. What does McBrien intend by this? Sadly, I fear it may expose a susceptibility to materialism or at least a materialistic outlook because the only viable meaning I can derive is that he means essentially the same thing as "not physically" such that it is simply reiterating his misconception, only with deeper implications. In "not literally," he is not just denying the physical change but also any actual change at all. Coupled with "not physically," it is an apparent denial that there is a meaningful reality beyond the physical such that you could rightly say it literally (i.e., actually/in effect) changes.

What is even more saddening is that I think McBrien is representing what is these days a majority Catholic (at least Western/American Catholic) understanding of the Eucharist. They say with their mouths "real presence" but have no adequate conception of what that means. They truly do not believe it literally or physically changes.

It is no wonder then that McBrien would assert that Adoration is a step backward. It is no wonder that Catholics of that ilk are all too keen on relocating the tabernacle safely out of the way. It is no wonder that they are more keen on community, "being Church," and a "common meal" than on the awesome, actual, literal, physical and spiritual presence of God we encounter in the Eucharist.

Ironically, McBrien says that we don't need Adoration any more because "most Catholics are literate and even well-educated, the Mass is in the language of the people (i.e, the vernacular), and its rituals are relatively easy to understand and follow." He contrasts this supremely educated state of Catholics today with the unwashed masses of the past who needed this "extraneous eucharistic devotion" to educate them on the Real Presence. It is ironic because it is painfully clear to me and other Catholics who truly do understand the Real Presence that he (and many others like him) just don't get it. It is ironic because it is clear to us that we need Adoration precisely because of folks like him.

In those eminently dismissable medieval times, there was a problem of poorly educated priests. In hearing McBrien and other priests who share his views, it seems we have that problem again, only now they are often well educated--just in all the wrong ways--and, apparently, lacking true, Catholic faith. When we pray for priests in this year of priests, we need especially to remember Fr. McBrien and other priests who have apparently lost their way, however well-intentioned and good they might otherwise be.

Perhaps we should pray that the Spirit would lead them to spend some time in Adoration and find what I found--that it is a great wellspring of grace and a deepening and maturing of faith, that is, a real step forward in one's sanctification.

UPDATE (21 Sept 2009): I was a little surprised in doing refresher study around this just now to find an explicit anathema for those who hold McBrien's position--see Canon VI of the 13th Session. Dang, I shoulda just found that and saved myself a blog post. :-)