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.