Q&A: Transubstantiation?

 

Carreno-de-miranda_Orden_de_los_Trinitarios

The elevation of the Host. From Wikipedia.

Question:

Do Catholics still believe in transubstantiation?

Answer:

Yes. Catholics ought to believe everything the Church taught as doctrine 1, 500, 1000 or even 2000 years ago. Popular belief, rules and customs change; doctrine develops; but otherwise nothing gets thrown out. This includes Transubstantiation.

But, you probably mean to question ‘the Real Presence’ rather than ‘Transubstantiation.’ Transubstantiation differentiates Catholics from Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran communities. Unless you belong to one of those groups, ‘the Real Presence’ is likely a better name for what you object to. You’ll see why in a moment.

The Real Presence is the teaching that Jesus Christ is fully present (body, blood, soul and divinity) in the bread and wine that Christians eat at an event called ‘The Lord’s Supper’, ‘Communion’ or ‘the Eucharist.’ We literally eat the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is as old as the Bible; Jesus taught this at the Last Supper and elsewhere. The strongest support is in John 6; it is close to Passover, and Jesus tells the crowd:

‘I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’

So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’

(John 6:35-58)

Jesus’ followers are so shocked (and can you blame them?) that many of his followers leave and stop following him. The Church, and all Christians prior to the Reformation, followed the plain meaning of Jesus’ words and the unanimous teaching of the Church Fathers that the Eucharist really does become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The only ones who denied this were Gnostic heretics who believed that all matter was evil and that Jesus came to free us from our fleshy prisons. In fact, the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Lord’s Supper is so well established that many Church Fathers in the first Christian centuries argued that Gnostic teachings were heretical because of what happens in the Lord’s Supper.

Now, Transubstantiation is a Catholic doctrine that was defined in the Middle Ages. Transubstantiation teaches that only the substance of Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Luther (and most of the initial Reformers) taught consubstantiation; Jesus’ substance coexists with the substance of the bread and wine. So the whole debate is about whether the substance of the bread and wine is there with Jesus’ substance. If this sounds Greek to you, that’s because it is! The Greek Aristotle created the philosophical language of Medieval Europe. Aristotle taught that everything has a substance or essential nature, and accidents or physical properties. Transubstantiation teaches that the Eucharist’s substance becomes Jesus; consubstantiation teaches that there are two substances, bread/wine and Jesus. Science can’t settle the debate because we can only observe the accidents and the accidents are still those of bread and wine. You don’t have to accept Aristotle to be a Catholic, but if you do use Aristotle’s language, this is the right way to describe what happens in the Eucharist.

The idea that Jesus isn’t fully present (body, blood, soul, divinity) in the Eucharist is a view that we have Ulrich Zwingli to thank for. He (and it’s probably fair to say, most Protestants today) believe that it is simply a memorial, a rich symbol. Luther was so scandalized by this that he said it was better to be a Papist (a derogatory term for a Catholic) than to follow Zwingli in this matter. For Catholics, Jesus’ Real Presence has always been theological fact.

For more information: Catholic Answers

Why am I doing this? Click here.

N.B. I am only a new Catholic. Though I have an undergrad in theology and am working on a Masters, I will not be a flawless source of information. But friends and family have many questions since my wife and I began becoming Catholics, and this is an attempt to answer those questions.

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