Catholics Aren’t Crazy: an Advent & Communion Theological P.S. (for those who care) | Advent {7a}


After my previous post on how Communion is no more a “symbol” than Advent itself, I can already hear some people right now thinking: “Wait. Isn’t this the Catholic idea of communion?” (As if that would be the worst thing.) I’ve mentioned some of my Communion views before in this ongoing series, and what I articulated is a synthesis and summary of the ideas of many theologians, both Protestant and Catholic. The pop idea of the Catholic view on the Eucharist is not really right or helpful (as is the pop conception of most of Catholic doctrine). Catholicism’s “Eucharist problem” is more historical and rhetorical than theological.

In the earliest decades and centuries of church history, people were able to simply maintain the simple doctrine that at Communion, they are receiving the true presence of Christ in the Bread and the Wine (source, albeit biased). In the middle ages, though, people starting asking themselves “Wait, what does that actually mean?” Differing answers started forming and a diversity of opinion about the Eucharist began taking place. The leaders of the Church tried to bring some commonality to this. In fact, the medieval Catholic church made a few “errant” teachers affirm these statements in 1078 and 1079:

“The true body and blood of Christ is torn by the teeth of the person taking the sacrament.”

“After the consecration, the bread is the true body of Christ, the very body born of the Virgin — that the bread and wine on the altar, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and words of our Redeemer, are substantially converted into the very flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, true and life-giving.”

To our modern ears, those statements sound so odd. But that’s more cultural bias than anything else. To a prescientific world, that statement didn’t mean the same thing as we would imagine it. Here was the problem: before the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, what was most “true” and “real” about a given thing was defined most by it’s essence rather than it’s form.

A couple hundred years after those statements were being used, Thomas Aquinas came on the scene and gave the clearest thought and articulation to this doctrine of the Eucharist. If any Protestant were to read Thomas Aquinas’ writings on the subject (or summaries), they would find very little to bother them; and guess what? This is the basis of Catholic Eucharistic theology!

Aquinas builds off of an Aristotelian distinction between a thing’s substance and it’s accidents (the physical attributes these things “just happen” to “accidentally” have, such as taste, smell, color, and molecular structure). Aquinas said that at the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine are transformed (“trans”-“substantiated”) while the accidents of the bread and wine remain the same. But not only that, they “collapse” into each other and become one without distinction (there’s not the “divine” part of the bread and the, uhh, “bread” part of the bread–they’re all together).

And this articulation worked just fine for a while.

But then the 19th century rolled around and philosophical and scientific advancements happened. We started talking differently, and this has stuck with us. Now, whenever we talk of what’s most “true” and “real” about something, we are thinking and talking more about that thing’s accidents rather than its substance. When we modern people say that the bread and wine are “true-ly” and “real-ly” the Body and Blood of Jesus, we are automatically thinking in molecular, biological, and chemical terms, and not essential terms (having to do with “essence”).

The problem really came when the Catholic Church decided not to re-articulate how they had been talking about the Eucharist. They just kept using these terms that modern people would continue to misunderstand. And so, down the centuries, we have these Catholic lay-people thinking that the Church believes these elements are biologically turning into flesh and blood, when the Church as a whole has never dogmatically said this (see line 1333). In fact, at Vatican II, they did in fact re-rticulate some of this in the Catechism (and it’s beautiful–you should read it), but it was too late; the damage had been done.

Lastly, this has not typically (in the grand scheme of history) been a major point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. It’s mainly between Catholics and Evangelicals, and oh do Evangelicals suffer from such dualistic thinking! (Most have belittled Communion so much, they don’t even take it every week. As the Catechism says at line 1327: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.”)

Even in the Reformation, many of the Reformers still essentially held to these ideas, even if they disagreed with their articulation (source).  Our contemporary Protestant knee-jerk antagonism to a Catholic view of the Eucharist is very modern, very western, very Evangelical, and has little to no historical viability or substance.

With all that being said, I hope that we’re a little more comfortable talking about the real, spiritual, and miraculous things happening at the Table as we take the bread and wine. I hope we can see it for what it is: as our feasting on our spiritual nourishment as the unified Body of Christ.

[image credit: Lawrence Lew on flickr]

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9 thoughts on “Catholics Aren’t Crazy: an Advent & Communion Theological P.S. (for those who care) | Advent {7a}

  1. Pingback: The Holy Sacrament of Advent {7} | the long way home

  2. It’s interesting that as science advances, even things such as quantum structure are not necessarily viewed as the “real essence” of the thing. Perhaps at the 11th dimension, the string theory strings interact in a way akin to the collapse of the temporal and eternal. On the other hand, I’m only an armchair physics fan. The concept is intriguing nonetheless.

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  3. Daniel: Wow. That’s crazy. I never thought of the “Sacrament of Quantum Physics”, haha. Hmm… I’ll have to give that some more thought. But I guess here’s my initial reaction: do we really need a scientific or physical explanation for these mysterious things? Maybe. I’m just wondering. I grew up in a culture that spent way too much of its time trying to use science to show how the parting of the Red Sea, the Flood, and various other miracles could have happened “naturally”, as if that defends the truthfulness of Scripture (apparently it was more important to show that what the Bible said was true than give God credit for doing something that couldn’t naturally happen, haha).

    I don’t want to be guilty of the separating out of spiritual and material I talked about earlier, but I wonder where the line is where we just allow for God to do something CRAZY and mysterious, and where we might find how He’s doing it (be it in quantum mechanics, nature, or whatever).

    Like I said, this is just me shooting from the hip, so I would love your thoughts on this. Help me!!!

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  4. Pingback: HAPPY ADVENT!! {10} | the long way home

  5. I definitely hear your concerns, Paul. I think of it in almost the reverse way of the Discovery channel “how could the red sea be parted” approach. If we take as our given that what God has done, what God has said is true and happened, AND we think, based on advanced scientific theories that other phenomena exist (be it DNA, string-theory or the ever-dreaded evolution), THEN what does that show us about God’s nature or the interesting, miraculous ways he works? For me, it inspires awe and devotion. I can see where for others it might spark debate and contention. I don’t know…I’m tired 😛

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  9. I linked back to this from your August 23 post, which I am savoring at the moment. However, this piques my interest as I have observed these arguments for years. Far above it all, the topic of the “Meeting with God” post transcends everything. I have placed comments there. For me, the meeting with God is the ultimate all. And meeting Him in the Eucharist is entirely, if not the absolute best place. It is a place where the divine intersects with humanity. And is that not what every soul truly longs for? Be it symbolic, be it quantum, be it whatever, He is the absolute real—if we would but wait and listen.
    Unfortunately, most will not turn to Jesus to meet this longing.

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