Protestants, Catholics, Communion–oh my! (Happy Corpus Christi!)


Today is a Christian Holy Day called “Corpus Christi” (Latin for “the body of Christ”). Today we meditate on the mystery of Communion/Eucharist/The Lord’s Supper.

I’ve mentioned some of my Communion views before and what I articulated is a synthesis and summary of the ideas of many theologians, both Protestant and Catholic. And so today, I want talk to all my fellow Protestant brothers and sisters out there.

In my opinion, the popular Evangelical idea of the Catholic view on the Eucharist is not really right or helpful (as is the popular conception of most of Catholic doctrine). Today I want to argue that Catholicism’s “Eucharist problem” is more historical and rhetorical than theological.

Some History

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 pre-scientific 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 it stopped being clear and helpful.

The Eucharist Language Problem

The 19th century brought great philosophical and scientific advancements to the world. With those changes, 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.

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-articulate some of this in the Catechism (and it’s beautiful–you should read it), but it was too late; the damage had been done.

Re-Drawing the Battle Lines

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 belittle 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 “Catholic” ideas, even if they disagreed with their articulation (source).

So 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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