In Layman's Terms - Bob Sullivan

Transubstantiation Part II

By Bob Sullivan

In Part I, I posed a quiz, in which I asked readers to circle the correct definition of transubstantiation:


a. When the priest consecrates the bread and wine, the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s body and blood.
b. The body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present in, with, and under the forms of consecrated bread and wine so that we eat and drink both the elements and the true body and blood of Christ Himself.
c. The Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s death upon the cross.
d. When the priest consecrates the bread and wine, the whole substance of the bread and wine changes into the substance of the body and blood of Christ.
e. Christ becomes spiritually present in the bread and wine during the consecration, but He is not physically present.

How did you do in your quiz? Did you take the quiz without doing any research? Did you think you knew the answer, but you researched it just to make sure? Did you confirm that you were correct or incorrect?
Regardless of your answer to the above questions, let’s look at your answer to the quiz.

If you selected “a,” you chose the answer taught by Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. This teaching is a very recent development in non-Catholic Christianity which denies 20 centuries of Christian teachings, and specifically denies the dogma of transubstantiation.

If you chose “a,” you perhaps are not Catholic, and you are relying on the teachings of a non-Catholic faith. But if you chose “a” and you are Catholic, don’t worry, you will appreciate this series by the time we finish.

If you selected “b,” you chose the answer written by Martin Luther himself. This is actually known as “the real presence,” and it falls short of the Catholic dogma which existed for 1,517 years before Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.1  The Lutheran definition of the real presence dates back to 1536 and the Wittenberg Concord.

If you chose “b,” don’t feel bad. It is probably the second most common answer chosen by Catholics. However, it is the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, not the Catholic one, and it came along 15 centuries after Christ walked the earth.

If you selected “c,” you chose Huldrych Zwingli’s answer. Zwingli was a Protestant revolutionary similar to Luther, but a bit more aggressive than Luther was. Zwingli’s understanding of transubstantiation was also further from the actual Catholic dogma than was Luther’s. One way to avoid mistaking this for the Catholic dogma is to recall Flannery O’Connor’s response to a friend who had called the Eucharist a “powerful symbol,” to which O’Connor replied: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.”

If you selected “e,” you selected John Calvin’s answer. Calvin was another Protestant revolutionary. His style was more of a middle ground between Luther and Zwingli, although some of his followers were much more aggressive than all three of them.

Calvin is the father of Presbyterianism and “Reformed” Christianity. Even though Calvin did not overtly promote violence toward Catholics and the Catholic Church, he was distinctly unfriendly to the Church and Catholics.

If you selected “d,” you selected the Catholic Church’s answer. Congratulations. This is also the answer of all Christians prior to the Protestant Revolt which started in 1517, led by men such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin. This answer has been the cause of much struggle, strife, and bloodshed since the earliest days of the Church. The early Christians were labeled cannibals because of the Roman’s misinterpretation of the teaching.

Theologians debated the teaching for centuries as well, until St. Thomas Aquinas put an end to the debate in the Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 75. A very basic summary of Aquinas’ conclusion is this: While our senses may see, feel, and taste bread and wine, the substance of bread and wine has ceased to exist in the consecration. All that remains is the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. He also wrote this in a hymn we still sing today: “Sight, touch, and taste in thee are each deceived; the ear alone most safely is believed; I believe all the Son of God has spoken, than through his own word there is no truer token.”2

Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica in the mid to late 1200s, but prior to that time, many theologians, saints, Church Fathers, and early Christians believed what Aquinas would eventually write into a more formal teaching.

Aquinas, St. John Chrysostom, St. Justin Martyr and many others wrote and taught that the bread and wine became the actual body and blood of Christ in the Mass, but all of this is actually present in Scripture as well. We see this in John 6:26-68, the Last Supper, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, and numerous other passages in the New Testament. We also see this in the Didache.

We also see the Catholic teaching in the Old Testament. Just as Jesus refers to the manna in the desert in his Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, we can look at the paschal lamb of the Exodus and the Passover, as well as the offerings of Melchizedek (Exodus 12 and Genesis 14:18) as verses which describe the Eucharist before Christ instituted the sacrament at the Last Supper. This is called “prefiguring.” Prefiguring is a way to look back at the Old Testament and see hints or precursors of things which become much clearer or more developed in the New Testament. As St. Augustine said, “The New Testament is concealed in the Old, while the Old is revealed in the New.”

As you can see, there is a lot of Scripture and history which supports the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation. We have Scripture from thousands of years before the birth of Christ, New Testament accounts before, during, and shortly after Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and 2,000 years of theological development by some of the most gifted saints in the history of the Church. You can spend decades researching all of this. This is the reason behind the dogma.

Next time, we’ll put faith and reason together.

1 He may not have nailed anything to a church door. He might have pasted it up, or he may have simply set it somewhere in the church. There are no first-hand historical accounts of the nailing of the 95 Theses. We simply rely on legend when we say he nailed the document to the door of the church.

2 Adoro te devote “I adore Thee.”

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