Eucharistic Theology in the Reformation and the Council of Trent

Author: Manuel Ureña Pastor

Eucharistic Theology in the Reformation and the Council of Trent

Manuel Ureña Pastor
Bishop of Cartagena, Spain

Reflection: 'Year of the Eucharist'

The Eucharist is the central mystery of the faith. The whole of the Christian mystery is born from the Eucharist consists of the Eucharist.

As the sacramental actualization Christ's Pasch through the ordained priesthood and under the species bread and wine, the Eucharist is a fruit of the Church.

At the same time, however, the Church draws her life from the Eucharist by which she also lives, since this great gift is the perpetual and inexhaustible source of all of her spiritual good. Shining out across the world, the Eucharist purifies, renews and reunites the world with God.

This is what the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II explained in his Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, completes it by treating matters connected with the discipline of this Sacrament.

Even in her calm and peaceful possession of the Eucharist, the Church constitutively assisted by the Holy Spirit, has also experienced periods in history in which this Sacrament, the source a summit of all Christian life, became the object of fierce theological controversy.

Let us remember the Reformation. It was through the Magisterium of the Council of Trent that the Church dealt with the difficult circumstances that threatened the true way of understanding the Eucharist and endangered its very existence.

Eucharistic theology of the Reformation

In the early Middle Ages, nominalism and other theological currents that developed from it prepared the ground for the reformers' approach to Eucharistic faith, which focused on points of particular interest: the understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in this Sacrament; the two forms of Eucharistic Communion; and the sacrificial character of Mass. Let us consider these points.

Understanding of Real Presence

Reacting to the abuses of a determined exteriorization and to every form of vulgar physical realism and also to the doctrine of the Fourth Lateran Council, which asserted that the identity of the consecrated gifts and the Body and Blood of Christ were the same by virtue of "transubstantiation" (DH 802),1 Zwingli, Luther and Calvin, despite their considerable theological differences, shared the belief that the Catholic faith in the Real Presence was erroneous.

Zwingli said that after the Ascension, the body of Jesus was to be found in Heaven and thus could not be really present in earthly bread. He claimed that the so-called "consecrated" bread was not the Body of Jesus but only a symbol of it.

Accordingly, the "est" that we read in the words of the "Institution" of the Eucharist was to be understood only in a figurative sense; and eating the Eucharistic Body meant merely believing in the sacrificed Body of Christ on the Cross.

Distancing himself from Zwingli, Martin Luther accepted the Real Presence but only as a sort of extension of the Incarnation, a precise presence pro nobis, a presence bringing grace for the forgiveness of sins. In this way, as compared with what Zwingli hypothesized, the prince of the reformers interpreted the "est" of the Eucharistic Institution as a real identification.

For Luther, in fact, the glorified body of Christ is inseparably united to the divinity in whose omnipresence it shares by virtue of the communication of the properties that exist in the two natures, divine and human, of the incarnate and glorified Word.

Consequently, in the Eucharistic Sacrament, Christ unites his Body with the bread and wine (doctrine of "consubstantiation"), thereby making his omnipresence perceptible to us and salvific for us (doctrine of ubiquitarianism).

Therefore, considering the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist from the perspective of his two natures, Luther maintained that after the consecration, the bread and wine retain their own properties, but united with the Body and Blood of the Lord they constitute a true sacramental unity.

Thus, Luther categorically denied the ontological mutation of the species of the bread and wine through "transubstantiation".

Furthermore, in line with his own definition of sacrament, which he understood only as "actio" and "usus", he affirmed that the duration of the Real Presence of Christ pro nobis in the Eucharist lasts from the "take and eat" to the "sumptio" of the tiny particles of it that have been left over.

For this reason, he considered as imperative the obligation to avoid the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and he in no way accepted its adoration.

Calvin, lastly, not only denied the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic gifts but also any form of real "physical" presence, in the sense of eating Christ in, with and under the tangible forms of bread and wine. He differs in this from Luther who, while he made no reference to it, nonetheless accepted the doctrine of consubstantiation.

Moreover, Calvin, as opposed to Zwingli, upheld real participation in the Body and Blood of Christ in Heaven through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. For Calvin, however, the Sacrament was not an empty symbol nor a means or path of grace, but merely a "notification" of God's activity in the sacramental sign through the Holy Spirit.

Calvin claimed, therefore, that the Holy Spirit is the only "vinculum communicationis" between the communicant and Christ. Calvin maintained that the Spirit did not bring about the present of Christ in the Eucharist but that the Eucharist was only the visible reality through which the Spirit reached the faithful in order to unite them with the heavenly Christ. This made Christ's presence in the Sacrament an abstraction.

In fact, Calvin was seeking to build bridge between the Eucharistic theologies of Zwingli and Luther. In each case, it is certain that the reformers were unable to reach any agreement on the positive content of the Eucharistic gifts. This was the stumbling block to the unity of the Reformation.

Administering Eucharistic species

The two forms of Eucharistic Communion (Communion under two species or Communion under one species only) do not in themselves constitute a dogmatic problem. Even if Communion under two species (with the Body and the Blood) is an indispensable part of the integrity of the sacramental sign and corresponds to Christ's mandate in the Institution (cf. Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19 ff.; I Cor 11:24 ff.), there are other New Testament texts in which Communion under a single species is also defined as true (cf. Jn 6:51; 6:57-58).

Hence, the Church accepted from the start the validity of Eucharistic Communion under the one form or the other.

Although this never in itself posed a dogmatic problem but was merely a disciplinary issue, it became a problem of faith in 1414 when Jacobo da Mies began to preach in Prague that Communion under both species was indispensable to salvation. Da Mies based his argument on Jn 6:53-56; he maintained that this form of Communion derived from a divine mandate (cf. Mt 26:27; Lk 22:17 ff.) and violently attacked the Church for withdrawing this inalienable right from the faithful.

So it was that the Council of Constance, in its 13th Session on 15 Jun 1415, totally rejected the need to reintroduce the practice of giving the chalice as well as the bread to the laity (Communion under both species), and prohibited it, not so much because was invalid in itself, but rather, because of the erroneous assumptions with which Jacobo da Mies was seeking to justify it (cf. DH 1198-1200).

The theologians of the Reformation adopted the error of Jacobo da Mies, going beyond the intentions of the preacher of Prague, whose sole aspiration at the outset had been to rekindle Eucharistic devotion. With their assertion that the practice of the "chalice for the laity" was obligatory, not only did they manifest their desire to remain faithful to the Institution of the Eucharist and to claim the royal priesthood of all the baptized, but also, as Johannes Betz correctly notes, their intention to find theological justification for the suppression of the hierarchical structure the Church.2

Sacrificial character of Holy Mass

Nonetheless, the differences between the reformers in establishing the positive content of the Eucharistic gifts did not occur in the evaluation of Mass.

Reformation theologians, constituting as it were a single opposition front, not only denounced the trivialization and irregularity of the celebration of the Eucharist, but also contested the Catholic way of understanding Mass and its sacrificial nature in particular. In their opinion, the Eucharist was a gift of God to men, a testament. In no way was the Eucharist to be considered a gift of men to God nor, consequently, a sacrifice.

Making the Mass a sacrifice would have meant making it a "work", an idolatrous act.

Faith and thanksgiving in relation to the Eucharist do, of course, come into it but are understood only as a spiritual sacrifice and separate from the Sacrament.

The assumption that underlies this concept is no more than the fundamental principle of Reformation theology: the principle of the "solus Deus" and the "sola gratia", an axiom that was be rigorously maintained in everything that had to do with salvation. This principle was not only applied to Eucharistic theology but also to Christology.

Not even the unique and unrepeatable sacrifice of the Cross, therefore, received its value from Jesus as a man; it was seen solely as the work and testimony of the mercy that God showed to us poor, condemned sinners.

The Catholic "offerimus" consequently wreaks diabolical havoc not on only the inaccessible majesty of God's very being, but also on the fundamental structure of the Crucifixion, whose essence must not be interpreted as Jesus' sacrifice of himself, but rather as the gift that the Father makes of Jesus.

Hence, the "offerimus", especially if it is understood as an expiatory sacrifice, represents a new attempt at expiation or a presumed complement to the superabundant sacrifice of the Cross: in other words, a work.

By making these assumptions, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli totally rejected the sacrificial character of Mass, the Roman Canon, the so-called "Private Mass" and the application of Masses for the living and the dead.

The Magisterium on the Eucharist of the Council of Trent fits into this theological context.

Trent's doctrine of the Eucharist

The Council of Trent, which was deeply concerned with the discourse of the Reformation on Eucharistic theology, immediately made this Sacrament one of the most important items on its agenda. It focused first of all on the sacrificial character of Mass and reflected on the Real Presence and the two forms in which Communion can be received. I do not intend, however, to treat these three aspects together, but one by one.

For various reasons that Hubert Jedin3 studied attentively, the Council, at the 13th Session on 11 October 1551 (cf. DH 1635-1661), began by ratifying the Real Presence with the Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

The topics of the "two species under which Eucharistic Communion can be administered" and "the administration of Communion to children" were resolved at the 21st Session on 16 July 1562 (cf. DH 1725-1734).

However, since the question of the concession of the chalice to lay people had not been resolved on that day, the problem was subjected to further study.

The Synod Fathers finally declined to provide an explanation and, at the 22nd Session on 17 September that same year, approved the Decree on the administration of the chalice. The ultimate decision was entrusted to the Pontiff (cf. DH 1760).

Finally, the doctrine on the Sacrifice of Mass, the thorniest Eucharistic topic in those historical circumstances, also saw the light at the 22nd Session of the Council (cf. DH 1738-1759).

The Real Presence

The "Decree on the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist", in which the Council of Trent dealt with the Real Presence, contains eight chapters and 11 canons.

The Decree intends to affirm the Real Presence from the start: "In the august Sacrament of the Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things..." (Chap. I).

From this follows the denial of the Reformation thesis which claimed that Christ is present in the Eucharist only as in a sign or symbol of his power (cf. can. 1).

The conciliar text then explains the reasons for the institution of this Sacrament, the real and visible expression of the unfathomable riches that God granted to man in Christ as the spiritual food and nourishment of souls; and as an antidote to sin, the first fruits of eternal life and an effective sign of fraternal communion (cf. Chap. II).

Then, the Decree establishes the difference between the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the presence of Christ in other sacraments.

The Sacrament of the Altar, like the other sacraments, is "a visible form of an invisible grace". However, whereas in other sacramental signs the invisible grace is brought about for the first time precisely at the moment when one uses them, in the Eucharist the Author of grace himself is present even before the administration of the Sacrament. The whole of Christ is present, with his Body and Blood, his soul and divinity, under the species of the bread and the wine; just as the whole Christ is also contained under each of the species (by virtue of their natural connection and concomitancy) and under each and every part of the species, after their separation (cf. Chap. III and can. 3).

Moreover, once the unique characteristic of the Real Presence has been established, its causes explained and its difference in comparison with the Lord's presence in the other effective signs of grace noted, the Decree states the necessary logical and ontological presupposition of the Real Presence. This presupposition is the conversion of the whole substance of bread into the Body of Christ and of the whole substance of wine into the Blood of Christ.

From this presupposition derives, as an obvious consequence, the Council's affirmation of the permanence of the species of the bread and wine and the non-permanence of their substance.

Moreover, to explain the presupposition of the conversion of the bread and wine, the Council used the term "transubstantiation", henceforth, a traditional and particularly apt classification for identifying this presupposition (cf. Chap. IV and can.2).

In such a way, the Council denied with the concept of "transubstantiation" the doctrine of "consubstantiation", in other words, that the substance of the bread and wine remains in the species (can. 2), which Luther accepted; the Council defined solely the event of the conversion and avoided going into the question of how this conversion was brought about from a natural and philosophical viewpoint.

The Council's priority was to fix the boundaries between faith and error.

Consequently, the Council's use of the term "transubstantiation" to designate the phenomenon of conversion does not mean, as Melchior Cano pointed out in the Council Hall, that this concept is part of the content of faith; nor does it mean, as Karl Rahner says, that the truth of faith expressed by the term "transubstantiation" is jeopardized by the Aristotelian acceptation with which the Council Fathers very probably used the term.4

In any case, one thing is certain: despite the fact that the concept of "transubstantiation" derives from a concrete philosophical universe, the Aristotelian universe so debated by modern thought, this concept is a truer expression of faith than the concepts of either  "transfinalization" or "transignification", which some people about 10 years ago desired acritically to use instead.

As Paul VI vigorously emphasized in his Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei, the concept of "transubstantiation" — which means neither: "transignification" nor, even less, "transfinalization" — is at the root of the new meaning and purpose that the Eucharistic species acquire once "transubstantiation" has occurred.5 In turn, the raison d'être and ultimate foundation of "transubstantiation" are found in relation to the new goal and new meaning of the species of the bread and wine (O. Semmelroth).

Yet these concepts ("transignification" and "transfinalization") cannot claim to replace the concept of "transubstantiation", since they do not fully express the reality of this word's meaning.

Indeed, although they designate the new goal and the new meaning of the species of bread and wine, already consecrated, they in no way indicate the new constituent and constitutive being of these species one they have been consecrated. This new being of the species — the Body and Blood of Christ — is necessarily inalienable because without it there can be no true Eucharist.

Lastly, in the remaining chapters and canons, the Council draws consequences from the Real Presence: the eating of Christ in Holy Communion not only spiritually but also sacramentally and really (cf. can. 8); the permanence of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist also "extra usum" (cf. can. 4); the legitimacy of adoration of Blessed Sacrament with cultus latriae (cf. Chap. V and can. 6); the legitimacy of preserving and reserving the consecrated Eucharistic species, and the possibility of administering it to the sick (cf. Chap. VI and can. 7); the need to prepare oneself to receive the Eucharist fittingly by recourse to the Sacrament of Penance, if one is aware of being mortal sin (cf. Chap. VII and can.11); the legitimacy, for the priest celebrant, of receiving Communion himself (cf. can. 10); the obligation to receive Communion at least once a year on reaching the age of discretion (cf. can.9); and the non-reduction of the principal fruit of the Most Holy Eucharist to remission of sins (cf. can. 5).

Administering the Sacrament

The conciliar Document of the 21st Session expounded this doctrine in four, chapters and as many canons.

Coming to grips with the sensitive topic of Communion under two Eucharistic species or of the "lay chalice", the two forms of Communion that Reformation theologians considered obligatory for all believers, the Council asserted that there is no divine precept concerning the obligation of said form of Communion and that consequently, it is not necessary for salvation (cf. Chap. I and can. 1). Communion under one species suffices.

However, if Communion under one species suffices, it is not only because there is no binding divine mandate on the concrete form of Communion, but also because Jesus Christ, whole and entire, is truly present in each one of the species, in the bread and in the wine. For this reason it should be said that the whole Christ may be received even under only one Eucharistic species (cf. Chap. III and can. 3).

Moreover, since the issue of the two forms in which Communion may be received (under the one or under two species) is not a matter of divine law, it is the duty of the Church, to which Christ gave the power to regulate the discipline of the sacraments but always with respect for what is essential in them, to determine the best way to administer Communion in the form most convenient to those who receive it, and for the veneration that is due to this Sacrament itself (cf. Chap. II and can. 2).

The Council also taught that Eucharistic Communion is not necessary for newborn infants (cf. Chap. IV and can. 4).

The Mass as Sacrifice

The Document in which the doctrine and canons on the Sacrifice of Mass are expounded resulted from the 22nd Session of the Council. It is divided into nine chapters and as many canons.

The Council teaches that given the constitutive inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood in offering God a sacrifice that could redeem men and women and bring them to perfection, in the fullness of time and out of love the Father ordained that another priest should rise, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who, in offering himself once and for all on the altar the Cross, would bring about the redemption of the human race with his bloody death.

However, in order that his priesthood might not end with his death, and mindful of the requirements of human nature, during the Last Supper, "on the night when he was betrayed" (I Cor 11:23), Christ bequeathed to his beloved Bride, the Church, a visible sacrifice through which might be represented his bloody sacrifice which he was to make the following day, once and for all, on the Cross of Calvary; this was also and in order that the memorial of his passion and of his bloody death might endure for eternity and that the salvific efficacy of the passion and death of Christ Our Lord might be applied to the forgiveness of those sins committed every day.

To institute this visible sacrifice, a sacramental anticipation of his bloody sacrifice, Jesus offered on the same night as the Last Supper his Body and his Blood to God the Father under species of bread and wine, and under the symbols of these things themselves he offered them to the Apostles so they might receive them; hence, in that very act, he ordained them priests.

He ordered the Apostles and successors in the priesthood to these things with these words: "Do this in memory of me" (Lk 22:19; I Cor 11:24; cf. Chap. I and cann. 1, 2).

Therefore, the Holy Sacrifice of Mass contains an actualization of Last Supper until the Lord's coming, and Christ, who offered himself once and for all on the altar of the Cross in a bloody way, is here sacrificed in an unbloody way.

The Council thus established that in itself the sacrifice of the Cross, anticipated during the Last Supper, is one and the same as the Sacrifice of the Mass, since the victim is, of course, one and the same.

The One who offers himself in the Mass by the priestly ministry is the same as the One who once offered himself on the altar of the Cross. The only difference is in the manner of the offering: then, the bloody oblation without any mediation; now, the bloodless and sacramental oblation, that is, through the mediation of priests and of the same species as at the Last Supper.

Consequently, taking into account this intrinsic unity that exists between the two sacrifices, the fruits of the bloody sacrifice of Christ are obtained in abundance through the unbloody sacrifice that is fulfilled during the Mass, but this in no way diminishes the value of the bloody sacrifice.

The Church, therefore, rightly offers the Holy Sacrifice of Mass not only for sins, pains, satisfactions and various other necessities of the living faithful, but also for the deceased members of the faithful who have not yet fully atoned for their sins (cf. Chap. II and cann. 3, 4).

In the ensuing chapters and canons that we are unable to analyze here, the Council illustrates the significance of Masses celebrated in honor of saints (cf. Chap. III and can. 5); the existence and significance of the Canon of the Mass (cf. Chap. IV and can. 6); the significance of the ceremonies in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass (cf. Chap. V and cann. 7 and 9); and the triple significance of the water that is to be mixed with the wine during the Eucharistic celebration (cf. Chap. VII and can. 9).

With regard to the last two chapters, Chapter VIII comes down heavily on the request to celebrate Mass normally in the vernacular and urges pastors of souls to explain the meaning of the Eucharistic mystery during the celebration (cf. also can. 9). Certain preliminary observations on the significance of the canons concerning the Sacrifice of Mass are the object of Chapter IX that concludes the doctrinal content of the Document.

Although it is obvious that the Tridentine teaching on the Eucharist was prompted by the anxiety to confront the Eucharistic theology of the Reformation, it definitively established the essential content of the truth of this Sacrament.

The Second Vatican Council, which confronted other signs of the times four centuries later, was to have the task, consistent with Tridentine faith, of making the most of those aspects of the Eucharist which had not been explicitly and systematically addressed during that Council. These included for example, the specific participation of lay people and non-ordained Religious in the Sacrifice of Mass by virtue of their real, baptismal priesthood; this does not mean that the Tridentine Fathers were unaware of the existence, meaning and need for this participation.

In fact, in her constant exodus towards the Promised Land of Heaven, the Church never, at any specific moment on her pilgrimage, makes exhaustive pronouncements on the content or multiple implications of an article of faith, but, open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who tells her at every moment what to say, finds in the "Depositum fidei" that she has diligently preserved in accordance with God's will the necessary truth to forge ahead without ever losing her way, which her Lord and Master points out to her.


1 Cf. H. Denzinger - P. Hünermann, Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationumde rebus fidei et morum. Bilingual version of the 37th edition, EDB, Bologna (2004). I cite this work to justify the DH abbreviation.
2 Cf. J. Betz, La Eucharistía, Misterio Central, in Mysterium Salutis, Ed. Cristiandad, Madrid (1975), v. IV/2, p. 247.
3 Cf. H. Jedin, Historia del Concilio de Trento, Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona (1975), v. III, pp. 59-86; 403-436.
4 Cf. K. Rahner, La presencia de Cristo en el sacramentode la cena del Segnor, in Escritos de Teologia, Taurus Ediciones, Madrid (1964), t. IV, pp. 367-396.
5 Cf, Paul Vi, Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei, nn. 11, 46.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 September 2005, page 6

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