On Transubstantiation

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


On Transubstantiation

By Father Edward McNamara

Rome, 19 April 2016 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.


Q: I have a question about transubstantiation. I’m trying to understand more fully our Church’s teaching that after the consecration the substance of the bread and wine cease to exist, but the accidents remain. If I understand it correctly, after the consecration the substance of the host becomes Jesus, but the accidents of bread (the taste/feel/smell) remain? I would have thought that the gluten in the host is a substance of the bread, but since it remains present after the consecration, does that mean it’s an accident of the bread? Similarly, I would have thought that the alcohol in the wine is a substance, but since it remains present after the consecration, it must be an accident of the wine? — C.M., Beaverton, Ontario

A: Our reader is not the first to struggle with the concepts of substance and accident, especially as referred to the Eucharist. Many other Christians, including the occasional bishop and theologian, have difficulties in grasping the concepts.

This difficulty stems in part because the concepts seem to derive from Aristotelian metaphysics. Those of us who have been formed in Thomistic Aristotelian philosophy know that this rigorous search for understanding the truth of being can be a taxing affair.

And yet, in spite of the similarity of terms, it is necessary to affirm that, in referring to the Eucharist, the Church does not use the terms substance and accident in their philosophical contexts but in the common and ordinary sense in which they were first used many centuries ago. The dogma of transubstantiation does not embrace any philosophical theory in particular.

The earliest uses of the term “substance” in referring to the Eucharist precede by several centuries the introduction of Aristotelian thought into theology in the 13th century. The earliest use of the term is from the fifth or sixth centuries. The words transubstantiate and transubstantiation are found in the 11th and 12th centuries in theological debate. Among the earliest use of these terms in the magisterium was the profession of faith regarding the Real Presence imposed by the Pope in 1078 on a theologian called Berengarius who held erroneous beliefs:

“I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance.”

Here the fundamental doctrine regarding the Eucharistic change is clearly articulated, although later theological developments would make the language more precise. The important point with regard to our question on substance is that the word is not taken in the technical Aristotelian sense but refers simply to the reality of the bread and wine being no longer present and being wholly substituted by the reality of Christ in his entirety.

The use of the word “accident” was introduced later by Scholastic theologians. One of the first uses of the term accident in the magisterium was during the Council of Constance. Among many other issues, this Council condemned in 1415 the doctrine of John Wyclif. Of the 45 condemned theses, the Eucharistic propositions were:

“1. The material substance of bread, and similarly the material substance of wine, remain in the sacrament of the altar.

“2. The accidents of bread do not remain without their subject in the said sacrament.

“3. Christ is not identically and really present in the said sacrament in his own bodily persona.”

The Council used the word “accidents” basically because Wyclif, in line with the Scholastic theology of the time, commonly used this term. It did not constitute an official adoption by the Church of Aristotelian philosophy. This does not mean that the term accident cannot be legitimately used in Eucharistic theology. Rather, it means that it is not used in the technical sense of Aristotelian metaphysics.

Indeed, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) did not use the word accident but “species” (appearances) when referring to the Eucharistic change. Substance is the basic reality of bread as opposed to the appearances. Trent’s doctrine is presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 1376:

“The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: ‘Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.'”

Therefore, Trent defines that the bread and wine ceases to be bread and wine although what we directly perceive, the appearances, remain the same so that there is no perceptible change.

When speaking of the, species (appearances), or accidents, the Church does not refer just to what is visible but to all that could in any way be experienced as external aspects of bread and wine such as touch, taste, size and smell. It also embraces the effects that bread and wine have on the body. Thus a priest who happens to use too much altar wine early in the morning is likely to feel a bit lightheaded, and the celiac could become ill by receiving the host.

In addressing our reader’s question we can say that we have seen that it is unnecessary to enter into a long discussion regarding what constitutes the substance and what the accidents of bread and wine, as these are philosophical questions. However, because the Church affirms that everything that goes into making bread and wine what they are is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, therefore, at least from the point of view of Eucharistic theology, the alcohol content of wine and the gluten in bread form part of the appearances or accidents.

This is a distinct, albeit related, question from that of what constitutes valid matter for the sacrament. We have discussed this topic on several occasions with respect to low gluten hosts and the qualities for altar wine and mustum (for example, on September 14 and 28, 2004; June 7, 2005; June 13 and 27, 2006; January 27, 2009).

* * *

Follow-up: On Transubstantiation [5-3-2016]

Several readers wrote regarding the question of transubstantiation (see April 19). One, a qualified philosopher, wrote to explain how the doctrine of transubstantiation can fit into Aristotelian philosophy. Although, as I said in the original article, it is not necessary to adopt this system, I believe that his explanation will help clarify some doubts expressed by other readers based on the difficulty that many have today with respect to terms such as substance and accidents which have changed over time and which can cause confusion. To wit: 

“Although I concede that the use of the word substance in transubstantiation precedes the introduction of Aristotle’s works to Western Europe, I do not think there is anything that impedes our understanding the term in the Aristotelian sense. 

“For Aristotle, ‘substance’ (or ‘ousia’ in his original Greek) answers the question ‘What is it?’ In fact, sometimes in his corpus, he simply uses the interrogative ‘What is it?’ as if it were a noun (‘ho ti estí’). He goes on to specify that substance is, using his celebrated expression, ‘to ti en einai,’ or roughly, ‘what something is simply because it exists’ (i.e., not regarding what it does or what properties it has).

“Hence both ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ easily qualify as substances in the Aristotelian sense, as do the two natures of our Lord. (The human nature qualifies univocally; the divine nature, analogically.) Bread and wine, for instance, both exhibit what is called ‘substantial unity’: in other words, neither one can be reduced, conceptually speaking, to its constituent parts. Or said in a different way, you cannot mix gluten and starch, and call it ‘bread’; it has to be ground from wheat (or some other grain), moistened and baked, and the result of the baking is qualitatively different from the components that were mixed. Similarly, wine does not reduces to the tartaric, malic, and citric acids, tannins, glycerine and alcohol (among other compounds) that make it up.

“Keep in mind that Aristotle was not trying to invent a new meaning for the word ‘ousia,’ (the Scholastic ‘substance’ or ‘essence’), but rather sought to express the common-sense meaning in a philosophical rigorous way. In any case, St. Thomas Aquinas clearly feels that the Aristotelian ‘substance’ can be used to understand transubstantiation (e.g., in S.Th. III, q. 75, a. 4, end of the responsum).

“So, to answer the reader’s question in this light, I would say that gluten is not strictly speaking a ‘substance’ of the bread (such an idea is quite foreign to Aristotle’s notion of substance); it is, rather a component (in technical terms, an ‘integral part’) of that substance. It is one of the constituent elements, out of which the properties of the bread emerge—especially its ‘qualities’: its color, shape, taste, smell, mass, chemical properties, and so forth.

“In fact, with Aquinas, we can go a step further: Aquinas specifies that, in a material substance (i.e., not angels, and not the spiritual part of man), the rest of the accidents (quality, place, duration, and so forth) all have the quantity (the physical dimensions) as their ‘subject’ or substrate. For instance, color (a quality) does not make sense unless it is ‘located’ somewhere on the colored thing. At least conceptually, the substance first has to have a physical dimensions, then a shape, and only then a color, resistance, taste, smell, and so forth. The physical dimensions (‘quantity’), therefore, serve as the ‘support’ for all the rest of the physical properties.

“Applying this model (which I think is very much valid), while taking into account our modern scientific understanding, it follows that the chemical composition of a substance is actually one of its accidental forms (albeit one not conceived of by Aristotle or Aquinas, who obviously knew nothing about chemistry, quantum mechanics, etc.); hence, it is not at all a problem to say that that the Eucharist is constituted chemically by gluten and starch (and whatever other compounds are found in bread). 

“If, say, someone were to take iodine tincture and drop it on a consecrated host (which I hope no one will ever do), the tincture would turn black or dark blue (as it reacts with the starch), just as it would if the host were not consecrated.

“I suspect that the reader is actually thinking of the term ‘substance,’ not in Aristotle’s sense, but in the modern, physical and chemical sense—which is generally synonymous with the chemical components or ‘matter’ that make physical objects up. But Aristotle’s concept is quite different from that, and closer to the common-sense idea of ‘whole thing’ or ‘whole object.’

“In short, then, for an Aristotelian, gluten, when it is a component of a bone fide substance such as bread, would actually be one of the accidental forms (i.e., an accident) of that substance, contributing to its chemical properties, which are also accidents. A similar thing can be said of the alcohol in wine.”

This explanation should clarify some points regarding the concepts of substance and accidents, although it must be admitted that the terms, especially that of accident, are easily taken out of context and considered as something random and unimportant. The above explanation refers above all to the status of the bread and wine before consecration. After the consecration nothing of the bread and wine remains. Here, however, we are before a miracle. One reader, quoting Ludwig Ott, correctly says that God as first cause can “preserve the accidents of bread and wine in their real being after the cessation of the substance of the bread and wine.” This would normally be impossible from a philosophical point of view but we are before a great mystery.

One reader suggested a biblical approach because these terms are difficult. Scripture can certainly enlighten us although sometimes the correct interpretation of the texts can be a conundrum as well. There are good reasons why the magisterium has often recurred to non-biblical expressions to explain the faith even though the faith is always rooted in Revelation.

Finally, a correspondent asked: “If Jesus’ true body and true blood are in the host that we consume at the time of holy Eucharist, I still do not quite understand Pope Benedict and Pope Francis insisting that those who believe in the true presence of Jesus body and blood in the host that they consume are not cannibals. Of course, I believe this, but could you please explain this more clearly?”

This was the mistake made by those present in Capernaum (John 6:61) and the early Christians were accused of practicing this aberration.

Actually a biblical approach would probably be the best way to understand this particular point, but the theme is too vast for me to engage here. With the Scripture we could understand the background underlying expressions such as “the bread from heaven,” “the paschal lamb,” and “blood of the covenant” in relation to the Eucharist. It would also mean delving into books such as Revelation with its liturgical images. For example, in Jewish belief, the essential aspect of eating the Passover supper was participation in the sacrifice which renewed the covenant by performing a memorial service.

In an analogous way Catholics believe that we do not receive a dead lamb as our holy food but the gift of the living risen Christ who offers himself to us. Cannibalism implies death, the Eucharist is life. Christ can become our food under the signs that he has chosen to give himself so that we can participate in his sacrifice. In receiving his Passover we receive his life and in doing so renew the definitive and eternal covenant that makes us the new people of God.

I am aware that this answer is approximate, but I hope it might serve at least to waylay applying the idea of cannibalism to the Eucharist. 

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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