The oblations of bread and wine are placed on the altar. The celebrant offers the prayer of thanksgiving. The narrative of institution is recited. The Holy Spirit is invoked. The Holy Gifts are distributed, and to each communicant is spoken the remarkable words of the gospel: “the Body of Christ,” “the Blood of Christ.”
But what do these words mean? What has happened to the bread and wine? What is the relationship between the consecrated elements and the Body and Blood of Christ? In response to these questions the theologians of the medieval Latin Church proposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. The most influential formulation of this doctrine has been that of St Thomas Aquinas. Yet as influential as Thomas’s formulation has been, many modern Catholic theologians have not been content to recite by rote the views of the Angelic Doctor. Fr Herbert McCabe, O.P., is one such theologian.
All Catholic presentations of the doctrine of transubstantiation must navigate, says McCabe, between two errors—between memorialism and chemical transformation. The memorialist view asserts that the bread and wine become signs or tokens that remind us of Christ and thus function as a focus for faith. The oblations are not ontologically changed. They are not different from the ordinary food and drink of which we partake every day; but they have now assumed a specific role and meaning within the ritual of the Supper. The chemical-transformationist view, on the other hand, asserts that the bread and wine have quite literally ceased to be bread and wine. They have become the physical Body and Blood of Christ, now disguised as food and drink, perhaps to make their consumption more palatable. A chemical analysis might reveal the material change, but if not, this is only because God is supernaturally preventing us from seeing what in fact now exists, appearances to the contrary.
Against these two errors Roman Catholic doctrine asserts the radical transformation of the bread and wine at the deepest level of existence. The bread and wine have indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. The consecrated elements are thus no longer literally described as bread and wine, not because they have ceased to be food and drink, but because they are now food and drink in the most profound sense possible. They are now the food of the kingdom. We must distinguish, suggests McCabe, two questions: If we ask, “How is Christ present in the Eucharist?” then we must answer, he is present because the bread and wine have become his body. If we ask, “How is Christ’s body present?” then we must answer, his body is present to us sacramentally. Thus McCabe: “‘This is the body of Christ’ says how Christ is present to us. ‘This is the sacrament of Christ’s body’ says how his body is present to us” (God Matters, p. 117). The risen Christ becomes truly present to us in our present reality; but he does so not by changing the bread and wine into a different kind of stuff but by changing them into the effective symbols of his eschatological reality. The eucharistic bread and wine have become the language of God.
Aquinas is often accused of Aristotelianizing the eucharistic transformation. On the contrary, responds McCabe. Aristotle could not have made any more sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation than he could have made sense of the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo—and for the same reason. In the thought of Aristotle, to make is to actualize the potentialities of something. It always makes sense to ask what something is made of or what something is made out of. A person might make something by changing its accidental properties (I can paint my car a different color but it still remains a car), or he might make something by effecting an alteration of substance (I can chop down a tree, cut up the wood and fashion it into a cabinet)—the absurdity of speaking of the divine Creator as making the universe from out of nothing, for there ain’t nothing from which or out of which the universe may be made. “If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it,” McCabe explains. “To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 2, ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything” (p. 147). The creation of the universe does not make a difference to anything. At this point the philosophy of Aristotle explodes:
So Aristotle gives us an interesting analysis of coming into existence by substantial change, but had no notion of creation. St Thomas, however, believing in creation, believed in a new and different kind of bringing into existence. He thought there was a kind of cause which did not merely give a new form to the matter of already existing perishable things, but simply brought things into being when there was nothing there before. The creative act of God does not just deal in the forms of things—making one kind of thing into an individual of another kind with a different form. It gives sheer existence to the whole thing. Causes within nature give things the form by which they have existence; God gives things existence itself. God is the reason why there is a world of natural causality; and every natural cause can only give existence because it is an instrument of the Creator, the source of all existence. (God Still Matters, p. 119)
Transubstantiation involves something analogous to the creatio ex nihilo, argues McCabe. It is a changing that occurs at a radically deeper level than that of accident or substance; it is a re-creation that occurs at the level of existence itself:
The bread does not turn into the body by acquiring a new form in its matter; the whole existence of the bread becomes the existence of the living body of Christ. The body is not made out of the bread, as ashes are made out of paper by burning it (a chemical change). Something has happened as profoundly different from chemical change as creation is. It is not that the bread has become a new kind of thing in this world; it now belongs to a new world. As far as this world is concerned, nothing seems to have happened, but in fact what we have is not part of this world. It is the kingdom impinging on our history and showing itself not by appearing in the world but by signs speaking to it. … The change is so tremendous that it is quite imperceptible. In fact, St Thomas says it is not a change (mutatio) at all, for such a change means a re-adjustment of our world—as when one thing is altered or changes into something else. This clearly makes a perceptible difference. But transubstantiation is not a change, just as creation is not a change. What the bread has become is the body of Christ, which is to say the kingdom itself—for Christ does not inhabit the kingdom, he, his body, his human way of communicating with other humans, is the kingdom of God. Now the kingdom, the glorified body of Christ, is not something that could be seen within our world as part of our world; if it is to be manifest among us it can only be by signs, by sacramental signs. And this is just what the Eucharist is. (pp. 119-120)
A change that is no change. A change that makes no difference. Aquinas employs the language of Aristotle to speak of divine creation and transubstantiation, but in both cases he breaks the language to speak of things of which our language cannot speak. We are confronted with mystery that transcends human comprehension. Hence McCabe acknowledges that traditional formulations of the eucharistic conversion as “substantial change” can be misleading. The change that occurs is not, according to Aristotelian categories, a substantial change at all. It is a change that occurs at a deeper metaphysical level:
The Eucharist is not a question of the substance of bread becoming the substance of a human body (this kind of substantial change is familiar enough and takes place whenever we eat a slice of bread); it is a miraculous transformation at a deeper level, which Aquinas compares to creation, in which the esse (the existence) of this piece of bread and this cup of wine becomes the esse of Christ. This transformation of a substance into another particular existent, as distinct from a different kind of thing (as in ordinary substantial change) would have been completely unintelligible to Aristotle as, of course, was the notion of creation and, indeed, the whole notion of esse in Aquinas’s sense. (pp. 125-126)
Aquinas famously analyzed the eucharistic conversion in terms of substance and accidents, and the Council of Trent appropriated his analysis in its Decree on the Holy Eucharist. The Council declared that under the appearances (species) of bread and wine Christ truly offers his Body and Blood. To make sense of this teaching it is helpful to understand the difference between appearances and signs. The appearances of something are the accidental properties and characteristics by which we recognize things as what they are—size, color, taste, shape, and so on. Appearances show us things; signs tell us things. Appearances, in themselves, never deceive. We may exploit appearances to deceive, or we may deceive ourselves by drawing false inferences; but the way an object appears to us never deceives. It simply is. Signs, on the other hand, are part of language. They speak to us; they communicate to us; they tell us things about things. Signs can also be employed to deceive—we call it lying.
When St Thomas declares that by consecration the accidents of the bread and wine have ceased to be the appearances of bread and wine, this does not mean that they have become the appearances of something else. They have ceased, rather, to function as appearances at all. Here, McCabe believes, is where many people misunderstand the doctrine of transubstantiation. When folks hear the Church declaring that the substance of the bread and wine has been converted into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood, while leaving the accidents intact, they draw the conclusion that the accidents have now become the deceptive appearances of the Body and Blood. But the critical point is that the accidents no longer operate and exist in the way they used to:
There is, then, a lot of difference between the appearance which simply shows you a thing and signs which are part of telling you something about it. I labour this point because it is an important part of St Thomas’s teaching on the Eucharist that the accidents of bread and wine cease to be the appearances of bread and wine, but this is not because they become the misleading appearances of something else. They cease to function as appearances at all, they have become signs, sacramental signs through which what is signified is made real.
Before the consecration the appearances were there because the bread was there; they were just the appearances of the bread. After the consecration it is the other way around; the body of Christ is sacramentally there because what were the appearances of bread (and are now sacramental signs), are there. So with unconsecrated bread the accidents can remain (and vary) so long as the bread still exists: how very bizarre if they were to stay on (like the Cheshire cat’s grin) when what they are accidents of isn’t there. But after the consecration the Body of Christ is sacramentally present just as long as the signs are there. The important consequence of this is that these signs are not the appearances of Christ’s body: they are no longer the appearances of anything. The colour and shape of the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body; the location of the host, its being on the altar does not mean that Christ’s body is located on the altar; the fact that the host is moved about, say in procession, does not mean that Christ’s body is being moved about. When we do things to the host, such as eating it, we are not doing anything to Christ’s body. What we are doing is completing the significance of the signs. For bread and wine are meant to be eaten and drunk, to be our food; and food, eating, and drinking together is, even in our secular lives, a sign expressing friendship and unity. This is why Jesus chose it to be the sign which would tell us of the real sacramental presence of his body given for us and his blood poured out for us—the body of Christ which is more deeply our food, our “bread and wine,” than is the ordinary bread and wine with which we began. (p. 118)
This change from appearance to sacramental sign must not be considered as merely conventional, as if we, the Church, have assigned a different role and meaning to the bread and wine. As we observed above, the eucharistic change occurs at the deepest level of existence. When God deems the eucharistic objects as his Body and Blood, then they indeed become and are his Body and Blood. “The notion of transubstantiation,” McCabe writes, “depends on the idea that there can be a kind of transformation in what it means to exist which is not simply a change in what it is that exists” (God Matters, p. 150).
And this brings us to the most controversial assertion of the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, the assertion that the bread and wine no longer exist as bread and wine. What can this mean? After all, the objects have not experienced any physical, chemical, or material changes. When the Church declares, “this is not bread,” she is not saying that it is now zinc or disguised human flesh. By all normal criteria, the consecrated bread is no different than unconsecrated bread. But the critical point is that the normal criteria are no longer relevant to the proper determination of the identity of the Holy Gifts. Something has happened which can be neither humanly understood nor adequately expressed in human language:
It is not that God tricks us—so that while all our criteria for decision make us think that it is bread, he has secretly switched the ‘inner reality’ to make it zinc or flesh. On the contrary the consecration is God’s quite public announcement that there these criteria no longer apply. It makes no more sense to ask whether this is bread than to ask whether God is bread—of course both these questions could be asked within the realm of metaphor. It appears that we have here a fit subject for our ordinary criteria. It is only because we have faith in the consecrating word of God that we know the criteria cannot sensibly be applied. If we did not know this we would make the mistake of applying them (as the unbeliever does) and then naturally we would say that this is bread and not anything else.
I am suggesting that the consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which the questions of whether it is bread cannot relevantly be asked; our language breaks down when we try to speak of it, just as it does in the case of God. What happens at the consecration is not that the proper description of the host shifts within our language (from “bread” to “Body of Christ”) but that it no longer becomes possible to give an account of it within our language at all. (p. 152)
To continue to describe the eucharistic elements as literally bread and wine is to fail to recognize the radical change that has occurred. It is to misdescribe them. It is to treat “the appearances as accidents of bread when really they are the divine sacramental signs of Christ’s body” (God Still Matters, p. 121). We may and will, of course, continue to speak metaphorically of the Holy Gifts as “bread” and “wine,” just as Scripture and liturgy do; but the doctrine of transubstantiation reminds us of the peculiar use of our language at this point.
Is this the best way to speak of the eucharistic mystery? Fr McCabe readily acknowledges that future theologians may well offer superior analyses and presentations. But he avers that all such analyses must respect the following rule: “Anything which seems to take the scandal or mystery out of the Eucharist must be wrong, whether it be couched in terms of substance or meaning” (p. 117).
(This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 28 February 2008)