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Eucharist / Transubstantiation

The priesthood has unparalleled importance in Catholic doctrine, based primarily on Eucharistic theology. The miracle of transubstantiation is the linchpin for the power of the priesthood. Eucharist (from the Greek for thanksgiving) is the name given to the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar under its twofold aspect of sacrament and Sacrifice of the Mass, and in which, whether as sacrament or sacrifice, Jesus Christ is truly and actually present under the appearances of bread and wine. The Church honors the Eucharist as one of her most exalted mysteries, since for sublimity and incomprehensibility it yields in nothing to the allied mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation. These three mysteries constitute a wonderful triad, which causes the essential characteristic of Catholic Christianity, as a religion of mysteries far transcending the capabilities of reason, to shine forth in all its brilliance and splendor, and elevates Catholicism, the most faithful guardian and keeper of Christian heritage, far above all pagan and non-Christian religions.

According to Catholic teaching, it is the Church alone, "the pillar and ground of truth", imbued with and directed by the Holy Spirit, that guarantees to her children through her infallible teaching the full and unadulterated revelation of God. Consequently, it is the first duty of Catholics to adhere to what the Church proposes as the "proximate norm of faith" (regula fidei próxima), which, in reference to the Eucharist, is set forth in a particularly clear and detailed manner in Sessions XIII, XXI, and XXII of the Council of Trent [1545-1563]. The quintessence of these doctrinal decisions consists in this, that in the Eucharist the Body and Blood of the God-man are truly, really; and substantially present for the nourishment of souls, by reason of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

In a 2010 survey, the Pew Center found that "About half of those polled (52%) say, incorrectly, that Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine used for Communion are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. Just four-in-ten people correctly answer that, according to the Catholic Church, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. Even many Catholics are unaware of their church’s teaching on this topic; while 55% of Catholics get the question right, more than four-in-ten Catholics (41%) say the church teaches that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, and 3% say they do not know what the church’s teaching is."

Garry Wills, one of America's most noted writers and historians, a distinguished historian and critic, is the author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine, and the best-selling Why I Am a Catholic. Wills spent five years as a young man at a Jesuit seminary and nearly became a priest himself. In his 2013 book Why Priests?, Wills asserts that the anonymous Letter to Hebrews, a late addition to the New Testament canon, helped inject the priesthood into a Christianity where it did not exist, along with such concomitants as belief in an apostolic succession, the ransom theory of redemption, the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass, and the real presence in the Eucharist.

Wills argues against "the claim that has set priests apart from all other human beings, their unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. On this claim the entire sacramental structure of the medieval church was built up. The priesthood stands or falls with that claim."

The term transubstantiation seems to have been first used by Hildebert of Tours (about 1079). His encouraging example was soon followed by other theologians, as Stephen of Autun (d. 1139), Gaufred (1188), and Peter of Blois (d. about 1200), whereupon several ecumemical councils also adopted this significant expression, as the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), and the Council of Lyons (1274), in the profession of faith of the Greek Emperor Michael Palseologus. The Council of Trent (Sess. XIII. cap. iv ; can. ii) not only accepted as an inheritance of faith the truth contained in the idea, but authoritatively confirmed the "aptitude of the term" to express most strikingly the legitimately developed doctrinal concept.

That the consequence of Transubstantiation, as a conversion of the total substance, is the transition of the entire substance of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, is the express doctrine of the Church (Council of Trent, Sess. XIII, can. ii). Thus were condemned as contrary to faith the view of Durandus, that only the substantial form (forma subslantialis) of the bread underwent conversion, while the primary matter (materia prima) remained, and, especially, Luther's doctrine of Consubstantiation, i. e. the coexistence of the substance of the bread with the true Body of Christ. Thus, too, the theory of Impanation advocated by Osiander and certain Berengarians, and according to which a hypostatic union is supposed to take place between the substance of the bread and the God-man, is authoritatively rejected.

The dogma of the Real Presence remained, properly speaking, unmolested down to the time of the heretic Berengarius of Tours (d. 1088), and so could claim even at that time the uninterrupted possession of ten centuries. In the course of the dogma's history there arose in general three great Eucharistic controversies, the first of which, begun by Paschasius Radbertus, in the ninth century, scarcely extended beyond the limits of his audience and concerned itself solely with the philosophical question, whether the Eucharistic Body of Christ is identical with the natural Body He had in Palestine and now has in heaven. Such a numerical identity could well have been denied by Ratramnus, Rabanus Maurus, Ratherius, Lanfranc, and others.

The first occasion for an official procedure on the part of the Church was offered when Berengarius of Tours, influenced by the writings of Scotus Eriugena (d. about 884), the first opponent of the Real Presence, rejected both the latter truth and that of Transubstantiation. He repaired, however, the public scandal he had given by a sincere retractation made in the presence of Pope Gregory VII at a synod held in Rome in 1079, and died reconciled to the Church.

The present doctrine of the Church, though it had made its appearance in the world as early as the ninth century, had no authoritative recognition until the Fourth Council of Lateran, AD 1215. It is found in one of the Constitutions composed by Innocent III., and by him laid before that Council; but, since these Constitutions were not made in the Council. But Sestus, Professor of Divinity of Oxford in 1301, called the Subtle Doctor, said that before the Council of Lateran, Transubstantiation was not an article of faith. He also maintained that there was no place of Scripture express enough to prove that dogma without Church authority.

The third and the sharpest controversy was that opened by the Reformation in the sixteenth century, in regard to which it must be remarked that Luther was the only one among the Reformers who still clung to the old Catholic doctrine, and, though subjecting it to manifold misrepresentations, defended it most tenaciously. He was diametrically opposed by Zwingli of Zurich, who reduced the Eucharist to symbol. Having gained over to his views such friendly contemporary partisans as Carlstadt, Bucer, and Ecolampadius, he later on secured influential allies in the Arminians, Mennonites, Socinians, and Anglicans.

The earliest doctrinal formulary of a Reformed Church is that known as 'the Confession of Augsburgh.' It was the work of Melanchthon, revised by Luther and other divines, and was presented to the Diet at Augsburgh in 1530. Article x. Of the Lord's Supper, [according to one translation] states "Of the Lord's Supper we teach thus :—That the body and blood of Christ are there spiritually present, and are given and administered under the external signs of Bread and Wine." But another translation reads that "the body and blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those eating in the Supper of the Lord." To a great extent the Confession of Augsburgh suggested the several Confessions of Faith published by different Reformed National Churches in that century. But in the case of the English Church it had a more direct influence on the Articles, which borrowed from it some considerable portion of their theological statements.

Bucer, who had so much influence in England in the reign of Edward VI, Oswald Myconius, and other eminent men, enunciated the doctrine of the Spiritual Presence of Christ to believers in the Lord's Supper, as opposed to his corporal presence in or with the elements, and to the notion of the Sacrament being a mere commemorative sign. This doctrine speedily prevailed through all those sections of Reformed Christendom which were not avowedly Lutheran. Thenceforward writers acknowledged two main divisions in Protestant Christianity, the Lutheran and the Reformed, the dividing line being manifestly their adherence to the spiritual as against the corporal presence. The reception of this doctrine in the English Church was due in the first place to Ridley, who satisfied himself by independent historical and scriptural enquiry as to its antiquity and truth.

The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England of 1571 include Article 28 - The Lord's Supper "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of bread and wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Scripture, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthrows the nature of a Sacrament, and has given occasion to many superstitions. The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner."

The 25 articles found in the Methodist Discipline were selected in 1784 by John Wesley from the thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Article XVIII "Of the Lord’s Supper" of John Wesley’s 25 Articles states "Transubstantiation, or the change of the substance of bread and wine in the Supper of our Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner."

The Council of Trent [1545-1563] met the widely divergent errors of the Reformation with the dogmatic definition, that the God-man is "truly, really, and substantially" present under the appearances of bread and wine, purposely intending thereby to oppose the expression of Zwingli. And this teaching of the Council of Trent has ever been and is now the unwavering position of the whole of Catholic Christendom.

Since Luther restricted the Real Presence to the moment of reception (in usu, non extra), the Council of Trent (Sess. XIII, can. iv) by a special canon emphasized the fact, that immediately after the Consecration Christ is truly present and, consequently, does not make His Presence dependent upon the act of eating or drinking. On the contrary, He continues His Eucharistic Presence even in the consecrated Hosts and Sacred particles that remain on the altar or in the ciborium after the distribution of Holy Communion. In the deposit of faith the Real Presence and the Permanence of Presence are so closely allied, that in the mind of the Church both continue on as an undivided whole. And rightly so; for just as Christ promised His Flesh and Blood as meat and drink, i. e. as something permanent (cf. John, vi, 50 sqq.), so, when He said: "Take ye, and eat. This is my body", the Apostles received from the hand of the Lord His Sacred Body, which was already objectively present and did not first become so in the act of partaking. This non-dependence of the Real Presence upon the actual reception is manifested very clearly in the case of the Chalice, when Christ said: "Drink ye all of this. For [enim] this is my Blood." Here the act of drinking is evidently neither the cause nor the conditio sine qua non for the presence of Christ's Blood.

So the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation sets up a mighty bulwark around the dogma of the Real Presence and constitutes in itself a distinct doctrinal article, which is not involved in that of the Real Presence, though the doctrine of the Real Presence is necessarily contained in that of Transubstantiation. It was for this very reason that Pius VI, in his dogmatic Bull "Auctorem fidei" (1794) against the Jansenistic pseudo-Synod of Pistoia (1786), protested most vigorously against suppressing this "scholastic question", as the synod had advised pastors to do.

In the mind of the Church, Transubstantiation has been so intimately bound up with the Real Presence, that both dogmas have been handed down together from generation to generation. When, therefore, He Who is All Truth and All Power said of the bread: "This is my body", the bread became, through the utterance of these words, the Body of Christ; consequently, on the completion of the sentence the substance of bread was no longer present, but the Body of Christ under the outward appearance of bread. Hence the bread must have become the Body of Christ, i. e. the former must have been converted into the latter. The words of Institution were at the same time the words of Transubstantiation. Indeed the actual manner in which the absence of the bread and the presence of the Body of Christ is effected, is not read into the words of Institution but strictly and exegetically deduced from them.

Regarding tradition, the earliest witnesses, as Tertullian and Cyprian, could hardly have given any particular consideration to the genetic relation of the natural elements of bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ, or to the manner in which the former were converted into the latter; for even Augustine was deprived of a clear conception of Transubstantiation, so long as he was held in the bonds of Platonism. On the other hand, complete clearness on the subject had been attained by writers as early as Cyril of Jerusalem, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria in the East, and by Ambrose and the later Latin writers in the West. Eventually the West became the classic home of scientific perfection in the difficult doctrine of Transubstantiation.



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