Transubstantiation: From Stumbling Block to Cornerstone

That’s the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here’s how it begins:

The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is a real stumbling block to some Protestants who are seriously considering Catholicism. It was for me too, until I explored the subject, historically and scripturally. What follows is a summary of my deliberations.

Catholicism holds that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated by the priest celebrating the Mass. Oftentimes non-Catholics get hung up on the term transubstantiation, the name for the philosophical theory that the Church maintains best accounts for the change at consecration. The Church’s explanation of transubstantiation was influenced by Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident.

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  • constantine

    The numerous historical and exegetical errors addressed here:


  • Francis J. Beckwith

    You must have put in the wrong link, constantine, since what I read at that destination is oddly beside the point.

    Consider, for example, this: “Second, it is unclear what relevance Beckwith thinks that the approval of Eastern-rite liturgies that don’t use the term.”

    I did not say the liturgies did not use the term, since that was not my point. I said that the liturgies are considered valid, even though each Church does not use the term (I had in mind their theologians; see, for example, the American Orthodox Church’s exposition on the Sacrament of the Eucharist). Here’s what I wrote: “Eastern Churches in communion with the Catholic Church rarely employ this Aristotelian language, and yet the Church considers their celebration of the Eucharist perfectly valid. Second, the Catholic Church maintains that the divine liturgies celebrated in the Eastern Churches not in communion with Rome (commonly called “Eastern Orthodoxy”) are perfectly valid as well, even though the Eastern Orthodox rarely employ the term transubstantiation.”

    The relevance is this: the Aristotelean formulation need not play a part in believing in Eucharistic realism, as the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the validity of the East’s Eucharistic celebrations indicates.

    The other confusion is between a conciliar articulation of a belief and the belief itself. Take, for example, the belief in the Incarnation. Suppose I showed you—by publishing quotes by a variety of Church Fathers as well as Scripture—that belief in the Incarnation can be found deep in Christian history and that the Chalcedonian formulation of it is a logical development of that belief. At that point, it would seem odd for someone to suggest that because what one finds at Chalcedon is far more elaborate than what one finds in Ignatius of Antioch, therefore, Chalcedon is mistaken, or that the prior beliefs are not relevant to establishing the plausibility of Chalcedon.

    As for the Eucharist, if the Early Church holds that the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ (and its liturgies clearly affirm this), and if Chalcedon is right about the nature of Christ–”the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity”–then ipso facto everything in Trent’s formulation is the case.

    Remember, Christian anthropology is not Cartesian anthropology. Except for between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Body and Blood of God’s Son is not separated from his divinity and soul. Hence, if one accepts Eucharistic realism then Trent’s formulation of it is eminently reasonable.

    Update: I am happy to report that I just discovered that St. Thomas Aquinas said something similar (pre-Trent):

    I answer that, It is absolutely necessary to confess according to Catholic faith that the entire Christ is in this sacrament. Yet we must know that there is something of Christ in this sacrament in a twofold manner: first, as it were, by the power of the sacrament; secondly, from natural concomitance. By the power of the sacrament, there is under the species of this sacrament that into which the pre-existing substance of the bread and wine is changed, as expressed by the words of the form, which are effective in this as in the other sacraments; for instance, by the words: “This is My body,” or, “This is My blood.” But from natural concomitance there is also in this sacrament that which is really united with that thing wherein the aforesaid conversion is terminated. For if any two things be really united, then wherever the one is really, there must the other also be: since things really united together are only distinguished by an operation of the mind.

    Reply to Objection 1. Because the change of the bread and wine is not terminated at the Godhead or the soul of Christ, it follows as a consequence that the Godhead or the soul of Christ is in this sacrament not by the power of the sacrament, but from real concomitance. For since the Godhead never set aside the assumed body, wherever the body of Christ is, there, of necessity, must the Godhead be; and therefore it is necessary for the Godhead to be in this sacrament concomitantly with His body. Hence we read in the profession of faith at Ephesus (P. I., chap. xxvi): “We are made partakers of the body and blood of Christ, not as taking common flesh, nor as of a holy man united to the Word in dignity, but the truly life-giving flesh of the Word Himself.”

    On the other hand, His soul was truly separated from His body, as stated above (Question 50, Article 5). And therefore had this sacrament been celebrated during those three days when He was dead, the soul of Christ would not have been there, neither by the power of the sacrament, nor from real concomitance. But since “Christ rising from the dead dieth now no more” (Romans 6:9), His soul is always really united with His body. And therefore in this sacrament the body indeed of Christ is present by the power of the sacrament, but His soul from real concomitance.

    Reply to Objection 2. By the power of the sacrament there is contained under it, as to the species of the bread, not only the flesh, but the entire body of Christ, that is, the bones the nerves, and the like. And this is apparent from the form of this sacrament, wherein it is not said: “This is My flesh,” but “This is My body.” Accordingly, when our Lord said (John 6:56): “My flesh is meat indeed,” there the word flesh is put for the entire body, because according to human custom it seems to be more adapted for eating, as men commonly are fed on the flesh of animals, but not on the bones or the like.

    Reply to Objection 3. As has been already stated (75, 5), after the consecration of the bread into the body of Christ, or of the wine into His blood, the accidents of both remain. From which it is evident that the dimensions of the bread or wine are not changed into the dimensions of the body of Christ, but substance into substance. And so the substance of Christ’s body or blood is under this sacrament by the power of the sacrament, but not the dimensions of Christ’s body or blood. Hence it is clear that the body of Christ is in this sacrament “by way of substance,” and not by way of quantity. But the proper totality of substance is contained indifferently in a small or large quantity; as the whole nature of air in a great or small amount of air, and the whole nature of a man in a big or small individual. Wherefore, after the consecration, the whole substance of Christ’s body and blood is contained in this sacrament, just as the whole substance of the bread and wine was contained there before the consecration.

  • tobias

    Dr. Beckwith,

    Thank you very much for this post. I’m a Protestest and a philosophy student (just a couple of hours from your university), and this really helps to clarify for me what the Catholic Church theologically and philosophically understands the Eucharist to be.

    The views of the early church notwithstanding (especially, as you might agree, since from the Protestant perspective the church fathers being wrong about Eucharistic realism is not out of the question), I suppose I still am held back by (1) the what seems to be brute philosophical tough-to-swallowness (excuse the pun) of accepting transubstantiation; and (2) the inclination to interpret the New Testament passages you cited as non-literal with respect to Christ’s body in the Eucharist (admittedly, probably largely due to (1)).

    But thanks again, Dr. Beckwith. Great post.

  • aryel

    John 6:35

    Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”

    At this point the crowd still understood Him to speak metaphorically (after all He does not look like a piece of bread). They only questioned His statement that He came down from heaven (verses 40-42). Jesus again summarised His previous statements (verses 44-50) and then stated that the bread of life is His flesh.

    John 6:51 (emphasis added)

    “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and THE BREAD WHICH I SHALL GIVE FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD IS MY FLESH.”

    From their reaction (verse 52), we know that His listeners understood Him to speak literally. They asked: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus gave even more emphasis on His statement when He solemnly said:

    John 6:53-58 (emphasis added)

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, UNLESS YOU EAT THE FLESH of the Son of man and DRINK HIS BLOOD, you have no life in you; he who EATS my FLESH and DRINKS my BLOOD has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. FOR MY FLESH IS FOOD INDEED, AND MY BLOOD IS DRINK INDEED.

    The early Church Fathers reaffirmed this fact who saw and heard the Apostles themselves that is why it is better to err with them than ideas of men 1,500 years later.


  • lojahw

    Dear Frank,

    It appears that I wore out my welcome at TheCatholicThing on this topic. Are you interested in serious dialogue on the subject?


  • lojahw

    Dear Frank,
    I had posted a question under your article on TCT about why/how transubstantiation differs from Christ’s presence promised in Matt. 18:20, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” Transubstantiation seems unnecessary.

    I also challenged Aquinas’ position vis-a-vis the Council of Chalcedon’s definition of the unique hypostatic union of the divine nature and human nature in Christ. He seems to teach a novel variation (ST, part 3, Q75, 1 ad 1):

    God “wedded His Godhead,” i.e. His Divine power, to the bread and wine, not that these may remain in this sacrament, but in order that He may make from them His body and blood.

    Yet the bishops of Chalcedon knew of no such “wedding” of the Godhead with bread and wine, but only of: “One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved.”

    Since the physical attributes of flesh and blood are part of the property of human nature preserved in the hypostatic union, transubstantiation appears to contradict the teaching of the Church.