I have been writing in this forum on some topics that, while important, are not the major focus in my academic work. I am, by trade, an ecumenist. I will be writing my doctoral dissertation on the question of Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist as a topic of ecumenical dialogue. In my first year of doctoral studies I was preparing a class presentation on the Eucharist with my professor when I casually mentioned Christ’s ‘physical presence’. She stopped me and said, “But Brett, that’s a heresy.”
After checking with her to make sure I understood where the problem lay, I was absolutely delighted. I knew that many Catholics would happily teach that Christ is ‘physically present’ and feel that they were accurately representing the Church. I also knew that this was a major stumbling block to our ecumenical partners who suspected that such a claim was nonsense. If it was not, in fact, appropriate for Catholics to refer to Christ’s presence in this way, then there was certainly room for ecumenical progress.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone who uses the term ‘physical’ to describe Christ’s Presence is a heretic. Many people use the term simply to emphasize the ‘reality’ of his presence while holding an altogether orthodox understanding. Still, this descriptor should not be used for at least two reasons. First of all, it concedes that reality is no more than materiality, something Catholics should have obvious problems with. Secondly, such an emphasis leads to a lot of confusion about what the Church actually means when it insists on Christ’s Presence. Take this letter to the editor in Catholic Insight Magazine from June 5, 2009. George Mealey of Edmonton, Alberta writes:
I did wish to tell you of the great sorrow, shame, hurt and yes, anger, that those who would preach the Gospel instruct and advise us that due to a flu epidemic, receiving the chalice might cause the recipient to become a victim of the sickness.
The teaching last Sunday, May 5, 2009 (the Sunday of The Good Shepherd), is that the Holy Mass is not really the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, but like in some other churches just a memorial ritual.
“This is My Blood,” according to last Sunday’s gospel, does not mean His Blood any longer.
Maybe it is time to stop worrying about what the President of the U.S. does or does not believe. Maybe it is time to stop parading and writing letters or sending e-mails to our government over Human Rights Legislation.
Maybe it is time to stand and really insist on what Our Lord’s Holy Church teaches and tells us of the truth of His Sacrament. If some people do not wish to believe it, there are other places for them. But for bishops and clergy to even hint that one might receive sickness from the chalice of Christ’s Holy Blood, consecrated by Him, is nothing short of “leaving the sheep as hired hands.”
Mr. Mealey, it must be said, does not believe in transubstantiation, but rather trans-accidentiation. The Church, and especially the work of Thomas Aquinas, is very clear that all of the accidents of bread and wine, including their ability to communicate disease, remain after the consecration. To deny this is at least fideism, where one acknowledges something that is irrational because one erroneously believes that the Church insists upon it, and maybe even full-blown capharnaism, named for the Jews at Capernaum who misunderstood Jesus and asked, “What, will this man give us his flesh to eat?”
There is much hand wringing in the Church today about lack of faith in the Real Presence. Many people are willing to accept such nonsense as that exhibited by Mr. Mealey, just as long as Real Presence is verbally affirmed. It is a much bigger problem, these people tell me, that many reject the Real Presence than that some who accept it are caught up in material heresy. When you go about making your fine theological distinctions about Church teaching, they continue, you are just contributing to the problem.
This is not only silly; it is dangerous. Of course, not every Christian will understand every doctrine that she or he affirms. Nevertheless, suggesting that fervent affirmations of falsely understood Church teaching can supply for theological precision, especially when the material heretics are trying to excommunicate the orthodox, indicates that what you value isn’t faith proper, but an un-Catholic form of obedience that is unrelated to truth. It places voluntarist fervor above the first theological virtue. Furthermore, it ignores the obvious fact that the reason many Catholics do not profess belief in the doctrine of the Real Presence is because they think it means exactly what Mr. Mealey thinks it means. The only difference is that he is a fideist and they are not.
If those who emphasize Christ’s Real Presence were not presenting Church teaching in such an unorthodox way, far fewer Catholics would see it as nonsensical. It is not surprising that many Catholics cannot accept transubstantiation as some sort of magic trick. They shouldn’t. It is a scandal to insist that “If some people don’t wish to believe it, there are other places for them,” when the ‘it’ in question is material heresy. If someone is going to reject Christ’s Real Presence, let him or her do so because of the real scandal of the Eucharist: that we believe Christ is changing the whole of creation (including ourselves) into his glorified body, bread first.
[Incidentally, I have numerous examples that indicate an understanding similar to Mr. Mealey’s. The problem is widespread. Nevertheless, the vast majority of my examples are anecdotal. In other words, they won’t do much to convince people who don’t think that this is a real problem. I would be very grateful if my readers would direct me to any other published pieces that indicate a belief in what I have called ‘trans-accidentiation.’]
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.