Frank Sheed on Transubstantiation

Frank Sheed on Transubstantiation March 4, 2010

I have recently invested some effort in trying to convey the doctrine of transubstantiation in the comment thread following a recent post on the Eucharist.  Then I found this and thought, “Why do I even waste my time?”  Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sheed could just plain write:

At this stage, we must be content with only the simplest statement of the meaning of, and distinction between substance and accidents, without which we should make nothing at all of transubstantiation. We shall concentrate upon bread, reminding ourselves once again that what is said applies in principle to wine as well.

We look at the bread the priest uses in the Sacrament. It is white, round, soft. The whiteness is not the bread, it is simply a quality that the bread has; the same is true of the roundness and the softness. There is something there that has these and other properties, qualities, attributes–the philosophers call all of them accidents. Whiteness and roundness we see; softness brings in the sense of touch. We might smell bread, and the smell of new bread is wonderful, but once again the smell is not the bread, but simply a property. The something which has the whiteness, the softness, the roundness, has the smell; and if we try another sense, the sense of taste, the same something has that special effect upon our palate.

In other words, whatever the senses perceive–even with the aid of those instruments men are forever inventing to increase the reach of the senses–is always of this same sort, a quality, a property, an attribute; no sense perceives the something which has all these qualities, which is the thing itself. This something is what the philosophers call substance; the rest are accidents which it possesses. Our senses perceive accidents; only the mind knows the substance. This is true of bread, it is true of every created thing. Left to itself, the mind assumes that the substance is that which, in all its past experience, has been found to have that particular group of accidents. But in these two instances, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the mind is not left to itself. By the revelation of Christ it knows that the substance has been changed, in the one case into the substance of his body, in the other into the substance of his blood.

The senses can no more perceive the new substance resulting from the consecration than they could have perceived the substance there before. We cannot repeat too often that senses can perceive only accidents, and consecration changes only the substance. The accidents remain in their totality–for example, that which was wine and is now Christ’s blood still has the smell of wine, the intoxicating power of wine. One is occasionally startled to find some scientist claiming to have put all the resources of his laboratory into testing the consecrated bread; he announces triumphantly that there is no change whatever, no difference between this and any other bread. We could have told him that, without the aid of any instrument. For all that instruments can do is to make contact with the accidents, and it is part of the doctrine of transubstantiation that the accidents undergo no change whatever. If our scientist had announced that he had found a change, that would be really startling and upsetting.” [emphasis added]

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.

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  • phosphorious

    Is there a danger here of tying catholic belief too closely to Aristotelian philosophy?

    There might be perfectly good reasons for rejecting the substance/accident distinction, but that would not, presumably be a reason to reject transubstantiation.

    Is there no account of transubstantiation that’s rooted in a more plausible metaphysics?

  • brettsalkeld

    One of the reasons Trent used “species” instead of “accidents” was to avoid tying Catholic doctrine and Aristotle too closely together in any sort of official capacity.

    In any case, numerous modern attempts have been made to move past this metaphysic. Some, like transignification and transfinalization, failed because they did not do justice to the objective reality of Christ’s presence. I know of a much more successful attempt, but it has no name that I know of. The best exposition I have found is in F.X. Durrwell’s Eucharist: Presence of Christ. The basic outlines of it are also used by Ratzinger (in a little homily in God is Near Us) and Kereszty, among others. Its focus is quite eschatological. The main idea is that the species are taken up into the eschatological banquet, where Christ will be all in all, from out of time and history in order to drag the rest of us along with it.

    You might also be interested in the work of Herbert McCabe, O.P., a faithful Thomist who wrote with flair and made Thomas more understandable to post-moderns by incorporating a bit of post-Wittgensteinian awareness of the power of language. Father Robert Barron follows this track a little bit as well.

  • phosphorious

    Thanks! I will look those names up.

  • I love Frank Sheed!

  • brettsalkeld

    I just stumbled upon this, which may be of interest:

    I’m not sure if you have access to full-text of New Blackfriars somewhere, but if so I recommend reading McCabe. He is really a tonne of fun.

  • Dcn. Brian Carroll

    “By the revelation of Christ it(the mind)knows that the substance has been changed, in the one case into the substance of his body, in the other into the substance of his blood.”

    Far be it from me to take issue with Frank Sheed but here he seems to contradict our belief that Christ is present body, blood, soul and divinity under the form of bread alone and of wine alone.

    Fr. K?

  • brettsalkeld

    Dcn. Brian,

    Sheed does not here take up the question of concomitance. This is an important but overlooked aspect of the doctrine of transubstantiation. I will offer here the briefest of skecthes.

    Thomas says that there are two ways for aspects of Christ’s reality to be present in the species, the first by meaning of the sacramental sign and the second by concomitance. The argument is essentially that the eucharistic presence, precisely as a sacramental presence, is predicated on the sign value of the elements. However, the bread is a symbol of the body and the wine of the blood and neither are a symbol of the soul or divinity. It would appear then, that a presence of the blood in the bread or of the bread in the wine, or of the soul and divinity in either could not be a sacramental presence.

    Since the Church defines the presence precisely as sacramental (predicated on the logic of sign), Thomas says that those aspects of Christ’s person not sacramentally represented by the elements (in the bread: blood, soul and divinity; in the wine: body, soul and divinity) are present by concomitance. He says that, since Christ’s glorified body in heaven exists in individisble unity with his blood, soul and divinity, they are all present because it is simply impossible to separate them. But they are present by reason of this inseparability, not by reason of the eucharistic symbolism. To emphasize this point he asks, hypothetically, what would have happened if the Eucharist had been celebrated on Holy Saturday when Christ’s body was separated from his soul and answers that only the body would have been present in the (species of) bread, but not the soul.

    Finally, it is worth noting that “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity,” are basically code words for saying “everything that makes Jesus Jesus.” That is why some orthodox writers, like Father Hardon for example, can claim that things like Jesus’ nostrils are present. Thomas says that even Christ’s accidents are present, not in their natural mode, but only by concomitance. Though one does not need specific accidents to be what one is, one does need accidents to be what one is. As such Jesus’ accidents, as part of what makes Jesus Jesus, must be present. But, being present by concomitance means that they do not function like natural, physical accidents and cannot be perceived. This is also why Paul VI can write that Christ’s physical reality is present, even though it is not physically present, in the sense of occupying space. To be very technical, the accidents are there in the mode of substance, present to the intellect but not the senses.

    I wish Sheed had included a small bit on this, because he is a much better writer than I. In any case, I hope this makes clear why he could say what he did without contradicting the tradition of the Church.

  • brettsalkeld

    Also, just out of curiosity, who is Fr. K?

  • brettsalkeld

    Check out the Summa on concomitance here:

  • Dcn. Brian Carroll


    Oops, I thought I was on the Commonweal blog! Fr. K would be Fr. Joseph Komonchak who is often gracious in keeping me straight.

  • brettsalkeld

    Ahh. Well, I’m neither Frank Sheed nor Father Komonchak, but I hope my response was helpful.

  • Harry

    As a Lutheran, I believe in the Real Presence, but while not believing in transubstantiation, I believe Christ words when He said “This is …., if it wasn’t so, He would not have said it.

  • brettsalkeld

    Thanks Harry,
    It is important for Catholics to know that Lutherans (and many other Protestants) believe in the Real Presence. Too often, we caricature the eucharistic theology of the Reformation as “purely symbolic.” Then, we get panicky if Catholics talk about the symbolism of the Eucharist because it is seen as Protestant heresy. In so doing we radically impoverish our own understanding of the Eucharist.
    In any case, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church does not demand verbal affirmation of transubstantiation in order to see legitimate faith in the Real Presence. After all, we recognize the Orthodox view and most of them don’t like the word.
    It has been my experience, for what that’s worth, that when Catholics and Lutherans with solid knowledge of their own traditions and an open spirit are able to sit down together, the perceived problems of transubstantiation melt away pretty quickly. It is possible that ecumenical agreement on the Eucharist will be our next big step together, following our agreement on Justification in 1999.

  • John

    I like Harry above believe completely in the real presence of Christ in the sacrement of the Eucharist, but side with the Eastern Orthodox explanation that Christ said, “this is my body,” so it is. What form that takes, I don’t know and I really don’t need to know. The scary thing, for me, about transubstantiation is that it weds itself too closely to an Aristotelian metaphysic, which is not required for all of orthodox Christianity to be true. I’m just not sure of what the benefit is of a belief in transubstantiation over the EO’s notion of leaving it a mystery of the church in the same way the trinity is a mystery. Why do you guys think a Christian might prefer believing in transubstantiation over the more simple its-a-mystery and it-is-Christ’s-body-and-blood approach?

    PS For full disclosure, I’m Anglican.

  • brettsalkeld

    Those are good questions John,
    My basic experience, though it may not be everyone’s, is that Catholics view transubstantiation as a kind of guarantor of Real Presence. They worry that anyone can say they believe in Real Presence (even Protestants!), but that this could mean virtually anything. They feel that transubstantiation has a more definitive content and, as such, is useful for ensuring that we’re all talking about the same thing.

    But there’s the rub. What many Catholics think transubstantiation guarantees, namely some kind of physical mutation in the elements that may or may not be hidden from the senses and scientific instruments, is not really what the term means at all.

    It was quite simply meant as a response to the problem: “How can we actually say this is Christ’s body and blood when all our senses can discern is bread and wine?” The West had managed to maintain some equanimity on this point, like the East, based on the (seemingly obvious) conviction that the presence is a sacramental one and is therefore predicated on the logic of symbol. This all went out the window when Berengarius insisted that ‘real presence’ and ‘symbol’ were mutually exclusive terms. Even his opponents followed his error, but they insisted on the ‘reality’ of the presence while he insisted on its ‘symbolic’ nature. Eucharistic theology in the West has never recovered.