A Catechetical Thought for the Feast of Corpus Christi

A Catechetical Thought for the Feast of Corpus Christi June 2, 2013

It has been widely reported in recent years that there is a divergence between what the Catholic Church believes about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and what many people in the pews believe.  As reported in US Catholic, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has some new survey data on this problem:


The editorial in US Catholic concentrates on the fact that the number of knowledgeable doubters is quite small (4%) but that a significant number of Catholics believe in the Real Presence without knowing that htis is what the Church teaches.   I suspect that this belief is grounded in Church teaching; the respondants simply no longer remember the proximate source of their belief.  (Like all belief it must ultimately be grounded in faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit.)

What I find inexplicable is that 50% of Catholics surveyed report not knowing that the Church teaches the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  I find it hard to believe that this is not the subject of homilies and catechesis on a regular basis, if only because it is A) orthodox, and B) relatively non-controversial.  Indeed, drawing on personal experience, I can only recall one instance in which I ever heard a priest say anything that could be interpreted as denying the Real Presence.  In this particular case the more charitable reading is that he was not trying to deny transubstantiation but was rather making a hash of describing Schillibeeckx’s ideas on transignification.  I am sure that some of you can report anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but for the sake of argumentation, I am going to assume that such instances are rare.

This then leaves open the question of how it can happen that one half of all Catholics do not know what the Church teaches on this question.  I want to suggest that it is a failure of pedagogy:  Catholics are routinely taught about the Real Presence, but in such a way that it has no substantive meaning and is therefore not incorporated into their understanding of the sacrament.

I see this phenomenon regularly teaching calculus.  To a mathematician, a derivative is a “rate of change”, but to many students, it is a formal algebraic manipulation that is done to certain expressions.  Thus, if I ask students what is the derivative of f(x)=x^2, the vast majority will dutifully compute that f'(x)=2x.  But if I ask them in some way to explain or interpret what this means in terms of a rate of change, a significant minority will not be able to do so.   Early in my career I assumed that such students were simply too lazy or too stupid to understand what was “really” going on.  Old age has brought, if not wisdom then a deeper understanding of how their failure to understand is also a product of pedagogy:  they do not get it in part because the way I am teaching does not lead them to incorporate this deeper understanding into their overall mental construct of the derivative.

This suggests that the solution to the problem is not simply more homilies on transubstantiation and the Real Presence:  piling on words will not yield more understanding.   Rather, I would suggest that the solution is to address what it means for us, what are the consequences for us as individuals and as a community, that Jesus is present in the Eucharist.   Pope Francis touched on this in an extemporaneous homily he preached at a parish in Rome.  Engaging in a dialogue (heaven forefend:  a dialogue sermon!) with children who recently made their first communion, he tried to convey the deeper meaning of the sacrament:

Jesus has saved us, but he also walks with us in life. Right? And how does he walk? What does he do when he walks with us in life? This is difficult. The one who gets it wins the derby. What does Jesus do when he walks with us? Speak up! First: he helps us. He guides us! Great! He walks with us, he guides us and he teaches us to go forward. And Jesus also gives us the strength to walk. Right? He sustains us! Good! In difficulties, right? And also in our homework! He sustains us, he helps us, he guides us, he sustains us. That’s it!

Jesus always goes with us. Very well. But listen, Jesus gives us strength. How does Jesus give us strength? You know this, how he gives us strength! Speak up, I can’t hear you! In Communion he gives us strength, he really helps us with strength. He comes to us. But when you say, “he gives us Communion,” does a piece of bread give you so much strength? That’s not bread? It’s bread? This is bread, but that on the altar, is it bread or not? It looks like bread! It’s not really bread. What is it? It is the Body of Jesus. Jesus comes into our hearts.

While clearly aimed at children, I think that these words would also have spoken to the adults present at mass.  Now, of course, they will have a greater impact because they heard them directly from a charismatic pope in a relatively intimate setting.  But I think the words themselves say something important.  The question then is this: how can we expand upon these ideas so that they are heard and internalized by the 50% of Catholics who do not hear, or who hear but do not understand, what the Church is now saying about the Eucharist?


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  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    That is really fascinating! You can be really sure that there was always even more variability between belief and unbelief, or better disbelief, in the centuries of the past. For a very good reason. I would like to limn the reason by noting something I heard on catholic cable the other day from a cleric named Rutler in New York, I think, discussing the “heresy” of Manicheism. Rutler was trying to make clear that the RC church does not believe that only “spiritual” elements are good, and that “material” bad. So far so good historically. But then Rutler said something like— as Catholics we do not believe that material things are less real or good, etc. He then cobbled together the opposite view with Manichaeism.

    In Rutler’s little resume is a whole can of confusion on what the RC church actually taught and believed. It is not a secret as it can be learned by reading any history of philosophy or theology book that is detailed. But the de facto confusion, which is never negated, is useful and for a reason. It serves to bolster the really historically ridiculous notion that the RC Church has never changed its view on fundamental dogmas. And in this precise discussion is the perfect reason why it is false.

    For any book on Medieval Philosophy will make clear that the assumptions of most writers and apologists and Papal men of power was entirely in lock step with the assumptions of Platonic Realism. On this notion of “reality” what is actually experienced in life is always — always!– only a wan reflection at best of the Ideal. Therefore, any presence in life that can be experienced is by definition less “real” than the true reality in the ultimate realm of Ideals.

    There is zero dispute that this is what was believed. Yet seldom do scholars really make clear that this affected what people thought of what even the “presence” in the Eucharist could be. It may indeed have been more “real” to them than anything else in life, and thus Divine as anything could be, but by the very assumptions of the age, it could not be “real” as we mean it today. That is, as it were, a heavenly widget of “reality” related to “materiality.”

    Of course Thomists believe that the “Angelic Doctor” solved this conundrum. And there is no doubt that he altered it single-handedly, which truly is one of the most amazing cases of intellectual influence ever. But plenty of the Realist de facto spirituality remained in Thomism. And the proof of this is simply that the the issues were NOT resolved and eventually Nominalist critics had their day, and the RC Church officially embraced their skepticisms at Constance. Later at Trent it was back to a type of Thomistic de facto Realism. (Btw, detail: the survival of these heavy Platonic notions in Thomistic culture is related to the heavy reliance more on the Pseudo-Dionysius for the ultimate schema of reality than any Aristotelian one (arabs, etc) a fact made clear by Thomas’ Dominican biographer Weisheipl.)

    So when Rutler says that the RC church has never taught that the the “real world” is less real and perforce good qua real, he is simply uniformed about the history of his own faith tradition. That brings us full circle to the crux of the issues raised in your post above. If a polished cleric like Rutler is mixed-up, what chance do those in the Catholic pews have of getting it just right. Yet we miss the point entirely if we don’t see that a certain zone of confusion has always been a necessary part of the teaching itself. For without that zone the trope of “unchanging dogma” would always have been a practical impossibility.

  • Jordan

    Less and less adult Catholics have been educated in Catholic schools. Certainly, one can be an educated adult Catholic who didn’t go to Catholic schools and know the Church’s dogma on the Eucharist. Still, I suspect that one factor why many adult Catholics don’t know or can’t articulate the teaching on the Eucharist is the general decline over the past decades in Catholic school enrollment. There’s been a lot of sociocultural research into this phenomenon which I will not rehash. Still, the lay-brothers who taught me my confirmation catechism made darn well sure that each student understood the core teachings of the Church well before the laying on of hands. I find that the emphasis in Catholic religious education is now on vague ethical-moral platitudes rather than the rote memorization of dogma and doctrine of even my day (I’m only in my early 30s).

    If we want to bring up a new generation of young Catholics who truly understand their faith, it’s time to take a tip from the nuns and brothers and be more serious about catechesis. No rulers and erasers, but maybe a Baltimore Catechism-like succinct Q&A education mixed in with ethical-moral development, rather than an inchoate “faith formation”, is necessary. As a person who has encountered parents who absolutely detest the older rote method of education, I’m not convinced that a re-introduction of some aspects of this pedagogical style into religious education will be received well.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I have really strong doubts as to whether the Q&A format of the old B/C is a workable pedagogy for today. Again, this parallels what used to be tried (and in many places is still tried) in teaching calculus. You reduce things down to a black & white list that people can repeat by rote and perhaps apply in some predictable situations. But very often their understanding is superficial and they cannot really apply it to anything. My brothers could all automatically respond if I asked them (for instance) “Who made the world?” but nothing more would follow: there was no “there” there.

      I think we need to decide what we really want as our outcome, and design our catechetical strategy to match. Readopting an older paradigm is not an adequate response.

      • This is a very good point, and it is also applicable to learning languages. If a person can recite a definition of a word, but cannot use the word correctly in a sentence, do they really understand the meaning of the word?

    • Jordan

      David Cruz-Uribe, SFO [June 2, 2013 3:21 pm]: David, I agree with your position despite my upbringing. My parents were also taught the faith by rote memorization of the Baltimore Catechism. Both can recite answers to the questions without hesitation. Both have a good grasp of dogma and doctrine, but their pastor is a very clear and succinct preacher. Their childhood catechism alone would not be enough to support their faith, in my view.

      Instead of rote drilling, maybe it would be better to teach in modules (one module on the sacraments, one on the Trinity, one on the temporal Church etc.) and ask each student at the end of a module to verbally express his or her understanding of what has been taught. However, this method would require a smaller group. Even so this might foster dialogue between the teacher and all the students. This strategy might produce an outcome where a Catholic could, if asked, provide an answer to a dogmatic or doctrinal question that arrives from conviction and not conditioning.

  • Mark VA

    Jordan and David Cruz-Uribe:

    I assume you both know the content of the Baltimore Catechism well. With this assumption in mind, allow me to suggest the following:

    (a) It is an utter and unalloyed cliché to necessarily equate the teaching the Baltimore Catechism with rote memorization. The very substance of its content mitigates against it. Take for example the pre-confirmation edition, the “Baltimore Catechism No.2”. Each lesson (38 total) is followed by a series of “Discussion Questions”, “True or False”, “Fill in the Blanks”, “Read from the Bible”, and “Class Project” assignments. Most of these are very difficult to answer by rote, and demand a well developed thought process. Some random examples: “Why is it hard to keep from sin with only one confession a year?”, “How is Mary really our Mother when she lived so long ago?”, “Can we see or feel grace? Why not?”. Many of these are some of the most beautiful, if understated, gems of logic I’ve ever encountered. My students respond well to these challenges;

    (b) To teach this Catechism by rote is to abuse it. There are opinions pushed today that this Catechism was primarily taught by rote in the United States. Perhaps. However, my experience with this insinuation also suggests that the crux of the matter is the content of this Catechism, which some would like to label as “outdated”.

    (c) I’m also somewhat familiar with the “corporate” Catechisms used in most Catholic schools today. These are compiled by companies that are in the general education business. Those that I have read seem to lean toward the syncretic and the therapeutic, rather than the didactic, approach. The results seem to reflect this approach;

    (d) Mr. David Cruz-Uribe:

    I regard your conclusion that “Readopting an older paradigm is not an adequate response” as insufficiently thought out. Abuse of the material and teaching method should not be confused with the intrinsic value of this Catechism. If this is not what you are suggesting, then perhaps you can clarify if it is the content of the Baltimore Catechism that you find inadequate, or are you objecting to some past abuse of its teaching method?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      I make this equation between the B/C and rote memorization because that is the way it was originally intended. If you look at the first edition (available at Gutenberg and via Wikipedia) it only consisted of a list of questions and answers. If you check the introduction to the 4th edition (the version from the 1920’s annotated for teachers to use) it makes clear that this was the way it was being used, and pointing out the pedagogical shortcomings. And while this edition added more explanatory material, it is not clear from reading the introduction if it would be used in such a way as to change the pedagogy. Students tend to focus on what is regarded as important. If their religious education contains all manner of supplementary material but they are expected to know (and are tested on) their knowledge of the “core” Q&A, then they will only know this. Everything else will, for the most part, pass them by. (The same is true in calculus: they may not ask the dreaded question “will this be on the test?” but it is in their minds anyway.)

      My objections to the B/C are twofold: first, on the basis of pedagogy, which I hope I have expanded on above. (I would note that the same problem persists in the new Catechism: it explicitly recommends the brief summaries at the end of each section as being good for memorization.) Second, in many ways it is out of date, since it was written prior to Vatican II and, moreover, was written (particularly the expanded editions you are referring to) after the American Church over-reacted to the modernism controversy.

      Actually, I own a small paperback version from the 1950’s. It appears to consist of three layers: the original Q&A; some official explanatory glosses which I now suspect are based on the 1920’s expanded version mentioned above; and some later additions in terms of stories about saints and “model” lay people that are saccharine, vapid, or mechanically anti-communist. Therefore, I stand by what I said: the solution to catechetical problems is not going to be found in resurrecting the B/C but in thinking about what we want the outcomes to be and how we are going to achieve them.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO:

        On the question of pedagogy:

        The content of the Baltimore Catechism can be taught by rote (as just about anything else can be), but it is not necessary to teach it that way. To put it in a more formal way, I don’t the see equivalence between the antecedent (Baltimore Catechism consists of a list of questions and answers) and the consequent (therefore is must be taught by rote), as necessary. In my view, this is a forced equivalence. For example, the very compactness of the material is eminently suitable for developing free wheeling class discussions on any given topic. In my class (pre-confirmation, Baltimore Catechism #2), we routinely spend ten or more minutes discussing a single question, with a lot of surprising to and fro;

        Regarding its substance:

        Can a Catholic Catechism be out of date simply because “… it was written prior to Vatican II”? Is this council the dividing line between the “old” Catholic Church which ceased to exist, and some “New Catholic” church? I hope this is a rhetorical question. An affirmative answer would not only be rash, it would negate the meaning of the word “Catholic” (which includes the dimension of time);

        On moving forward:

        You leave this wide open. I can only speculate what you would like the catechectical outcomes to be, and how you would like to achieve them. Perhaps you should consider following in the footsteps of our second President, and write your own catechism for us to discuss (note: humor implied here).

        Let me close with this little diddly from the past (rote in its glory):

        “Minus times a minus is a plus,
        And the reason for this we shall not discuss”

  • The doctrine of the “Real Presence” of God in the communion wafer is the most invaluable thing in the Catholic Church. It is what converted Hopkins. Unfortunately, it is also an affront to the majority Protestant culture in North America and the English-speaking countries. Nothing about Catholicism is more mocked by Protestants and secularists in those countries than “transubstantiation.” I remember a particularly nasty song I had to listen to, growing up in the “Bible Belt” that had a refrain of “Two, Four, Six, Eight, TRANSUBSTANTIATE!”

    This doctrine, however, needs defending and reiteration, because it is Catholicism’s chief bulwark against textual fundamentalism. Whether some consider it “symbolic” or not, it is a clear manifestation of the Catholic belief that God/Christ abides in His Church and guides it, through a temporal and physical journey TOWARDS the “Truth,” and does not teach the blasphemous Fundamentalist doctrine–so akin to Salafist Islam–that one OWNS the “Truth” because one possesses a book.

    I’d far rather have a “piece of bread” as an “Icon” of God’s abiding presence as the “Bread of Life” than some book, because this doctrine is readily understood and appreciated by the OTHER “sacramental” (non-Abrahamic) religions of the world, such as Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism: the Hindus go to their temples to receive “prasad,” which, as far as they are concerned, is as much the “flesh” of Shiva as the communion wafer is the flesh of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of Transubstantiation makes of the whole physical world a resplendent part of the divine. It sanctifies the material world, rather than reducing it to a pale image of the Platonic “Real,” as Peter Paul is suggesting. As Pascal said, mocking the Protestants whom he is too often considered to be partial to, “How can those who claim that God could become an infant in a crib DARE to assert that He cannot just as easily make Himself to be a piece of bread?”

    • Jordan

      dismasdolben [June 2, 2013 8:32 pm]: As usual, trenchant commentary.

      The doctrine of Transubstantiation makes of the whole physical world a resplendent part of the divine.

      Yes. You have distilled the very essence of transubstantiation and the liturgical celebration of the dogma of the Eucharist on Corpus Christi. What deeply, deeply frightens me about the Catholic faith (particularly as it is practiced and taught in the United States) is an utter and often willful lack of belief in the most fundamental statement you have articulated.

      The theological (and by extension, liturgical) meme “people of God”, when taken out of context, in my opinion diminishes a strong Eucharistic faith. The Second Vatican Council affirms that the laity, by virtue of baptism, are members of the “common” or “non-ordained” priesthood. Baptism integrates a person into the Body of Christ, making him or her a person of God. These are orthodox teachings of the faith. However, I have read statements similar to “the priest worships Christ as present in the assembly” as well as in the paschal sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, much of postconciliar liturgical theology is overly anthropocentric. Traditionalists often try to boil anthropocentricity down to Mass facing the people or lay Eucharistic ministers, but I do not think that the question lies directly with these innovations. Rather, I believe that the aforementioned exaltation of “People of God” speaks of a profound postmodern disillusionment and distance from the mystery of a God who is at once omnipotens and who has simultaneously become an eternal part of the created order. This is deeply unsettling for the human mind, which (erroneously) believes it is both infinite (as a species in aggregate intelligence) and individually intellectually self-reliant.

      I am also convinced that this loss of nerve has contributed to the ignorance of the Eucharist. If the human mind and creation is the actual worship of many Catholics, then there is no need to dwell on, or even positively affirm, orthodox dogma.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs


      Well, as I think you could guess, I am all for the more ample interpretation you are giving, incorporating lots of other valences and beliefs. Fine with me…..better even. I am just pointing out that such is NOT what was believed in the past. Nothing you said lines up with the Realist metaphysic that was officially embraced by sever RC Church Councils.

      On a lighter note I almost feel like saying “Ahr ju tahking to me/!” …..with my Joe Pesci pinky ring up! You think I don’t know from that stuff. I have a relative who is a nun who ran a retreat house for years that featured every conceivable Native American spirituality, Buddhist, etc interpretation of the Catholic Eucharist possible. And she is from the same order as the Angelic Doctor! But does that mean that it lines up with anything from history. Only in fables and wishful thinking.

      • One thing I’ve always been able to take away from your writing Peter Paul, is that your dogmatic Scholastic training has caused you to fail to be alive to what Newman says in THE DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE, which is that what was taught in the “past” wasn’t necessarily the fullest Revelation of the “Truth.” Newman and I would have you know that the work of the Holy Spirit is INCOMPLETE, and that the Church is a vessel for holding MORE and GREATER “Truth.”

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          First, on the personal side, and in the interest of recording a little corner of intellectual history, keep in mind that when I was trained it was all preparation for doing Rahner in the major seminary. That meant doing Heidegger and existential phenomenology in college, very MUCH in line with the view you have proffered. There were not many Neo-Thomists around in those days, unless they were Domincans in DC, and the sun rose and set on the insights of Rahner. In college, there was a Dr. Fermin Peinado, who had written a rather famous anti-Castro tract in the sixties and became ensconced in seminary as professor because his sister in law was our cherished Spanish teacher. It was he that was a devotee of more old fashioned Thomism, but then again of the Maritain variety, very cultured etc and very high-brow Cuban as historically, as I later learned, there was quite a cult around Maritain in Cuba before the Revolution. I learned all this in doing research on the interesting fact that many, many conservative Catholics in Cuba pre-revolution were also a member of another organization I am very interested in, but try not to discuss explicitly. And boy that is an untold story that somebody should tell. (But I don’t know anything about Peinado in that regard.)

          Anyways, please understand that my interest in contnually trying to etch what the past view was is wholly in line with my personal “hobby” (for lack of a better word) of trying to make clear that there is very little actually “unchanging” in this ancient institution that founded our Western world. Of course they disagree with me, but hardly anyone agrees with them on the issues. They get away with it for the practical reason that they prop up universities and departments that deliver an endless slurry of scholarship and general ideation and classroom teaching that supposedly shows otherwise. But it is all there in history books and theological treatises. All one has to do is be honest about what it actually meant.

          Ironically, even though those types love to hate your type of open ended Catholic, they tolerate it because it helps to create the historical confusion without which the continuance of the “unchanging dogma” trope would be practically impossible.

        • many conservative Catholics in Cuba pre-revolution were also a member of another organization I am very interested in, but try not to discuss explicitly.

          Opus Dei, right, Peter Paul?

  • Agellius

    “This then leaves open the question of how it can happen that one half of all Catholics do not know what the Church teaches on this question. I want to suggest that it is a failure of pedagogy: Catholics are routinely taught about the Real Presence, but in such a way that it has no substantive meaning and is therefore not incorporated into their understanding of the sacrament.”

    I agree that it’s a failure of pedagogy. I don’t agree that Catholics are necessarily “routinely taught about the Real Presence”.

    A lot of people may be taught the words “Real Presence”, but take them to mean merely that “Jesus is present in some way or other”. I think this is because Transsubstantiation is such an astounding doctrine that no one is going to believe it in its entirety without having it stated specifically, directly and emphatically: “The bread really becomes Jesus’ actual Body and the wine his actual Blood. It’s NOT a symbol. Yes, we really believe that. We know it’s hard to believe but we believe it anyway, and you have to believe it too if you want to be Catholic.” Illustrated of course by an explication of John 6.

    Personally I find the Pope’s explanation to children to be too vague and indirect, confusing the literal and the figurative. First he gets literal by saying it’s “not really bread” but is “the Body of Jesus”; but then immediately turns figurative by saying that “Jesus comes into our hearts”. This is confusing. Is the Eucharist literally His Body or only figuratively? “Real food” literally goes into our stomachs, and only figuratively into our hearts. Thus an explanation like this is likely to leave kids with the impression that the Real Presence is only figurative.

    This, I think, illustrates the pedagogical problem resulting in the aforementioned 50%.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “A lot of people may be taught the words “Real Presence”, but take them to mean merely that “Jesus is present in some way or other”. ”

      I tend to agree, but where we part company is that I think that they are told, explicitly, about transubstantiation, but in such a way that it makes no sense to them, even as a mystery, and they do not incorporate it into their broader understanding of the sacrament. “Jesus is present” makes sense to them in a way which “transubstantiation” does not and this is what they build off of.

      The problem is how to make the full doctrine of the real presence meaningful enough that it does get incorporated. As for the pope, I just think he is trying to do this at the level that 7-8 year olds can understand.

      • Agellius

        ““Jesus is present” makes sense to them in a way which “transubstantiation” does not and this is what they build off of.”

        I don’t mean to make it into an argument, but I think “Jesus is present” is so vague and easy to swallow — after all, he’s present everywhere, isn’t he? — that people would tend to just accept that and go no further. Whereas Transsubstantiation is so startling that it forces people to question and try to find out more in order to make sense out of it. I suspect there are very few people who would learn that a piece of (apparently) bread is believed to be God embodied and simply accept it as a rote fact and move on to something else, without doing a mental double-take.

        Of course, what they do from that point depends on whether they have faith: Someone who has faith that the Church is what it claims to be, will say “Gosh! Tell me more!”; whereas those whose faith is weaker might just say, “Yeah OK, if you say so”, and try to find a more “moderate” wing of the Church where such outlandish things are not insisted on quite so emphatically.

    • Julia Smucker

      I think part of the problem is the semantic weakness that the word “symbol” has acquired, to the point that it almost can’t be heard without a “mere” in front of it. I’ve wondered at times whether it is possible to retrieve a richer meaning in a way that can catch on catechetically, because it seems that in most people’s minds something is either real or symbolic. But I can never look at the word the same way after reading Rahner’s essay on the theology of the symbol. He uses the term “real symbol” for something that makes actually present what it represents. A concrete example is the body as a symbol of the person: when my body enters a room, I enter the room. It’s that real.

      I know, I know, most of the proverbial pew-people will probably never read Rahner – but we shouldn’t assume from that that they can’t get things. The point I really want to make is that (to use a double negative) the Eucharist isn’t NOT a symbol. It is more than a symbol – but not less than one. I will have to leave it to the pedagogues among us to figure out how to communicate that most effectively.

      • Art and Literary critics understand it, perhaps, better than theologians do, Julia. The parables of Christ are “allegories”–that is, discursive SYMBOLS–“of Truth.” The “Truth” is about human nature, its purposes and its relation to the “Whole,” or the “Holy.” Those “allegories of Truth” are more “real”–have more basic “reality” about them than the rules of physics.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


        • On the Myers-Brigg thing? Definitely!

      • Mark VA


        “Real symbol”? Really?

        Is the symbol then real and the reality symbolic, or is the symbolism of reality to be understood in a real way? Or is it the other way around, as Bilbo Baggins would tautologically ask?

        Post-modernism – the gift that keeps on giving – really and symbolically.

        Julia, take a break, read some Alfred Tarski. Really.

        OK, I deserve a real tart reply for this – the floor is yours, Julia.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Though perhaps not appropriate, I am amused by the invocation of Alfred Tarski in this discussion. As the co-author of the Banach-Tarski paradox—that any ball of radius 1 can be decomposed into a finite number of pieces that can be reassembled into a ball of radius 2–he seems to be a peculiar person to invoke in this discussion.

          For all its faults, post-modernism has been a valuable anodyne in philosophy for puncturing the pretensions of earlier philosophers who, in the words of GB Shaw, thought that “the customs of their little island were the laws of the universe.”

        • Julia Smucker

          The mathematical discussion here is already going over my head, so I’ll just stick to sacramental theology.

          To understand what Rahner means by “real symbol” one must discard the definition of symbol as something unreal, at best a proxy representation of something it isn’t. A real symbol, by contrast, represents what it actually is. It is fundamentally incarnational: the Eucharist can be called a “real symbol” (the opposite of a “mere symbol”) of Christ incarnate, who is himself a “real symbol” of the presence of God on earth. It’s dangerous trying to explain this, knowing that any use of the “s-word” could be automatically taken as a denial of transubstantiation, but in Rahner’s usage it is an affirmation of it. The Eucharist really is an extension of the Incarnation.

          Perhaps this explanation might help, from the professor under whom I read Rahner’s mind-blowing essay: http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2010/06/11/real-symbol-and-the-sacred-heart-of-jesus/

        • Mark VA


          A real classy reply.

          Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

          I must admit, you made an excellent move – invoking the Tarski-Banach paradox in the defence of the “real-symbol” proposition, does make my attempt at satire seem puny.

          However, I’ve saved the best for last. You move with the Tarski-Banach – I counter with Zizek on the toilets:


          Symbolism at its best. Rahner is outclassed.

          Check mate?

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            I wasn’t thinking of this as a chess game. I invoked Banach-Tarski merely to make the point that Tarski was a dubious choice to bolster your arguments. I love Zizek on toilets, but one must never take him too seriously.

  • Agellius

    Julia writes, “the Eucharist isn’t NOT a symbol. It is more than a symbol…”

    I don’t necessarily disagree with that. But I think most people, in everyday speech, think of a symbol as something that represents a reality, like the flag represents the United States. If the flag were the Eucharist, the Church would be saying something like, “the flag IS the United States and not just a symbol of it.” And people would be properly astonished in a way they would never be, if you merely told them that the flag is a symbol.

    I think such astonishment is a good thing.

    “I know, I know, most of the proverbial pew-people will probably never read Rahner – but we shouldn’t assume from that that they can’t get things.”

    I agree. And they probably will never read Aquinas, but we shouldn’t assume they can’t get things like transsubstantiation.

    • Julia Smucker

      Agellius, if you had said in the first place that the Eucharist is “not just a symbol”, I would have agreed unreservedly. But that’s my point: “symbol” is generally heard with an implied “just” behind it, having become synonymous with some lesser degree of reality. I’m divided on how to respond to this, because as a linguist I know it’s futile to fight semantic drift, but as a theologian I really want to recover a robust, Rahnerian sense of “real symbol”.

      And they probably will never read Aquinas, but we shouldn’t assume they can’t get things like transsubstantiation.

      Exactly. That’s my other point. I imagine we’ll have to find theological idioms that will be better understood than the Aristotelian language of substance and accidents, though. I think it was Bernard Lonergan who suggested that to be truly Thomistic is to do in the 21st century what Thomas Aquinas did in the 13th, which was to use the knowledge and methods of his day to articulate theological truths as understood by the Church.

  • Melody

    I have long questioned the oft-quoted statistics which state that the majority of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. The new survey data quoted above makes more sense. Though one quibble I have had with any surveys I have read is that they don’t break down their respondents into those who do and don’t attend Mass on a somewhat regular basis. I am not picking up the vibe among the Catholics whom I encounter at our parish on Sunday that they don’t believe in the Real Presence.
    According to the data cited above, 63% of Catholics *do* believe in the Real Presence. Which I find credible. Though I am puzzled and fascinated by the 17% who do believe, but who are unaware that it is Church teaching. The question may have been asked in a confusing way. Many people would not be able to articulate the difference between transubstantiation, consubstantiation, pneumatic presence, sacramental union, etc. And some may be simply admitting the limits of our understanding; that it is a mystery which we will never fully understand, but they believe anyway. Among the unknowing unbelievers I think you would find a lot of people who were baptized, but who are not actively practicing in a meaningful way, and who didn’t receive much in the way of instruction.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      My only caution to this append to this comment is that CARA does extremely careful social science work and I suspect would have taken many of these things into consideration. It would be interesting to see this data corrected for mass attendance, or at least get a better sense of how they define “Catholic” for the purposes of this survey.

      • I’d be curious to know what kind of questions can generate these categories. Who actually says, “I don’t know what the Church says about Real Presence, but I believe it.” Or was everyone given two paragraphs to write about transubstantiation that were subsequently assessed by vetted theologians and put into categories of “aware” or “unaware”? And only 4% managed to pass the test but denied Real Presence while 17% failed it but affirmed real presence? Strange. I mean, frankly, most of the Catholics I speak to “kind of understand” Real Presence. It’d be tough to split them into these categories in my experience. Furthermore, I’ve met people who claim to understand Real Presence who don’t believe it. They almost invariably don’t actually understand it. Those 4% almost certainly contain a majority who “think they are aware of Church teaching.”

        Finally, I just wrote a dissertation on transubstantiation and I still learn new things about Real Presence all the time. I wonder, “At what point did I cross the threshold from unaware to aware?”

        • Melody

          Brett said, “I’d be curious to know what kind of questions can generate these categories.”
          Yeah, me too. Have any of us here ever participated in such a study? Do we even know anyone who was asked to participate? Or maybe it was one of the times when the caller ID said “call center” and I didn’t pick up the phone. I’m not doubting that the surveys were done by professional people who know how to do their job in a statistically accurate way. However I’ve heard more than one homily about what a terrible state Catholicism is in based on the conclusions of these type of surveys. I guess my point, if I have one, is that there are multitudes of Catholics who haven’t been heard from. I believe Brett is right when he says “…most of the Catholics I speak to “kind of understand” Real Presence.” So I believe that there is a lot of room for better catechesis, but that the situation isn’t as dire as some would think, that the baseline of faith and understanding of the Eucharist isn’t absolute zero for American Catholics.

        • It’s possible that the survey said something such as
          1 What does the Catholic Church teach about communion?
          2 What do you believe about communion?

          It is conceivable that someone could say, “I don’t know what the Church teaches about communion” and also “I believe that the bread is really the body of Christ”

          But it’s a valid point: How was the poll conduced and what questions did they ask?

        • Mark VA

          Brett Salkeld:

          I would like to read a post from you on your dissertation on transubstantiation, in the near future, if possible. The subject matter is inexhaustible, plus, I find your posts logically rigorous. Please consider this.

        • Julia Smucker

          I second Mark VA’s request.

        • Thanks guys. I’ve written several things on here before. There is even a tag “Brett Salkeld’s Dissertation” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/tag/brett-salkelds-dissertation/) that you can look for. Is there any particular issue you’re interested in? Or would you like a broad overview of the work? It wouldn’t be difficult at all to post the abstract, but I’m not sure if many people would be interested in that. Let me know. Thanks.

          Oh, also, there’s the place where I asked for votes for the Ph.D. comics competition. On their website there is a 2 minute audio clip of me describing the project. I ended up getting second, which netted me a sweet T-Shirt, a comic book and a movie.

  • Thales

    The question then is this: how can we expand upon these ideas so that they are heard and internalized by the 50% of Catholics who do not hear, or who hear but do not understand, what the Church is now saying about the Eucharist?

    I think there is a great way to internalize the understanding of the Real Presence, and I’m surprised that no one has mentioned it yet so far: have more Eucharistic processions, more Eucharistic adorations, and more Benedictions — and have them during or around Sunday celebrations or Parish-wide events/picnics/etc. (or at least, announce when they are happening more often during Sunday Masses, etc.)…. in short, expose the average Joe-in-the-pew to more instances where the Eucharist is being adored than simply the Consecration at Mass. If the average Joe is exposed to the whole congregation processing behind the Eucharist and venerating the Eucharist on their knees, he’ll have to ask himself why is everyone acting the way they are, and he’ll internalize the answer (ie. the Real Presence).

    This past weekend’s worldwide adoration by the Pope is a good instance of this. It reminds me of one of my most significant memories that internalized the Real Presence for me: seeing Pope Benedict in person venerating the Eucharist for several minutes in silence at a World Youth Day vigil. When you see someone like the Pope do this action, you can’t help but say to yourself “Wow, the Pope is praying to what looks like a piece of bread for several minutes. There must be something more here than just bread.”

    • Jordan

      re: Thales [June 5, 2013 7:39 am]: Precisely. I fully agree that adoration, benediction, and procession are integral to practical instruction in the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence.

      I am sadly convinced that not a few liturgists have a significant aversion to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass. I suspect that some view any adoration of the Eucharist outside of the Mass as a diminuition of the celebration of the paschal mystery and holy sacrifice. This latter attitude, in my opinion, is demonstrated by the preference of some liturgical architects to locate the tabernacle of a church in a place not directly behind or in visible proximity to the altar. The reasoning that the tabernacle represents a “static presence” is quite strange: is not Christ omnipresent in the eucharistic species regardless of the celebration of the Mass before the already consecrated Sacrament? I fully agree with your Thales that the consecration at Mass is not sufficient instruction in the meaning of Eucharist.

      Also, I suspect and personally believe that not a few more progressive Catholics view Corpus Christi processions in particular as gaudy, ostentatious festivals which are better suited for traditionalists and high church Catholics. Also, some find that gold monstrances and brocaded vestments are an affront to the poor (our Lord thinks otherwise [John 12:1-8].) Still, I heartily agree with you that processions are not only aesthetic but also didactic. I cannot see why Corpus Christi procession could not be celebrated in a very sober postconciliar manner, sans medieval hymns and flying tulip petals. However, I suspect that aesthetic quibbles over Corpus Christi processions are merely a front for a deeper struggle over the role of the Eucharist at Mass.

      • Kurt


        Just to show you what a big world and diverse world this is, my parish had a Corpus Christi procession Sunday, with adoration across the street from the church at an altar set up in a public park. It was gaudy and lovely. The only complaints came from some conservatives who didn’t like the idea of the Eucharist being exposed in a public park surronded by drunks and homeless peole along with parishioners.

        For us progressives, we had difficulty understanding why that was a problem.

      • Jordan

        re: Kurt [June 5, 2013 4:13 pm]: Right on, Kurt! Thanks for proving my prejudices wrong.

        For us progressives, we had difficulty understanding why that was a problem.

        Aren’t we all “drunks and homeless” in one way or another? I’m glad that you had the Corpus Christi procession in the park despite the naysayers. I’d join you next year, at least in spirit.

        • Kurt

          Well, you know the date. You would be more than welcome. Maybe you and I could get there 15 mins. early and clean up the empty Ripple bottles and used condoms so those who had concerns about it this year will feel more comfortable next year. Just a thought.

      • Julia Smucker

        I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that the Mass is insufficient for understanding the Real Presence, but I am essentially with you, Jordan. I have a hard time understanding the automatic aversion to Eucharistic adoration that is often heard from the liturgical left, precisely because it has become so integral with the Mass itself, with those who practice adoration typically also being those who most frequently receive the Eucharist at Mass. To some extent I get the squeamishness over the medieval practice of “ocular communion” as a replacement for reception, but that’s just not what current practice is. Whether or not this is understood well is perhaps another question, but in practice, adoration has come to be rooted in the Eucharistic celebration and an extension of it, which is as it should be.

        Personally, I’m glad I came to these practices ignorant of these intra-ecclesial polemics. It was a Corpus Christi procession that made me realize I believed all these songs we were singing about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist – singing of both what the Eucharist is and also what it does, and I had seen that lived out in community. So I would add that the life of the community of faith is also, in another sense, a necessary extension of Eucharistic reception.

        In a similar vein, along with Kurt, I would imagine that “a public park surrounded by drunks and homeless people along with parishioners” is exactly where our Lord would want to be.

        • trellis smith

          My understanding that a considered criticism of Eucharistic adoration is in large part informed by Buber’s I-It vs I -Thou observations. That the reason the Corpus Christi processions have fallen in to disfavor is due to this objectification of the Eucharist. where we do not worship the bread as Christ but the presence of Christ.

    • I, for one, am all for things like adoration/benediction etc. On the other hand, while it may increase the number of Catholic who say they are aware of Church teaching, there is a not insignificant danger that it will give some people a very inadequate view of what the Church means by Real Presence, i.e., something akin to a magic trick in which the species become a disguise for literal, physical flesh and blood, rather than a sign of Christ’s complete (and therefore bodily) gift of himself.

      Significant and well-informed catechesis must accompany any such return to the eucharistic piety you and I both advocate. Otherwise we might well increase the number of people who think they are aware of Church teaching without actually making much improvement in the number of people who actually are aware of Church teaching. (A dynamic, I might add, completely ignored in the survey presented above.)

      For example, how many people currently involved in such practices would be scandalized by the following statement (guess that author!):

      “There were those filled with the thought: Jesus is really there. But “reality”, for them, was simply physical, bodily. Consequently, they arrived at the conclusion: In the Eucharist we chew on the flesh of the Lord; but therein they were under the sway of a serious misapprehension. … . Jesus is not there like a piece of meat, not in the realm of what can be measured and quantified. Anyone who conceives of reality as being like that is deceiving himself about it and himself. He is living his life all wrong.”

      And it was certainly those who attended such pious practices, but were poorly catechized, that found fault with Bishop Bagobiri in this little tempest:

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Apropos that almost incredibly subtle parsing of “corporeality” and “physicality” one is reminded that in the ages before a more literary analysis gained sway in academia one might well have considered those deductions as pertaining to a some sort of final categories. Whether one accepts language as an arbiter of such matters or not, though, there is no room for doubt that at least culturally language-analysis is a very present issue in the zeitgeist at the very least. Since this post was about what various polled positions of the Catholic populace might be, it would seem strange that those same above deductions about “corporeal” and “physical” could any real distinguishable meaning for anyone today. Clearly they meant something to the writer at the Catholic Register, and the intricacy is impressive and worthy of a storied intellectual past of the RC Church. Yet there is no possible real meaning here, since everyone (even those who reject ironically) assumes a potential possibility of literary analysis in which meanings would be either moot, or vexed. Or they simply might, for very serious reasons, one’s based in actual famous works from the literary canon itself, mean other things variably related to the original senses in Catholic doctrine. A large scale proff of that last contention would be the very fascinating doctoral dissertation by Jay Zysk from Brown called “Reforming Corporeality” and which deals with Eucharistic notions in English Drama.

        My point in bringing up that academic work is that it can function as a kind of broad proof of a more amorphous sense. That Catholic notions were always extremely multivalent. And that the Counter-Reormation Tridentine notions always had, as I say elsewhere in a different context, a “put-on quality”. Whereas the essentially notions was anything but a matter of bright lines, and anathematized definitions, but very ample in meaning. Therefore, and in summary, if we were talking about a faith community that was rather enclosed like Amish or Hasidic Jewry, we might have a chance to consider a very pinpoint meaning in the haystack of cultural valences through centuries. But the Catholic community has always been the opposite, and so speak of the meaning of these matters in such final and refined terms is, well, for such a huge community, not amenable to any real meaning.

        • PPF, Yes, the flattened out worldview does strip things down in a way that makes a traditional sense of sacramentality very difficult to impart.

          On the other hand, the parsing of “physically” and “corporeally” does not strike me as a huge problem. Of course neither term is univocal and they can be used interchangeably, but I have found very little difficulty in explaining how the Church has typically rejected the first, and in doing so means to reject clandestine cannibalism, and accepted the second, and in doing do means to accept the fulness of the gift of Christ’s person. Once one has a Catholic sense of the body as sacrament of the person, it’s not that tough. Throw in the fact that we call the Church the “body” of Christ in a way that is meant to be taken very “realistically” but obviously does not equate with the claim that the Church is “the physical reality of Christ,” and the seemingly intractable problem pretty much evaporates.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          That “cannibal” rejoinder by Cranmer, as well as his “must needs be a monstrous body” language was truly silly. Cranmer was truly a sinister character in the end, and using the “cannibal” trope, close to the nefarious “eating little children” trope used for Jews puts him in very hateful company. (see Diarimid MacCulloch’s biography which I have mentioned before)

          Whether one accepts Catholic Eucharistic language for oneself, surely there is nothing in that language and tradition that is any stranger than any other religious belief in the world. And since it is connected with some of the greatest art and music it seems utterly farcical for it having been portrayed in such over-the-top terms.

    • Jordan

      re: brettsalkeld [June 5, 2013 1:45 pm]: while your quotation of Pope Benedict amply illustrates your point that Eucharistic adoration requires catechetical preparation, one might also say that the faithful need to experience the worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass in order to grasp its metaphysical profundity. Even if a person misunderstands the Eucharist, he or she may still see Our Lord in different aspects of his perpetual self-gift.

      Despite my pride, I must say this: most people are not going to understand metaphysical subtleties such as the eternal and perpetual dwelling of the ex nihilo creator within his creation, for our salvation, in the Eucharist. Equally difficult for many is the notion that the Lord is willing to be bound by time and space in His sacramental presence. Pope Benedict highlights the difficulties of imparting nuance to the faithful. I sense that even he, master theologian though he is, cannot present knowledge of the Eucharist in a one or two line sound bite.

      At this point David’s catechetical gordian knot enters again, with little ground gained.

      • Kurt

        Yes. The Council of Trent cautioned against even trying to teach Transubstantian to the laity.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          That is a fascinating take-away from that Council, can you give a reference for your observation, please I am very interested.

        • Kurt

          Peter Paul.

          From the decrees of the Council of Trent:

          The Meaning of Transubstantiation

          To explain this mystery is extremely difficult. The pastor, however, should endeavour to instruct those who are more advanced in the knowledge of divine things on the manner of this admirable change. As for those who are yet weak in faith, they might possibly be overwhelmed by its greatness.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          See below for response. I was getting some Holy Anorexia here.

      • Jordan,
        I am more or less in agreement. Transubstantiation is very much a negative explanation. It says what Real Presence is not, much the way Chalcedon says what the Incarnation is not. The basic goal of catechesis should be to clear away a few crude misconceptions (reality=physicality or symbol = not real) and encourage the actual goal of Christ’s presence: communion in love which changes US.

        • Agellius

          Brett writes, “…the actual goal of Christ’s presence: communion in love which changes US.”

          I thought the main point was to allow us to participate in the sacrifice of his Body and Blood to the Father. Communion and charity would be results of that, of course.

          I realize we’re not really disagreeing. But I think it’s too common in catechesis nowadays to want to go straight to the communion and love and skip over the sacrifice. But you don’t get those without participating worthily in the sacrifice in the first place. And the sacrifice is nothing if it’s not Christ truly present in a way in which he’s not present elsewhere. Nothing else can inspire the degree of reverence and awe that worthy participation requires.

        • I absolutely agree that the relationship between presence and sacrifice needs to be understood. (“Sacrifice” itself is another confusing term given widespread, and largely unwitting, Catholic adoption of a penal substitutionary model of atonement that is rejected by every major voice in the Catholic tradition. I’ve dealt with that on my Good Friday stuff a couple years back.) But the end goal IS communion. Matthew Levering has stated the foundational principle well: “In a world gone wrong, there is no communion without sacrifice.” To paraphrase, “we can’t live with others if we don’t get over ourselves, and that costs.”

        • Jordan

          brettsalkeld [June 7, 2013 2:09 am]: “Sacrifice” itself is another confusing term given widespread, and largely unwitting, Catholic adoption of a penal substitutionary model of atonement that is rejected by every major voice in the Catholic tradition.

          The Lefebvrists reject the paschal nature of the Eucharistic mystery. Granted, the SSPX is a tiny, albeit noisy and antimoral, splinter of the universal Church. Still, the refusal or inability of the Lefebvrists to accept the fullness of Eucharistic teaching as restored and amplified by the Second Vatican Council betrays the impoverishment of their understanding of Mass. I wonder if the SSPX’s rejection of the paschal Eucharistic mystery reflects your observation of an “unwitting” but nevertheless distorted understanding of the sacrificial aspect of Mass as only penal and substitutionary. In this case, a schismatic group has codified an incomplete understanding of Mass as only the sacrifice of God the Son to God the Father as an “appeasement for sin”.

          Besides the SSPX’s blantant anti-semitism and cultic overtones, I cannot foresee an integration of the schismatics into the universal Church if the organization cannot or will not accept the fullness of the Eucharist as solemnly defined.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          That is a very interesting comment about the SSPX. But keep in mind the broader picture that their recondite beliefs raise inherently. You have in the Eastern Orthodox a tradition that always had a very different approach to Eucharistic theology. It is hard to even call it “theology” compared to the West, because it is based in a numinous experience of mystery. The more precise issues raised by Western penchant for intellectualisms like ‘transubstantiation” and their debt to other philosophies is an irreducible factor, I judge, in the intellectual history of these ideas. What happened at Vatican II may in the Western context have been a restoration of a MORE “paschal mystery” sort of interpretation of Thomistic categories. Yet the crucial point is that it was very far from being a rapprochment with Eastern type views that emphasize “mystery” per se.

          In the actually Ideengeschichte of the doctrinal evolution that the Second Vat. Council, the related irreducible factor was the absolutely central role of modern theologians in the development of the increased emphasis in that direction that was still far from the Eastern ideas. The proof of the logic I ma putting forth here is that the basis of all those theologies was both heavily Thomist (Rahner) and yet beholden to tropes of modern philosophy like Heidegger. In other words, what was “restored” was indeed both something appropriating the past, as well as hinging on ideas less that fifty years old at the time.

          The reason the SSPX has gained any small traction at all is because you will not find clear evidence of the sort of language Vatican II used without reading it with modern philosophy glasses. In that sense the SSPX is technically correct. For if they had indeed at the Council JUST gone back to an earlier sense they would have had grapple and incorporate the Eastern Orthodox view more heavily. That they did not is the real tip off. They kept the Thomistic set-up, but used modern ideas to make conceptual room for something that fused a more ancient notions with the basic Tridentine grid. The modern philosophy “toothpaste” won’t go back in the tube. It is an ineluctable part of how the past was appropriated in this case.

        • Jordan

          re: Peter Paul Fuchs [June 8, 2013 11:18 am]: your points are fascinating. Thank you. I never considered the radical traditionalist hermeneutic on the eucharistic theology to be an earlier Thomism’s response to a later, more modern Thomistic take on eucharistic theology.

          I’ve often wondered if SSPX theological positions (battle trenches?) are not well thought out for a purpose. From a non-theologian’s view, the SSPX’s sole mission is to preserve a folklore vision of Fortress Trent for its hypnotized followers. Econe’s anti-semitism, Vichy love, bizarro conspiracy theories, and even unintended consequences such as a gaydar signal that can be detected in Alpha Centauri, though vile and in the final case ironically humorous, are merely smokescreens. The central theological goal of the Lefebvrists is a purposeful fundamentalism which feigns ignorance of Vatican II development of doctrine. The maintenance of a cult (in the “new religious movement” sense of “cult”) requires an cadre of leaders who understand and manipulate knowledge of that which harms the cult in order to shield the brainwashed from this knowledge. The SSPX leadership thrives not because of an ignorance of the development of doctrine, but precisely because of an intense knowledge of this phenomenon.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          I think you just about nailed it, hilariously!

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    You wrote: “” To paraphrase, “we can’t live with others if we don’t get over ourselves, and that costs.” I like that! So true! But I wonder if you think that goes for institutions as well as for people or individuals. Would an institution that claims that it has “absolute truth” fit the model of having gotten “over itself”. Or is there something still to get over?? In the simplest sense isn’t a person who believes they are “always right” and “always have good intentions deep down” the same as a group that has “absolute truth”. If not how is that possible. Finally, would that be real kenotic sacrifice for the ancient organization, to let go of the absoluteness but still keep the meaning??! or does meaning have to mean you are always right?

  • trellis smith

    i wonder what is the continual appeal to absolutist static authoritarian organizations that need to develop overarching theories of faith and morality in the first place. It seems to me that this stems from a desire for objective standards, rather than a willingness to accept the actual conditional moral universe that can be nothing but subjective.

    I think this has worked less detrimentally when the absolutes are understood as idealized but with a more realist approach the distortions have become more apparent.
    In other words as, i believe it was Chesterton who observed that Christianity’s ideals were founded in the warm south around the waters of the Mediterranean and flourished until the barbarians descended from the north and turned the ideals into the ground rules.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      Ironically, it was not Chesterton, but Edward Gibbon who originally that. In further irony, Chesterton’s view has much more in line the “barbarian” hostility to inconvenient facts and arguments, than to the love of thinking expansively that was favored by those in warmer climes. Chesterton’s view really is a version of the sort of fideism that flourished in the north, except that he felt that Italian Tomas dAquino was not a thinker but part of an unanalyzable datum of nature itself. In the end Chesterton view has more in common with barbarian animism than anything else. And the Angelic Doctor was not the complex cultural character he was, but for the big fellow was a sort of shamanic totem of “reality”. Very barbarian indeed. No wonder libertarians love him.

  • trellis smith

    Thanks for the original source, I’ll look for it as I’m actually reading him now.. It was always seemed to be a good argument for electing an Italian as pope. The last two,only confirming the theory.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Thank you for providing that, but that was indeed what I thought you were referring to. With respect, I think you have misread it entirely, and placed a modern heuristic on a much older intent. To wit, notice they do not say that one should not communicate it, just that the weak of faith “might be overwhelmed”. Well, this could be a virtual summary of the whole ethos of the Counter-Reformation itself. In fact the entire aesthetic of the Counter-Reformation was to overwhelm the viewer and the listener, and in that active attempt to overwhelm, to instruct in the faith.

    The modern heuristic being applied is the modern fad for cryptic knowledge. Unlike professional private unshared business knowledge that really is a serious unavoidable thing, the fashion for cryptic knowledge proffered by modern media in the form of Harry Potter and in the past decades Dungeons and Dragons, etc. has actually been very popular amongst Catholics. (n.b. I just saw a video with Brett on Youtube the Theology of the Body which somehow wove in Dungeons and Dragons into the discussion, all very naughty) I am not saying you are into that stuff, but that a kind of grass roots penchant for that kind of stuff (probably from their highschoool days) has affected Catholics when they grow-up and start thinking seriously about religious matters, if they choose to do so Ironically, the more principled sort of secrecy that was according to Habermas part of the development of modern bourgeois civic culture somehow rankled the RC church. And that is because the Counter-Reformation ethos was about the opposite at least aesthetically….to overwhelm with info, not keep it in. (Of course, no organization functions without some level of secrecy, and the RC church never gave up its curial confidences, not by a long shot.)

    It is funny even to see the quite formidable Husserlian Fr. Sokolowski, who I remember from CUA, engaging in this de facto Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter heuristic. Philosophy makes strange bedfellows, and everyone needs some entertainment when they aren’t seriously working, and it still affects them. For in one book on the RC faith he indeed engages in that trope of cryptic knowledge about keeping it from the average person. But it is still an anachronistic reading entirely, in that case of Thomas Aquinas. The proof is, again, the massive evidence of the entire Counter-Reformation ethos and aesthetic, which employed even Thomistic complexity on the Eucharist and other matters simply to inform by “overwhelming”

    • Melody

      PPF mentions the “…modern fad for cryptic knowledge.” And what leaped into my mind was not Dungeons and Dragons or Harry Potter, but Opus Dei, etc. I’ll take overwhelming information any day, rather than an insider-secret-society ecclesial culture.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Good point. But can I ask you kindly to see that they might all be part of the same cultural matrix?? I do NOT mean that if you one was into playing Dungeons and Dragons in high school that you will, if Catholic, people an Opus Deist. I feel quite sure Brett is not an Opus Deist. I spent my extra time in highschool reading books on Mozart and collecting records. But I knew lots of young Catholic kids that did play Dungeons and Dragons. When one considers the rather, shall we say, “intense” religious ethos that Opus Dei is based on in a very Spanish vein culturally (which always had included more corporal penances that other other parts of Catholic Christianity) and put that in a putative cultural mix with the manifest attraction of Catholic youngsters to Dungeons and Dragons type stuff, I believe we are justified analytically in at least considering some sort of broad connection. The principle irony here, which I will mention only in passing, is that there is vastly more outre and dark in Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter than ever existed in some other groups and organizations that the RC church condemned. Such that long in the future when historians look at these anathemas they will surely marvel at the contradictions. Be that as it may, the more striking issue for this discussion is that such same penchant for the dark seems to have some substratum effect on why some are drawn to groups like Opus Dei. I am sure Catholic kids in Catholic highschool today play World of Warcraft or whatever the latest is. In this cultural juxtaposition is the proof that the RC church view has always had some undercurrent of attraction to this sort of stuff. Which makes it all the more odd and incomprehensible some of the objections they have had to others whose use of such tropes is vastly more attenuated than one could find in the bookbag of any Catholic schoolboy in Sister Mary Francis’ class.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I have been away from this thread for a few days as the conference I was attending reached a very compelling point: I had to teach my minicourse.

    I want to thank everyone for their very thoughtful replies. While I am a big partisan of private eucharistic adoration, I am less partial to the more public displays of eucharistic piety outside of the mass—just a matter of personal spirituality, I guess. But I want to second the cautionary points a couple folks made that eucharistic devotion to some extent presupposes the very catechesis that I am asking about. (See below, however.)

    I want to highlight something Brett said: “The basic goal of catechesis should be to clear away a few crude misconceptions (reality=physicality or symbol = not real) and encourage the actual goal of Christ’s presence: communion in love which changes US.” This really gets at a point I was trying to make in my original post: what do we want to accomplish in catechesis on the real presence? I think Brett has put the desired ends here very succinctly; the question now is to work backwards from these to what we say and how we say it.

    I want to stress that I don’t have any answers, despite the encouragement above from Mark VA that I should write my own catechism. (Humor understood.) My one lamentable year in the diaconate formation program has caused me to ask a lot of questions about pedagogy, particularly adult pedagogy, but at this point I have more questions than answers.

    Let me throw one of these out. Aristotle somewhere argues that one acquires the virtues by exercising them, one becomes courteous by acting in a courteous fashion, brave by acting bravely, etc. Presumably, this implies that one becomes pious by acting in a pious fashion. But does this extend to more more formal knowledge? Specifically, does one learn that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist by acting as though he were present?

  • Mark VA

    Mr. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO:

    I find your post lyrical and moving. Who among us would not resonate with a walk taken
    “Midway upon the journey of our life…”.

    Perhaps you can find some good natured humor in this: when I was somewhat younger, I was very much impressed with the apparent impossibility of the square root of negative one. A crazy, incomprehensible result obtained by following well understood, logical means – is God mocking us, or worse, perhaps there isn’t even anyone out there to torment us like this?

    Later on, when granted the grace to follow Caspar Wessel’s thinking, I was absolutely delighted and astonished by the beauty of the resolution. However, if given the choice, would I exchange my earlier difficulties for a more immediate resolution? I don’t think so.

    A walk, random or otherwise, needs a companion, an adviser, and a friend.


    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Mark, a very lovely piece.