Friday, May 15, 2020

Do the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ?

I recently read a high-level exchange about the metaphysics of transubstantiation. On one side was a Protestant philosophy prof. (Kyle Blanchette). I mention that because his argument is the stimulus for this post. I'm not trying to develop his argument. Perhaps the argument in this post is different from how he'd understand his own argument. That's not the purpose of my post. My objective isn't to reproduce his argument. It simply gave me an idea to think about and run with. But I wish to credit the stimulus. 

Transubstantiation is often challenged on philosophical grounds. Philosophy isn't for everyone, but this isn't just an academic issue. Transubstantiation is Catholic dogma. If a single Catholic dogma is false, that falsifies Catholicism at one stroke. 

According to Trent, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.

And the catechism says 1375 It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. 

So the dogma of transubstantiation seems to require that the bread and wine turn into or change into the body and blood of Christ. The unconsecrated communion elements become the body and blood of Christ. That, however, raises the issue of what's required for one thing to become something else. 

Suppose on Monday I see a mouse. Suppose on Tuesday I see a Porsche. Suppose you tell me that the Porsche used to be the mouse. The mouse turned into a Porsche.

A problem with that claim is that, at the level of a mouse and a Porsche, they have nothing in common. They have some constitutive elements in common, like atoms and molecules, but in no respect is a mouse a Porsche. There's complete discontinuity at that higher level. A difference in kind, not degree. 

The Catholic position is actually more radical than my illustration. On the Catholic position, the two substances don't even share any constitutive elements in common (see below). 

Put another way, it's consistent that a Porsche was never a mouse. It was always a Porsche. It didn't originate as a mouse. Consistent for each to have separate origins. 

What really happened is that the mouse ceased to exist, and (let's say) a Porsche suddenly sprang into existence. The mouse didn't become a Porsche. Rather, the mouse existed, then it ceased to exist. The Porsche didn't exist, then a day later it came into being. There's succession but no continuity. No continuum between what was the case on Monday and what was the case on Tuesday. 

But this generates a contradiction between what transubstantiation claims and what it implies. The claim is that the bread and wine turn into the body and blood. But the implication of the dogma is that the body and blood replace the bread and wine. The bread and wine cease to exist. Something else takes their place. So there's no continuity between the two things. 

Given the claim, there's no reason a priest has to start with bread and wine to get the same result. Since the end-result replaces the bread and wine, you could, in principle, have the replacement directly, without the bread and wine as a starting-point, just as you don't to start with a mouse to produce a Porsche. There's no essential relationship between the bread and wine and the replacement. It isn't necessary for a Porsche to be the end-product of a mouse. Indeed, that would be very strange way to create a Porsche.

At this point a Catholic might object that they do share something in common: the secondary properties of bread and wine. The phenomenal/sensory properties of bread and wine.

But that won't do. According to the metaphysics of transubstantiation, those are accidental properties. But at the substantive level, the body and blood share nothing in common with the bread and wine. One substance didn't become or change into another substance. Rather, one substance replaces another substance, but it has the same accidental properties. So the fundamental dichotomy remains. 


  1. Aren't those two separate questions? Meaning, if one answers no to the question of whether or not the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation is true, does that necessarily also require answering no to the question in your post headline?

    1. That depends on whether there's an alternative explanation, differing from transubstantiation, in which it's still coherent to maintain that the bread and wine turn into the body and blood.

    2. Apologies, after I posted, I realized that could come off like a gotcha question, given that we don't know each other and you have absolutely no idea where I"m coming from. I'm Orthodox and Orthodoxy answers yes to the headline question, no to transubstantiation, and has no alternative explanation. It is, quite simply, a Mystery.

      St John of Damascus summarizes it like this: " For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things that are supernatural and which it is not possible to comprehend unless by faith alone. How shall this be, said the holy Virgin, seeing I know not a man? And the archangel Gabriel answered her: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee(4). And now you ask, how the bread became Christ's body and the wine and water Christ's blood. And I say unto thee, "The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought."'

    3. The Roman Catholic position is vulnerable to rational scrutiny because it attempts to provide a rational explanation. If the EO punt to paradox, that shifts the issue to biblical exegesis.

    4. Thanks very much for the reply! I better see where you're coming from now.

    5. Two additional points:

      i) There's a difference between a mystery and a paradox. Something can be mysterious without being contradictory. On the face of it, the real presence is contradictory, not merely mysterious.

      ii) We can only believe a claim insofar we understand the complain. If the claim is *completely* mysterious, then there's nothing to believe. It's just some words with no discernible concept to back them up. A point I make in this post:

    6. Try as we might, it isn't possible to believe a claim that's totally incomprehensible.

    7. I read your link. Can you expand on/clarify what you mean by this?

      "That's different from, say, the Incarnation or Trinity, where we can specify the elements of the composite concept, even if the nature of the relation is mysterious."

      I ask because I don't find the Trinity any more comprehensible than what we're talking about here.

    8. In the case of the Incarnation, we have very specific concepts regarding the components of the Incarnation: what it means to have a divine nature, what it means to have a human nature (body and rational soul). The mystery lies in their interrelation, not the constitutive concepts.

      Likewise, in the case of the Trinity, we have very specific concepts regarding the components of the Trinity. What it means to have a divine nature (i.e. the divine attributes). What it means to be person. Trinitarians may vary in how they define personhood, but however they define it, they can say what they mean. The mystery lies in their interrelation, not the constitutive concepts.

      I'd add that I don't find the Trinity or Incarnation paradoxical, but I grant that they are mysterious (as I just explained).

      In the case of the presence, by contrast, the concept is wholly opaque. I explain that in my post. If you disagree, you need to explain why.

      Put another way, the Eastern Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are fairly extracting. The position is define partly in opposition to a number of Christological and Trinitarian heresies. So EO theology is quite clear what what the Incarnation and Trinity are not. The point of contrast is stated in detail.

      I'd add that transubstantiation was proposed to save appearances. In the Gospels, the body of Jesus is the body of a human male, about 5-6 feet tall (give or take), with all the body parts, organs, &c. In what sense does wafer or content of a chalice correspond to that description?

    9. Thanks for taking the time to expand. I appreciate it.

  2. Good discussion, Steve. If one wishes to defend transubstantiation, then he or she is required to embrace all sorts of bizarre contradictions in logic and devise convoluted sounding theories as to how such can be valid. Readers also might find this discussion interesting:

  3. Steve--

    Another difficulty with transubstantiation is that when the mouse becomes a Porsche, it remains the size and shape of a mouse, still as furry and full of energy. You cannot "drive" it. You deal with the "Porsche" exactly how you would normally deal with a mouse: you catch it in a trap and feed it to your cat.

    Unless the Eucharist has a spiritual explanation and purpose, it cannot be distinguished from cannibalism. Catholics would be much better off punting to the early church did. Not a single early church father I'm aware of speaks of the disappearance of bread and wine. Instead, there is a juxtaposition of the worldly elements and the heavenly presence.

  4. Steve--

    In reply to your post on "apophatic sacramentalism," Lydia McGrew makes a case for the continued use of Real Presence. Most, if not all, of the magisterial Reformers (including Zwingli, I believe) employed this terminology for the Eucharist.

    Calvin speaks of our being spiritually "lifted up" to Christ's physical presence at the right hand of the Father. We feast in our hearts with thanksgiving on the glorified flesh of Christ to our spiritual nurturance. I don't see why glorified flesh has to comport to our notions of "bloody blood" or however it was you put it. And no transformation of the elements need occur for the Real Presence to be present.


  5. You asked why it has to be bread. The Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine and Faith specifies the substance must be bread in order for consecration to take place... and for that matter, the bread must contain gluten.

    A good study for contemporaries trying to understand transubstantiation is the impacts of gluten during and after communion. Why are Roman Catholics with celiac disease or gluten intolerances concerned about partaking safely of consecrated bread and wine?

    It seems to me, though I realize I am a nobody, that something physically changed into the flesh of God, truly and fully, would not react in concert with elements of the curse (ie disease and sickness). How does that chemical reaction still happen?

    My wife is gluten free. When she eats any gluten, her stomach cramps up and she gets a rash. This sometimes happens after eating at restaurants merely due to contamination or a spice that had gluten in it. So, I guess you could argue that when she eats a chicken breast with spices on it, she cannot know that there is a gluten substance on the chicken breast, because none of her five senses can detect it, although it is really and truly there. She cannot taste, touch, hear, see, or smell the gluten, yet her body recognizes the chemical almost immediately after we eat, and she soon knows what substance she ingested.

    I wonder why this happens to celiac people who partake of communion at churches where the wafers used are not gluten free. After all, the gluten does not remain after consecration, only that which appears to be gluten. Remember what Trent said, “the whole substance” is changed. Yet, it’s a noted problem that has need of a solution according to the following article:

    Why are Roman Catholic Churches offering gluten free options now if the substance of the bread is changed so that it is truly and FULLY flesh? Flesh has no gluten. The problem is of course compounded as usual by the official church teachings which make it a requirement to use bread with wheat for consecration, thereby requiring gluten, in order for the consecration to be valid.

    I’m sure the Roman Catholic armchair apologist response would be something like, “the accidents still interact with the physical world in the same way after consecration as they did before, so we could expect a gluten reaction.” But again I must ask, how far can you really separate the two before the bogus is undeniable?

    The notion that the bread which has fully been consecrated and changed into the flesh of God somehow creates sickness (ie is a cause for a symptom of the curse in and of itself and not due to the clause specified for eating improperly in 1 Corinthians 11:30), is absolutely ridiculous. The Corinthians were getting sick because of their own rebellion, NOT from a chemical compound in the ingested substance that inflicts sickness on an otherwise faithful recipient. Human rebellion = curse. Sickness is a symptom of the curse. In this case, the symptom of the curse, (ie sickness), is caused by that which is fully consecrated as holy or set apart from the curse. The person ingesting the Eucharistic consecrated host, would not have otherwise been sick if he/she had not eaten. The cause is the concern.

    1. That completely overlooks the argument in my post. Given the metaphysics of transubstantiation, the body of Christ, instantiated in the wafer, isn't derived from the bread and wine, so the bread and wine are unnecessary to get the end-result. The end-result is unconnected with the bread and wine.

  6. Steve--

    Actually, NG's comment seems right in line with your own. The end result (the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ) is completely unconnected with the bread and the wine. The original elements disappear. The "mouse" ceases to exist.

    But if there is no more more bread or wine...then gluten sensitivity shouldn't be a problem and the over-indulgent priest shouldn't get drunk.

    Of course, NG is correct, Catholics do sometimes claim that the chemical properties of crushed wheat and fermented grapes are accidents rather than substance. Or, since the Real Presence breaks down as soon as the elements are indiscernible as crumbs and purpled juice. The sacramental Christ does not go through the ignominy of being digested. So chemical properties could vanish with consecration and then reappear soon after one swallowed the wine and wafer.