Do we still need Aristotle for Transubstantiation?

Seems the Jesuits are at it again, rejecting the true and authentic teaching of the Church.  Fr. Michael Kelly, Jesuit CEO of the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News has this to say about the doctrine of transubstantiation:

Regrettably, all too frequently, the only Presence focused on is Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine. Inadequately described as the change of the “substance” (not the “accidents”) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist carries the intellectual baggage of a physics no one accepts. Aristotelian physics makes such nice, however implausible and now unintelligible, distinctions. They are meaningless in the post-Newtonian world of quantum physics, which is the scientific context we live in today.

I think it might be helpful to break this quote down, not simply possibly to absolve Fr. Kelly, but to try to get at what he is trying to say.  

So, the first line:

Regrettably, all too frequently, the only Presence focused on is Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine.

Fr. Kelly is right.  Henri de Lubac often distinguished between the historical body, the sacramental body, and the ecclesial body of Christ.  Each is intricately bound up with the other and cannot be separated.  The eucharist points us to the historical body, since it is only in the historical sacrifice actually accepted and suffered that we are saved and healed.  And it is a sacrament, a symbol of what the Church is meant to be, the one eschatological body of Christ. His simple point seems to be that one presence is highlighted often at the expense of the others.

Inadequately described as the change of the “substance” (not the “accidents”) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist carries the intellectual baggage of a physics no one accepts.

Notice that Fr. Kelly does not here say “inaccurately” but “inadequately.”  In other words, if I was a catechist who simply taught my students that the eucharist is the accidents of bread but the substance of Jesus, I would be inadequately describing the fulness of the mystery.  I would simply be giving them a basic minimal definition, the same way as a person as a “rational animal” does not fully describe a person, but only that which distinguishes him or her from other animals.

Of course the last line is the big kicker:

Aristotelian physics makes such nice, however implausible and now unintelligible, distinctions. They are meaningless in the post-Newtonian world of quantum physics, which is the scientific context we live in today.

Well, they may not be completely unintelligible.  And they are helpful concepts particularly in regard to the question of permanence of identity over time when discussing persons.

The big question is whether or not we need to understand a doctrine like that of transubstantiation in strictly Aristotelian terms.  I ask because I recall a story that Fr. Norris Clarke — a recently deceased Jesuit philosopher — told me about the philosopher Gabriel Marcel.  When considering entering the Church, Marcel was held back in part by the Aristotelian nature of the doctrine of the eucharist.  He felt that, because he could not accept Aristotle’s metaphysics, he could accept the Catholic definition of transubstantiation.  His fears were put to rest by his spiritual director who assured him that the Church has no official philosophy, and that these are helpful ways of affirming truths about the eucharist.  But if he would prefer to think of Christ’s presence in the eucharist in another way that philosophically grasps the meaning of what transubstantiation implies (as opposed to consubstantiation, for example) then he was free to articulate this meaning in other ways.

I’ve often wondered about this.  Fides et Ratio 49 for example famously points out:

The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others.

How can one square this statement with the formula of Trent, for instance?  After all, John Paul II reaffirmed in Ecclesia de Eucharistia in paragraph 15 the doctrine of transubstantiation:

The sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, crowned by the resurrection, in the Mass involves a most special presence which – in the words of Paul VI – “is called ‘real’ not as a way of excluding all other types of presence as if they were ‘not real’, but because it is a presence in the fullest sense: a substantial presence whereby Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present”. This sets forth once more the perennially valid teaching of the Council of Trent: “the consecration of the bread and wine effects the change 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. And the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called this change transubstantiation”. Truly the Eucharist is a mysterium fidei, a mystery which surpasses our understanding and can only be received in faith, as is often brought out in the catechesis of the Church Fathers regarding this divine sacrament: “Do not see – Saint Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts – in the bread and wine merely natural elements, because the Lord has expressly said that they are his body and his blood: faith assures you of this, though your senses suggest otherwise”.

Yet notice that what John Paul II draws out of Trent is the mystery of faith involved in the Eucharist.  In other words, it seems at least possible to me to accept that the “substance” of the eucharist is entirely Jesus, while not accepting Aristotelian metaphysics or physics.  This would only be the case if the implication of “substance” in the way that the Church uses it can be described as meaning “that which that thing most truly and really is in relation to all other things on earth” or something like that.

As a possible example, Marcel drew a distinction between “problem” and “mystery.” A “problem” is something I can attempt to place myself outside of in order to observe it in a static sort of way.  Problems have answers.  A “mystery” however is something that I can in no way stand outside of.  I am so bound up in it, that its incapacity for definition lies not in the inadequacy of my language, but in the fact that I am wholly immersed in it.  “Being” would be one such mystery.  We are so immersed in “being,” that while we can define particular “beings” to some extent, “being” itself remains a mystery.

It is possible that Marcel thought that to articulate the eucharist in terms of Aristotelian philosophy was to reduce dangerously a mystery into a problem.  I’m not sure.  Nor am I sure that we should absolve Fr. Kelly.  But I think that we can give him a fair reading and try to understand the point he is making.

10 Responses to Do we still need Aristotle for Transubstantiation?

  1. Henry says:

    A very interesting article Nathan. Allow me to stir the pot by mentioning an article on the Eucharist by the Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri titled: “Theological Reflections on the Eucharist”.

    Here’s an extract to whet your appetite:

    The Eucharist is the supreme form of the life of Christ in each one of us. It is a mystery. As such it is something which cannot be “explained”. Nevertheless, it can be “treated” conceptually in order to determine the precise point of origin for the mysterious, in the mystery. That is what theology does. Therefore, one thing is the mystery and faith in it, and another the theological conceptualization. Obviously, theological concepts are not requisite for a belief in the Eucharist.

    Theological conceptualization can be quite diverse. In this study I will limit myself to a properly metaphysical conceptualization. In this kind of conceptualization, theologies differ according to the table of metaphysical concepts to which they refer. Here I will follow a fairly simple metaphysical course, one that holds to the naked facts of faith. Needless to say, I will do this in a highly elementary manner, tracing only an outline of what subsequent conceptual developments should be.


    The answer to this question must clarify three points: What is it to be real?, What is bread as real food?, and What is the reality of the presence of Christ in the bread?

    A) First point: What is it to be real? Classical metaphysics has resorted to the concept of substance. The real is thus substance. None of its properties has reality except in dependence upon substance as on its subject. The properties are accidents of the substance. The substance is the subject to which the properties are inherent as accidents.

    However, I find this unacceptable. Radically and formally, the real is not substantiality, but substantivity. Among other things, our philosophy needs a metaphysics of substantivity. Let me explain.

    Substantiality and substantivity are very different things. As I see it, things are formally constituted by properties, signs, qualities (the terminology is unimportant now) which cohere with each other; each one, as a property, is a property of all the rest, is a “property-of”. This is what I call the “constructed state”, taking the term from the grammar of Semitic languages. In the constructed state, the terms among themselves, and therefore that which they designate, formally constitute a proper intrinsic unity. And this unity of the constructed state is what I call “system”. The constructed state is the intrinsic and formal unity of two nouns, and therefore of two things. If I say, in whatever Indo-European language, “son of Peter”, I have two nouns and two realities-son and Peter, the one dependent upon the other. But in the constructed state I have, as it were, but one noun and one thing, constructed in two of its moments, as if I were to say “son-of-Peter”. I fully realize that one of these moments is called the “absolute state”, but this term is absolute because it is the base on which the whole thing is constructed. Applied to our problem, the idea of the constructed state is what I have called “system”. Each of the moments of a system is built upon the system’s own unity. Radically and primarily, then, things are systems of properties; each property is a “property-of” the system. This system has two moments. One is that by which the properties in themselves are something “complete” in the order of properties; each property is a property of the others, in a sense, cyclically. But there is another moment. Taking the thing by itself, this complete character of the system is a closed and total unity. It is not a unity by reason of the properties, but a unity with its own characteristic, a characteristic by which the already complete has the sufficiency to be a closed and total unity. By virtue of this second moment, the properties of the thing are not only complete, but they also have the sufficiency to determine the thing as “one” thing. This sufficiency is what I call substantivity. Substantivity is the sufficiency to be a closed, total unity. Both moments, that of being complete and that of being a closed and total unity, are not independent. Complete properties modalize the systematic unity of the substantivity. And this modalization is what I call “constitution”: it is the mode of being “one” by virtue of the complete properties. It is the mode by which “one” thing is “this” thing.

    Systematic unity, insofar as it is constitutional unity, is not a subjacent subject; rather it is constitutional sufficiency, i.e., the capacity of a thing to constitute its own proper unity. The properties, in a substance, are inherent to a subject. But in a substantivity they are inherent to nothing; rather, they are coherent among themselves in a unity of sufficiency.

    The two moments to which I refer (I repeat, being complete in its properties and being a substantivity) are not identical. The unity of substantivity can be opened without destroying the complete character of the properties. This opening is what allows substantivity to change without changing the properties. Substantivity can be acquired and lost in many ways, and always formally without changing properties. Thus, glucose in a jar is something which classical metaphysics called “substantial”, but at the same time it is something substantive. On the other land, when it is ingested by an organism (apart from the metabolic alterations), despite preserving whole its presumed substance and its properties, it has nevertheless lost its substantivity. Substantivity is had only by the whole organism; only the organism is the closed and total system. For this reason, the substance itself of the glucose is, in the organism, perfectly insubstantive. The radicality and primariness of things is not, then, substantiality, but substantivity. And the transformation of substantivity is not even remotely a transformation in substantiality; it is not a transmutation of realities. The transformation of substantivity consists in that the system of properties loses its constitutional unity. It is an opening of the unity of substantivity in favor of a unity of a superior order. Then the properties no longer totally modalize the substantive unity. This substantive unity then has a different mode, a different constitutive unity. In the case of the organism, this is a substantive unity which is not constitutionally modalized only by the properties of the glucose. In turn, the new unity does not necessarily constitute a new property of the glucose. Thus, the unity of the organism is not a new property, but only a different unity which is merely functional, etc. The opening of the unity of substantivity can take place, then, in many different ways. Ingestion is no more than one of them, there are others.

    This substantivity is, then, what formally constitutes what I shall call the “naked reality” of things.



  2. therese says:

    Acknowledging the good intentions of this post, it still reminds me of someone trying to describe a kiss. I.e., Over-thinking it kills it.
    JESUS is present, really present, in the Eucharist. I guess it probably sounds too childlike to say on a blog like this but what else do I need to know? All the shades of meaning, turns of phrases, citing of authors just leave me cold & strike me as obfuscating rather than illucidating My Love.

  3. crystal says:

    Ha 🙂 I saw the post about this at the First Things blog.

    I don’t really understand about transubstantiation, but could you explain a little about what Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx thought about it – I think they wrote of transubstantiation? Thanks.

  4. crystal says:

    Sorry, I meant to write “transignification”

  5. Henry says:

    Here you go Crystal. Note the parts I have bolded.

    by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

    The term “transubstantiation” depends upon an outdated concept of medieval scholastic philosophy. Today, we must speak of “transfinalization” or “transignification” of the bread and wine. The meaning or sign of the bread and wine changes, but not the matter.

    Somewhere near the center of the crisis in the Catholic Church today is confusion about the meaning of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Pope Paul VI recognized this crisis before the close of the Second Vatican Council. He identified the two principal errors about the Real Presence that were already current in his day. The errors were capsulized in two words, “transfinalization” and “transignification.”

    Transfinalization is the view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist that the purpose or finality of the bread and wine is changed by the words of consecration. They are said to serve a new function, as sacred elements that arouse the faith of the people in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive love.

    Transignification is the view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist which holds that the meaning or significance of the bread and wine is changed by the words of consecration. The consecrated elements are said to signify all that Christians associate with the Last Supper; they have a higher value than merely food for the body.

    Both transfinalization and transignification were condemned by Pope Paul VI in the encyclical Mysterium fidei which he published in 1965.

    Transubstantiation is not an outmoded concept of medieval scholastic philosophy. It is an article of faith defined by the Council of Trent as the “wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and the whole substance of the wine into the blood” of Christ.

    The term transubstantiation is taken from the Latin words trans (change) and substantia (substance). This term was incorporated into the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. However, its antiquity goes back to the early Greek Fathers of the Church who used the word meta-ousiosis. Literally, this means change of one ousia or being—that of bread and wine—into another ousia or being, that of Christ’s living body and blood.

    As understood by the Catholic Church, transubstantiation means that the whole substance of bread and wine cease to exist at the consecration at Mass. What we must be very clear about is that it is the whole substance of bread and wine which becomes the whole humanity of Christ. It is not only that the substance of bread and wine becomes the substance of Christ’s body and blood. No. The substance of bread and wine becomes everything which makes Christ Christ.

    Normally we speak of the substance of anything as that which makes a thing what it is. With transubstantiation, however, the substance of bread and wine becomes everything which Christ is. After transub-stantiation, the physical properties of bread and wine remain. But the “itness” or “thingness” of bread and wine ceases to exist. What had been the substance of bread and wine now becomes the whole Christ, in the words of the Council of Trent, the totus Christus.

    Is Christ, therefore, present in the Holy Eucharist with everything that makes Him who He is? Yes. In other words, it is not just the substance of Christ’s humanity which becomes present on the altar through transubstantiation. It is Jesus Christ whole and entire.

  6. crystal says:

    Hi Henry,

    No, not Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.! 🙂

    I saw a simplified explanation at wikipedia of transignification (Schillebeeckx) that made it a little more understandable for me …

    The concept of transignification is based on the thought that there are two kinds of presence, local and personal. Jesus is personally, but not locally, present at the Mass. One can be locally present, as when riding on a bus, but one’s thoughts can be far away, making one personally not present.

    And saw this quote about transfinalization (Rahner) which I don’t really understand …

    “The mental event as such is the individually occurring real and actual event. The fact that besides this there is physical being with activities, but not present to itself in its own awareness, does not make such being a paradigm case of what being “real” means. The physical must be regarded as a deficient mode of that being and reality which is immanently present to itself and precisely thereby brings its own ontological nature as an objective datum before itself.” Hominization (New York: Herder & Herder, 1965), pp. 81-82.)
    I know that the pope condemned these ideas, but I still think they’re interesting. Even more interesting for me is the idea that “Of all the devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us.” (Alphonsus Liguori). Maybe it’s un-Catholic to say this but it seems that to reduce experience of Jesus to the worship of a host is spiritually impoverished. Why is this idea so important?

    • Henry says:

      Because the “banquet” is more satisfying than the cafeteria. After all, if one picks and chooses they, ultimately, end up following a fool.

    • therese says:

      “I know the Pope condemned these ideas but I still think they’re interesting.”

      You seem to be spending your time pursuing “interesting ideas” instead of pursuing your Persuer, God. This is a dead end street. Believe me, at the end of it, you’ll just have to turn around & walk all the way back to the beginning.

      Suggestion: Instead of starting with your own interesting ideas, take a page from Fulton Sheen’s book & sit in front of “the host” for 30 minutes a day for a month. Just sit there. With an open heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to open it. After a month, you’ll see its not “spiritual impoverishment” at all!

      What a wonderful surprise awaits children!

  7. crystal says:

    You’re seeing the difference between worshipping the host as real presence or as symbol, but I’m talking about the difference between worshipping the host and relationship with Jesus/God in prayer.

    If the ‘realness’ of Jesus’ presence is not based on physicality, a physicality that’s not aware of itself (is this what Rahner is saying?), then I’d think more emphasis would be placed on relationsip to God in imaginative prauer rahter than in, for instance, eucharistic adoration. But I don’t really understand this stuff so I’m probably off on some weird tangent.

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