Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Matthew Buckley on the Doctrine of Transubstantiation

What About Those Accidents?

By Matthew Buckley

The doctrine of transubstantiation has certainly gone through a very difficult time during the past half a century. There has been no shortage of erroneous explanations of this central tenet of Catholic faith. One thinks of new-fangled terms such as transfinalisation and transignification in an attempt to change what is an unchanging and unchangeable dogma of the faith. Some clearly didn’t receive the memo from Vatican I on the enduring permanence of meaning of the Church’s definitions. These false opinions were given an eloquent rebuke in Paul VI’s masterly encyclical Mysterium Fidei which remains for myself a personal favourite in my reading of encyclical letters.

I think most good, faithful Catholics would be well aware of this lack of belief in the Real Presence and perhaps even the attempts to give equal weighting to Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic elements as to his presence in the congregation, the minister or the Scriptures. Something that I call the equi-presence doctrine. Most too would probably have heard of figures thrown around from surveys that only 30% of Mass attending Catholics believe in Christ’s Real Presence as the Church understands it.

But what I am concerned with presently is not these egregious errors that demonstrate the truth of those words “this is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?” but rather errors I have noticed amongst otherwise good, devout, faithful who most certainly give their wholehearted assent to Christ’s presence under the consecrated species. If your classical dissident is prepared to deny the presence of Christ’s substance, your occasional good Catholic it seems is prepared to deny (somewhat selectively it must be said) the enduring presence of the consecrated species’ accidents.

When I say selectively I mean that such persons do not deny that the consecrated species of bread let us say, looks the same, tastes the same and weighs the same. It concerns what might be considered some of the slightly more subtle implications of the presence of the accidents after the consecration. I remember once discussing with a good Catholic friend about the hypothetical scenario of a person taking in a large quantity of consecrated wine and noting that it would be capable of making them drunk. He replied, “it’s the blood of Christ by the time you get to it.” That is without a doubt true but in no way invalidates the point.

I further assume the distinction between “accidents” and “substance” is most likely a familiar one to the Catholic of this sort or the words at any rate. But the full implications of what this means is sometimes lacking. This may be because what we call the “accidents” (the understanding of which I will elaborate on soon) are not after all the most important thing about the Eucharist; the main emphasis being (rightly) on the presence of Christ. So perhaps they are not given as much attention.

So how are accidents meant to be understood? Philosophically they must not be confused with an unintended mistake like a car smash. Accidents are a secondary mode of being. Being primarily refers to that which simply is, the actual thing itself such as a dog. This is a substance which means it has its own being in itself (per se) and not by virtue of another. This is in contrast to an accident which does not have being simply but be’s in another. An accident cannot exist by itself without a substance in which to inhere. An example of an accident would be a colour such as greenness. We do not see greenness walking about all by itself; rather we see a green thing. Greenness is an accident which means it must exist in some substance. A substance is an ‘upstander’ which supports the accidents which could be considered ‘instickers’ inhering in the substance. There is a real distinction between the two since a green thing is not its greenness but rather has greenness. It can be especially tempting to confuse the accident of quantity with substance. But a thing is not identically the same with its property of extension rather it has extension.

The only time this relationship between accidents and substance does not obtain is in the Eucharist. For here, by a miracle, the accidents are sustained by the power of God without their natural substance within which to inhere. The first point to be noted if we are to have a proper understanding of the Catholic faith on this matter therefore is the Church is not teaching that the Eucharist involves some kind of optical illusion. To begin with, colour or appearance is only one sort of accident. But more fundamentally it is the dogmatic teaching of the Church that the accidents really continue to exist after the consecration. Hence all the accidents we perceive are in fact present. But the bread and wine themselves, the substance, is not there. It is not true to say the wine is there because we can perceive its accidents since the wine is not its accidents. Transubstantiation essentially means that even if (God forbid) a consecrated element were taken to a laboratory nothing could ever prove any change to have actually occurred. But neither of course could a scientist disprove transubstantiation when the precise nature of what is claimed to have occurred is understood. For no scientific experiment can disprove that God can uphold the accidents while taking the substance away since the claim is not one that falls inside the scope of natural science’s ability to investigate.

My interest in all this was piqued recently by the resurfacing of a claim that one could not possibly receive any ill effects from receiving the sacramental species including diseases from the communion chalice. When I went to further investigate this I came across an interesting news story from last year when Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart temporarily banned the reception of communion from the chalice due to concern of spreading the H1N1 virus otherwise known as the swine flu. What was most revealing – prompting me to write this present piece in fact – is the vast number of comments underneath the Catholic News Agency story that I read by Catholics questioning the Archbishop’s “lack of faith.” How could he think that someone could catch something from receiving Christ? What sort of blasphemy was this? I’ve no doubt many such commentators were well intentioned and in good faith but the central problem here was no lack of faith on the Archbishop’s behalf but, it must be said, a lack of sound theology by the internet commentariat.

Now let me clarify here that the point of this article is not to discuss one way or another whether someone should receive from the chalice. My points here will relate to both species even if this form of reception naturally has the greater attention given to it in this matter. Whether someone receives in this manner when the option is available to them is their prudent choice. My concern in this article is with the theological claim which I will spell out just now.

I think the general thesis of this school could be fairly summarised by the following proposition:

The reception of the Eucharistic cannot result in any unfavourable physical side effect because it is Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

To this I would make the following observations:

(1) There is no dogmatic teaching of the Church which binds us to hold this.

(2) It ignores the principle that the accidents that is, the properties of the substance, and the interaction thereof with other substances remains as it was prior to the consecration.

(3) In the case of bacteria or viruses these are in no way changed in their effects simply because they happen to be placed near or with the sacramental species which species themselves retain their own properties.

(4) Even abstracting from the question of protection from external agents separate from the species, on rare occasion the species themselves may affect the recipient in a less than desirable manner due to the remaining accidents. I’m thinking chiefly here of people who suffer of celiac disease which makes them intolerant to gluten products. A person who has this condition will quickly discover that they need to consume either a very small amount of the host or under the other species. Some of these cases have received notoriety in the news usually in the form of attacking the Church for not relaxing the requirements for what constitutes valid matter. If the sacramental species no longer had these effects these controversies would never have occurred in the first place.

(5) If this is true of the very sacramental consecrated species then a fortiori even more so is it true of bacteria and other undesirables. Many people seem to frame an objection that one couldn’t possibly ‘catch something’ from ‘receiving Jesus.’ However one is not catching something formally speaking from ‘receiving Jesus’ anymore than one is receiving the reaction proper to celiac disease from Him.

Therefore if a serious risk of spreading an ill effect via the manner of distribution of the species is perceived then a bishop is perfectly within his rights to act responsibility to curb any danger arising from this without the charge of having a weak faith.

Now is it a prudent idea to receive from the chalice? That isn’t the point of this article. I’ll leave that to the individual reader’s prudence. Many are not comfortable with it; others do not think there is much risk in normal circumstances. People are free to hold those opinions as they see fit. The point I’m making is there is no theological a priori guarantee that it will not be a medium for spreading something should all the usual conditions be present. To assume God would simply work miracles ad infinitum to protect us from our own decisions when it is very simple to choose differently is not sound theology especially when God has no problem in permitting us to suffer these things in the usual course of our existence.