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Monday, October 24, 2005

Catholics and the Eucharist

A hat tip to Dr. Marianne Dorman for sending me this article in the Tablet. It is an article to describe what the Roman Church teaches about the Eucharist to confused Catholics. It's main focus is presence but also speaks of the instrumental efficacy of the sacraments. Save the term Transubstantiation--as it would be a problem due to the baggage that it carries--I do not find early C17 Anglican theologians disagreeing with what is written here. One can find this langauge specifically in the writings of Andrewes, early Cosin, Thorndike, (later C17) Taylor and Johnson. I will leave a few paragraphs to open the discussion on the differences and what seems to be changes in positions. I hope our Roman and Orthodox friends who visit will feel free to discuss this.
Catholic teaching is clear: Christ is not physically present in the same way that other people and objects are present, but he is sacramentally present. His presence, in other words, is not corporeal or dimensional. So, for instance, when the host is broken, Christ is not broken. When we eat the host, we receive Christ, but Christ is not chewed or broken down by our digestive juices. Indeed, Christ does not cease to be in heaven when he is made present at the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the reality of the bread gives way to the reality of Christ.

What were appearances of bread and wine when it was, before the consecration, bread and wine that was present, are now, after the consecration, the signs of Christ’s presence as our food and drink. What were appearances of bread and wine now tell us something about the reality that is present: not bread, but Christ, who is given for our nourishment, by sharing in his life. In other words, the appearances have now become signs and, as Herbert McCabe once said, while appearances show us something, signs tell us something. Signs are language. The difference is that appearances are simply and sometimes misleadingly apprehended, while signs have to be understood. The appearances of bread and wine become in the Eucharist the sacramental signs of Christ’s real presence. Sacramental signs are, however, not just pointers, but effective signs: that is, they effect what they signify.

THIS IS why the Church can speak of the eucharistic presence which comes to be without the involvement of natural causes or the changing of one thing into another. God is the reason why there is a world of natural causality: every natural cause is effective only because of the creative causality of God. In the Eucharist, the bread doesn’t turn into the body of Christ by acquiring a new form in its matter: Christ is not fashioned from or made out of bread. But, by God’s power, the whole existence of the bread gives way to the existence of the living body of Christ. The difference between what happens in the Eucharist and what happens in substantial change is the same as the difference between substantial change and the creative act of God by which existence itself comes into being, from nothing.

Aristotelian language proved itself inadequate to explaining the Eucharist, even in the hands of St Thomas. But it is not only Aristotelian language: language itself is inadequate. No language could be adequate, ever, to explain this mystery of faith. That language breaks under the burden of mystery is not peculiar to the matter in hand but is a characteristic of all language employed in theology. Of necessity, theological language teeters permanently on the brink of nonsense.


The artice is written by Alban McCoy who is religious books adviser of The Tablet, and Catholic chaplain to Cambridge University. He is also the author of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Catholicism, published by Continuum

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