Real Presence and Polarization

By Brett Salkeld

This Sunday Roman Catholics celebrated the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, more popularly known as “Corpus Christi.” And later this summer, Catholics as well as Protestants using the Revised Common Lectionary will hear the Bread of Life discourse from John 6 over several weeks. With this post we begin a series, “Real Presence and…” Coming posts will take up Real Presence and church unity, Real Presence and idolatry, and Real Presence and mission.

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The doctrine of transubstantiation has, since the time of the Reformation, functioned as a kind of identity marker for western Christians. Its affirmation was as essential to a Catholic identity as its rejection was to a Protestant identity. And this remained true despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that almost no one knew what the word actually meant. Carefully crafted to reassert traditional sacramental theology in new philosophical categories at a time when “symbol” and “reality” had come to be perceived as mutually exclusive options, transubstantiation was a repudiation of both naïve symbolism and naïve realism. By the time of the Reformation, however, it was generally understood as an affirmation of the same naïve realism it had been designed to overcome. In one of theological history’s sad ironies, “transubstantiation” had come to function as a symbol for a reality it was never meant to represent.

In Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, I argue that a recovery of transubstantiation’s original meaning and intention could serve to make this contested doctrine not only less ecumenically troubling, but actually ecumenically fruitful. I contend that, in its careful articulation of the role of symbol in the sacrament and its equally forceful affirmation that what is happening at the Eucharist is real – indeed more real than the default categories of contemporary pop metaphysics can even imagine – transubstantiation achieves what both Martin Luther and John Calvin were trying to achieve in their own articulations of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. More than that, I conclude, much to my own surprise, that transubstantiation could help not only Catholics and Protestants better understand one another, but that it could even help Protestants better articulate their own Eucharistic faith and to better understand and appreciate the Eucharistic faith of other Protestants!

It is, of course, both tragic and awkwardly appropriate that divisions in the Church often center on the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity. And this is not only true of Catholic-Protestant division. Fault lines in contemporary Catholicism, which map on to and reinforce divisions in the broader culture, are also discernible in two contemporary Catholic approaches to Christ’s Eucharistic presence. And transubstantiation again functions both as an identity marker and as a symbol of one half of a false dichotomy that the doctrine itself denies.

While at the time of the Reformation what was disputed was the relationship between symbol and reality in Eucharistic doctrine, what is disputed today is which aspect of the reality deserves the bulk our attention. Everyone agrees, in principle, on the importance and centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life. But one group wants to highlight this through an increased devotion to Christ, present in the Blessed Sacrament, and another through a focus on the Eucharistic living-together – the communion – that the sacrament effects in us.

Combatants might not outright deny the reality preferred by their opponents, but they will generally suggest that, in their zealous overemphasis of it, they ignore what really matters. Often enough, the response to such suggestions is to double down on one’s own position and make a counteraccusation that is formally indistinguishable from the one being fended off. Everyone, it seems, thinks it is possible to miss the real point of the Eucharist by focusing on only one aspect of it. They merely differ on which aspect is the problem.

In Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of Christ’s Eucharistic presence, and in his treatment of all the sacraments, in fact, he employs a three-part schema. Each sacrament contains, he says, the sacramentum tantum, the res et sacramentum and the res tantum. We might render these in English as “the sign itself,” “the thing and the sign,” and “the thing itself.”

In the case of the Eucharist, the sacramentum tantum is the bread and the wine, including their ritual usage. More specifically, it is the accidents of the bread and the wine, their physical characteristics and capacities, which remain fully present and active even after the consecration. Accidents are not nothing. Without them, there would be no sacrament whatsoever. Moreover, we must not, as theologians unfortunately did shortly after Thomas’s time, imagine that these accidents are disguises for the deeper realities. They are, in fact, the opposite of disguises; they are signs!

The second term, the res et sacramentum, functions as a kind of hinge. It is both a deeper reality, symbolized by the sacramentum tantum, and a symbol in its own right, of another, final reality, the res tantum. Interestingly, this is the level at which Thomas places the sacramental character, the indelible mark, conferred by baptism, confirmation, and holy orders. This is to say that the outward signs of water, oil, or laying on of hands, informed by the words of the celebrant, confer something on the Christian, but that thing is not an end in itself but is ordered to a greater end. These characters conform us to Christ and equip us to worship God in Christ. That worship is their proper end.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the res et sacramentum is the body and blood of Christ, substantially present. They are symbolized by the (accidents of) bread and wine, and they are really present, but they are themselves also a symbol of the res tantum, the true end of the Eucharist, which Thomas identifies with communion in the ecclesial body of Christ, the Church. The Body of Christ on which we are fed builds up and integrates the Body of Christ which we are and are becoming.

Thomas would have no patience whatsoever with the notion that Christ’s eucharistic body and his ecclesial body are in some kind of zero-sum competition, such that emphasis on one would take something away from the other. An emphasis on Christ’s substantial presence in the Eucharist should lead to, not distract from, emphasis on his body which is the church. It is easy, in our contemporary culture, for our worship to become either individualistic or, what is worse, a kind of territory marking. Worship does form identity. But for that identity to be truly Christian, worship must neither ignore the community nor divide it. A re-emphasis on traditional acts of Eucharistic piety is to be welcomed if it leads to greater unity with one’s sisters and brothers in Christ. If it does not, an examination of conscience is in order.

On the flipside, attempts to downplay Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist because devotion to it seems to distract from the final goal of the Eucharist are misplaced. Christ’s Eucharistic presence is necessary to Christ’s ecclesial presence. That is to say, the Eucharist makes the Church. We do not become Christ’s body through our own efforts, but only through the reception of his Body as a gift in the Eucharist. To skip this step is to imagine a Church of our own making.

Eucharistic realism (that the elements really change) points to ecclesial realism (that we really are changed into the Body of Christ). Likewise, ecclesial realism requires Eucharistic realism. A balanced and integrated Eucharistic theology does not ask us to ignore either element in favor of the other, but challenges us to celebrate each in relation to the other. As we do so, we will find God deepening our faith in both. And then, let us pray, God will help us overcome polarizations that are so at odds with the gift of the Real Presence.

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and a long-time member of the Canadian Roman Catholic – Evangelical Dialogue. Transubstantiation: Theology, History and Christian Unity is his most recent book. His podcast, Thinking Faith!, is available wherever you get your podcasts. He is currently working on a book for Catholic teachers.




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4 responses to “Real Presence and Polarization”

  1. Mark Miller Avatar
    Mark Miller

    Bravo, and yes! To keep to the separation between transubstantiation and real presence only keeps us in identity- not the common identity!- separation. Wow, did Newman also attempt this in Tract 90?

  2. Paul F. Ford Avatar
    Paul F. Ford

    Your book, Transubstantiation: Theology, History and Christian Unity, is the best new book I have read in years.

  3. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    As with so many other aspects of life as Church, we once again live as either/or people, not as both/and disciples.

  4. Roger Evans Avatar

    My first professional engagements as a musician were, in this order, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodist. It was only after those that the Jesuits found me! The various attitudes toward the Eucharist touched me. The Lutheran “Real Presence under” the bread and wine never seemed to me, as an untheologically educated layman, distant from Thomas. That the Episcopalians had a longstanding civil war on the issue was a different matter. That the Methodists just went on trying to do the best they could with rescuing each other from sin while sharing the bread and wine seemed to me pretty good, too (though there may have been a genetic predisposition, since two of my great-great grandfathers were Methodist circuit riders in 19th-century Virginia).

    But this article’s reliance on Thomas himself is a reminder of how we tend to vulgarize the subtleties of our great predescessors in popular discourse (and thousands of novels). It’s Real, and it means to make us Real together.

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