By Brett Salkeld
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. This is the second in a series of posts, “Real Presence and…” The first post is “Real Presence and Polarization.” Coming posts will take up Real Presence and idolatry, and Real Presence and mission.
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It is often imagined that the relationship between Catholic teaching on Christ’s Eucharistic presence – and the doctrine of transubstantiation in particular – and Christian unity is rather straightforward: Catholics and non-Catholic Christians need to agree about transubstantiation if they are ever to participate in the Eucharist together. Catholics might think that non-Catholic Christians need to adopt transubstantiation and non-Catholics might think Catholics need to abandon it, but both groups tend to agree that transubstantiation is the stumbling block. Moreover, in this too-simple construction, affirmation of transubstantiation is not distinguished from faith in Real Presence. The two are intimately related, of course, but they are not the same thing.
We will return to the question of the relationship between transubstantiation and Real Presence below, but first it is important to note that, while agreement about Real Presence is a necessary condition for unity at the table of the Lord, it is not a sufficient one. Significant agreement has been achieved on Real Presence. But agreement on the more difficult question of the recognition of one another’s ordained ministry – and what the lack of such recognition means for the nature of our “real but imperfect” communion – remains elusive. Without this, even full agreement on Real Presence is not enough.
Indeed, when non-Catholic Christians attend Mass, it is not uncommon for them to be told they cannot receive communion because they do not believe in Real Presence. When some such Christians insist that they do, in fact, affirm Christ’s Real Presence, awkward and unconvincing ad hoc explanations of how that belief somehow doesn’t count tend to follow. The deeper issue, that our respective communions are not in full communion, is generally not even on the radar.
But let us turn, now, to the question of the relationship between transubstantiation and Real Presence. Even if we grant that agreement about Real Presence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for Christian unity, is agreement about transubstantiation in particular necessary for Christian unity? Or might it be possible to agree about Real Presence and not about transubstantiation?
The first step here is to introduce a basic distinction between Real Presence and transubstantiation. To put it simply, Real Presence is an article of faith, and transubstantiation is one attempt to explicate that article of faith. In other words, transubstantiation is theology – it is “faith seeking understanding.” Interestingly, it is the teaching of the council of Trent that it is very good theology. In fact, Trent tells us that transubstantiation is “the most apt” (aptissime) way we have of speaking about the mystery of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. Trent does not, however, insist that it is the only or exclusive way of speaking about that mystery.
Now, what is necessary for Christian unity is not common theology, but common faith. The Church can and does recognize a legitimate pluralism of theology. The trick is to discern whether different theological expressions and traditions constitute any real disagreement at the level of the deposit of faith itself. There have been, for instance, different emphases in various christologies throughout the history of the Church. Some emphasize Christ’s humanity and some Christ’s divinity. This is well and good, provided that one emphasis does not shade into overly qualifying or even denying the countervailing truth. Different emphases and expressions not only protect the faith from potential misreading, but also serve to emphasize how the mysteries of faith remain ever beyond the categories we use to speak about them.
Christian unity does not, then, require that non-Catholic Christians affirm transubstantiation in any strict sense. Indeed, Rome is content that most Eastern Christians happily affirm Real Presence without recourse to it, as Western Christians themselves did for well over a millennium. There is the difficulty, however, that non-Catholic Western Christians have, in the theological heritage of the Reformation, the explicit repudiation of transubstantiation. It is one thing to recognize that affirmation of transubstantiation is not strictly necessary for genuine agreement about Christ’s real Eucharistic presence. It is another to imagine that genuine agreement about Real Presence could be had when one group explicitly rejects another’s best attempt at articulating this mystery.
It seems, then, that while Catholics cannot demand an affirmation of transubstantiation of our ecumenical partners as a prerequisite for Christian unity, the necessary agreement about Real Presence is not possible as long as transubstantiation is rejected as contrary to genuine Christian eucharistic faith by any of our dialogue partners. At minimum, transubstantiation needs to be recognized as a legitimate articulation of the genuine shared faith of the Church in Christ’s Eucharistic presence, even if other Christians prefer other articulations.
Fortunately, this is not nearly as difficult or unlikely as years of polemic and mutual misunderstanding would make it seem. In fact, as I argue in Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, transubstantiation is ripe for recovery as an ecumenical articulation of Christ’s Real Presence and Protestant articulations, particularly those of Luther and Calvin, find in transubstantiation many of the tools needed to say precisely what both men were trying to say in another context with other tools. As my mentor, Margaret O’Gara argued in her response to George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism, “If its intention, its apologetic purpose, and its cultural context could be recovered, transubstantiation might be heard more sympathetically by those outside the Roman Catholic tradition.” The conversations I have been blessed to have with many Protestant sisters and brothers (see here, here, and here) since the publication of my book convince me that she was right.
 Margaret O’Gara, “Toward the Day When We Will Keep the Feast Together,” Pro Ecclesia 19, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 265.
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.
Featured image: The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (Raphael , d. 1510) shows theologians debating transubstantiation, with Pope Gregory I and Jerome seated to the left of the altar and Augustine and Ambrose to the right, along with Pope Julius II, Pope Sixtus IV, Savonarola and Dante Note that Gregory, Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose believed in the Real Presence but lived at a time when the term “transubstantiation” did not exist. They would have been comfortable with patristic language of “sign, figure” within a word view in which signs and symbols really and truly participate in the reality they signify.