By Brett Salkeld
Earlier this summer, Catholics as well as Protestants using the Revised Common Lectionary heard the Bread of Life discourse from John 6 over several weeks. This is the third in a series of posts, “Real Presence and…” , the first post being “Real Presence and Polarization” and the second post, “Real Presence and Ecumenism.” The final post will take up Real Presence and mission.
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A key concern for the Protestant Reformers in their rejection of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was that it seemed to legitimate, even encourage, idolatry. The worship offered by Catholics to the Eucharistic Lord, present in the host and chalice, looked, to Protestant eyes, like pagan idol worship. Even today, Jack Chick’s infamous anti-Catholic cartoon tracts make much of such “cracker worship.” The Reformation was not, I suggest, the first time this issue had arisen in Christian history. The iconoclastic controversy in the east several hundred years earlier had dealt with the same basic problem. While there are important differences between them, both these controversies center on the question of the relationship between the immaterial divine and the material created order.
God is not material, and to represent God as such, as was common among ancient Israel’s neighbours, for instance, is to risk worshipping the creature rather than the creator. And so, Israel worked very hard to distinguish between the kind of worship offered in the temple in Jerusalem, which did not house idols, and that offered in pagan temples, which did. Following in this tradition, and taking one element of it to its logical conclusion, Islam forbids any physical representation of the divine. The Old Testament, however, is less dogmatic on this point. While direct representation of Yahweh is forbidden, there are many examples of physical artifacts that point to Yahweh’s presence and action, for instance, the bronze serpent, the tabernacle, and, above all, the temple itself.
These objects are always ambiguous – the serpent was so ambiguous it eventually became an actual idol and needed to be destroyed – they point to God, but they are not God. Indeed, from the Christian perspective, they do more than point to God; they point to the incarnation itself. In Jesus, God “tabernacled” or “pitched his tent” among us. Jesus is the true temple, the one that can be raised three days after it is torn down, the “place” where we can worship in spirit and in truth. Even the serpent, lifted up and gazed upon in the desert, prefigures Christ’s crucifixion.
And, by pointing to the incarnation, they point to the resolution of the basic problem. If God is divine, spirit, immaterial, how can we humans, strange mix of matter and spirit that we are, have communion with God? We cannot leave our material being behind, though various Gnostic movements throughout Christian history have tried. Rather, God joins us in our material existence. It was this incarnational principle that resolved the iconoclastic controversy. Christians could depict God because God had depicted Godself in Christ.
Of course, important distinctions remained necessary. Even as he points beyond himself to the Father, Jesus is himself fully God and therefore worthy of worship without qualification. Icons both point to God and depict God, but they are not God. They function like windows, transparent to the truth on the “other side” of them. We should not mistake a window for a landscape.
When it comes to the Eucharist, the distinctions are perhaps even more subtle. On the one hand, we say that, because the substance of the bread and wine really have become Christ’s body and blood, worship of the Eucharist is not merely legitimate, but obligatory. If the Eucharist really is Jesus, the appropriate response is worship. On the other hand, we recognize that the accidents of bread and wine which remain after the consecration are not Jesus. They are, rather, more like the windows through which we can see God’s presence among us. What is worshipped in the Eucharist is not the physical elements of bread and wine.
This is well and good in theory. But Protestants may indeed be skeptical that these distinctions always hold in practice. Certainly, many devout Catholics often profess things about the Eucharistic elements that are far from the teaching of the Church. And if anyone actually is worshipping the physical elements themselves, that would technically constitute idolatry.
The recent and ongoing pandemic furnishes us with an illuminating example of such confusion. It is not uncommon, in some circles, to hear the complaint that bishops who follow public health orders and introduce certain cautions into the sharing of the Eucharist at Mass lack faith in Christ’s Real Eucharistic Presence. If the bread and wine really do become Jesus, it is asserted, it would be impossible for disease to spread through their distribution; faith in Real Presence, we are told, obviates any need for caution. But this is not the teaching of the Church.
In his definitive treatment of transubstantiation, St. Thomas Aquinas actually dealt with this question quite explicitly. According to St. Thomas, anything that bread and wine can do – nourish, refresh, inebriate – before the consecration, their accidents can still do after the consecration. Thomas calls these their actions. Moreover, anything that can be done to bread and wine – to be eaten and digested, to rot – can be done to their accidents after the consecration. These are their passions. If unconsecrated bread and wine – to say nothing of fingers, tongues, or chalices – might be a vector for the spread of disease, there is nothing in Catholic teaching to suggest that consecration mitigates this reality.
Around the same time that the doctrine of transubstantiation was developed to articulate the Church’s faith in Christ’s Eucharistic presence, a variety of pious practices surrounding the Eucharist emerged as well, culminating in the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Not everyone was going to read Aquinas’s Summa, but nearly everyone was going to sing (or at least hear) the office he wrote for the feast. Things like Eucharistic benediction, adoration, and processions have served to instill faith in Christ’s Real Presence in generations of Catholics.
Such things may look like idolatry to Protestants. But it is hard to deny that, when no one acts towards the Eucharistic elements as if Christ were present, belief in that presence soon wanes. This is verified in both Protestant and Catholic experience. On the other hand, such practices can easily involve misunderstandings and superstitions that are contrary to the teaching of the Church. Dangers lie on both sides. If we Catholics are going to err on the side of fostering the pious practices that buttress faith in the Real Presence, we should at least be alert to potential misunderstandings that come along with them. We do not need to fully agree with the Protestant critique to find in it a salutary warning.
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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: Brazen Serpent Monument, Mount Nebo, Jordan