Among Catholic news in the past year, a startling survey from Pew Research Center has discovered that a mere 28% of Catholics know and believe the Church teaching on transubstantiation, that the bread and wine during Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ. Of weekly mass-going Catholics, only 63% believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In both instances, the statistic should invariably be 100% if these participants do in fact consider themselves Catholic. But what exactly does the Church mean by transubstantiation, and why should we believe it? How is it possible that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus?
One way to break this down is through philosophy. Apart from the theological necessity and scriptural evidence for the Real Presence, many may struggle with logically wrapping their minds around this concept. First, let’s define the word “transubstantiation” itself. It literally means to change substance, so when applied to what happens at Mass, a change in substance from bread and wine is implied. Substance, as Aristotle defines, is that which is essential to what something is. He further notes that the primary or “principle” substance of a thing cannot be described by anything other than the substance itself. It is that which it simply is, that which is most fundamental. During transubstantiation, the whole substance that is bread and wine become the whole substance of Jesus Christ’ Body and Blood. At the fundamental, substantial level, the Eucharist is Jesus Christ.
So, if this change in substance is occurring during Mass, why does the Eucharist still look, taste, and smell like bread? Aristotle would say (were he a Christian) that while the substance of bread and wine are no longer, their accidents remain. The accidents are those outward appearances which are understood by the senses. Thomas Aquinas further describes accidents as outward appearance while substance is the inward reality. While the outward appearance of bread and wine does not change, the inward reality ultimately changes.
Some may argue that this all sounds rather far-fetched, but we’re talking about God here. This must be possible for Christ who, as both fully man and fully God is omnipotent. He is capable of all things possible. As evidence of his power, Christ in his glorious Resurrection broke the physical limits of the body while remaining fully body and soul, therefore it is certain that Christ is able to break the physical boundaries of the universe and be fully present in the Eucharist at every Catholic Mass around the world. When we start to feel the doubt creep in, let us remember the words of Christ himself to his apostles in the Gospel of Matthew, “For human beings, this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (19:26).
1 Gregory Smith “Just One-Third of U.S. Catholics Agree with Their Church that Eucharist is Body, Blood of
Christ,” Pew Research Center, August 5, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-
2 Wilfrid Sellars, “I. Substance and Form in Aristotle,” The Journal of Philosophy 54, no. 22 (1957): 688-699.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1376, references Council of Trent 1551
4 Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader (5th ed.) (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2017), 464.
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