Roman Catholics: Beyond Transubstantiation: New Theory of the Real Presence

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The questioning spirit of aggiornamento begun by Pope John, having opened up discussion on such long-settled issues as clerical celibacy and birth control, is now turning toward another and even more central teaching of the Roman Catholic Church: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In England, Germany, and especially The Netherlands, a number of speculative theologians are independently reconsidering transubstantiation—the Catholic teaching that at the consecration of the Mass, the bread and wine on the altar miraculously but truly become the body and blood of Christ. They propose instead what they call "transignification" —that is, the change does not take place in the substance of the bread and wine but in its meaning.

Both Protestants and Roman Catholics accept Christ's teaching that "he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life," and most churches celebrate some form of Communion service. There is a wide spectrum of belief about what Christ meant exactly by his words to the Apostles at the Last Supper: "Take, eat; this is my body." Luther taught that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in the consecrated elements but in, with and under rather than in place of the bread and wine.* The 39 Articles of Anglicanism specifically reject transubstantiation as a term, but the church otherwise has not tried to define its faith in the Real Presence. Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians believe that Christ is only spiritually or symbolically present.

Roman teaching was slow in taking final form. Early Christians gave little thought as to precisely how Christ was present in the bread and wine they consecrated and consumed at their simple Communion rites. By the 11th century, theologians had begun to use the term transubstantiation, which was eventually defined in the terminology of Aristotelian metaphysics. The medieval Scholastics proposed that at the consecration, the "substance" of the bread and wine became Christ's body; what remained, visible to the senses, were merely "accidents"—the shape and texture of the host, the taste and color of the wine. In reaction to the dissenting views of the Protestant reformers, the 16th century Council of Trent made this teaching an article of faith.

Too Much Magic. What has driven Catholic thinkers to a new way of looking at the Real Presence is dissatisfaction with the medieval way of stating the doctrine. Dutch Jesuit Piet Schoonenberg argues that transubstantiation overemphasizes a magical change in the bread and wine while ignoring an essential element in the mystery: the faith of the Believing Church, in which the action takes place. Concentration on what happens to the bread itself, says Dutch Capuchin Luchesius Smits, leads to such distortions of piety as the little girl's fear that eating ice cream right after her first Communion would "make Jesus' head cold." Belgian Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx points out that the Aristotelian distinction between sub stance and accident "has been philosophically untenable since Kant."

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