Corpus Christi and Reality

After reading my previous column on Hegel, a dear Protestant colleague, recently retired from an Eastern university, noted that my brief reference to a remark by Hegel concerning the Eucharist and the Real Presence might need some clarification. Today, the Feast of Christ the King, which was only instituted in 1925 as a response the growing secularism, is a fitting day to reflect on such matters.

My reference was to one of Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of religion, in which he criticized the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, causing a Catholic student to report him to the authorities. Hegel had attempted what we might call a sick joke: he asked whether, if a mouse had come across a consecrated Host and eaten it, Catholics might be obliged to act worshipfully to the mouse, and so forth.

Hegel replied to the public officials that he was a Protestant teaching in Protestant Berlin, dealing with a religion inimical to “scientific” treatment. And besides, be had been speaking only in an “indeterminate, hypothetical sense,” and should not be expected to present Catholic doctrine uncritically in his philosophical expositions. (I am not aware of other incidents in his teaching causing Catholic consternation.)

My friend observed that I was giving the impression that Lutherans do not believe in the Real Presence. He pointed out that Luther strongly disagreed with Zwingli, Calvin, and other Reformers, who interpreted the Eucharist as a spiritual presence, or a mere memorial – in other words, Jesus was not physically present.

Quite true. Luther did not agree with Catholics that the Eucharist ceased to be bread and wine, but was actually the body and blood of Christ. But Luther did maintain that Christ was actually substantially there, along with the bread and wine. This is sometimes called “consubstantiation,” in contrast to the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation.”

I am not sure if that Lutheran interpretation amounts to a physical presence, but it seems closer to the Catholic interpretation than to many Protestant interpretations. The Eucharist, at least among high Lutheran bodies, is not just an assembly in “remembrance of the Lord’s Supper.”

Apostolic succession is also in play: Luther, validly ordained as a Catholic priest, may have had the power of consecration, if he had the proper intention, although he did not believe in some elements of the Mass. But as his followers and other Reformers multiplied, and produced various interpretations of the priesthood and episcopate (when they believed in them at all), hardly any elements of Apostolic succession would seem to remain – unlike the Orthodox churches, and possibly, for a time, the Anglican confession.

     The Last Supper by Tintoretto, c. 1582 (click on the image to enlarge)

Christ, being the Son of God, has no problem being really, substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine. As the Divine Wisdom, his “delight is to be with the children of men.” (Proverbs 8:31) His sojourn in Galilee was not sufficient; he wants (like an extreme extrovert) a personal encounter with each person. If, as Luther insisted, we are saved by faith alone, the Catholic belief in the Real Presence is perhaps the highest expression of faith.

In John’s Gospel (6:54-57), Jesus says: “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. . . .He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him.” That assertion of a necessity (with its cannibalistic undertones) caused many erstwhile followers to abandon Him. But many also remained, possibly aware that they were privileged to live to see one with the earmarks of the promised Messiah. In Matthew (13:16-17), Jesus told them just how privileged they were: “Many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them.”

But what about us, two millennia hence, who have not been so blessed? We might think, in our unguarded moments, “if only I had had such opportunities, and such a personal encounter, how my life might be changed.”

But we would be on the wrong track. At the Last Supper, He could and did put all future followers on the same level as his disciples, by giving them the Eucharist. They could enter into his presence just as easily as the woman who approached to touch his garment (Mk. 5:28), or the Apostle John leaning on Jesus’ breast (Jn. 13:25), or the Apostle Thomas quiveringly touching his wounds (Jn. 20:27) after the Resurrection.

There have been saints who were blessed in a special way in receiving Communion, actually seeing and/or hearing the Lord. (Catholics, like other people, do occasionally have religious experiences.) But for most of us, most of the time, we may not feel any special presence.

But do you think His Apostles and disciples during his public life felt some special aura as they approached Him? There were a few exceptions, when He allowed his divinity to be manifested sensibly: to the bystanders at His Baptism by John (Mt. 3:17); to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:5); and when his captors in the Garden of Olives were struck to the ground (Jn. 18:6) by the power of His presence.

But for the most part, His contemporaries probably did not feel a supernatural presence any more intently than we do, although they may have been transfixed by His words and works.

Whether or not we, two millennia afterwards, experience any sensory presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the Eucharist offers us the same opportunity as Christ’s contemporaries: to get close and speak to Jesus, and become eligible for some of the spiritual changes that the Son of God can bring about secretly in the innermost sanctuaries of our souls.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Manfred

    “Hardly any elements of apostolic succession would seem to remain.” All the Protestant denominations were formally declared heretics at the Council of Trent. That certainly included Luther and his followers. Apostolic succession can only be passed by a Catholic bishop with the permission of the Vatican.That is why the consecration of four bishops by Abp Lefebvre was so critical. Their consecrations are VALID but ILLICIT. A Catholic may attend an SSPX Mass validly even though the Mass is illicit. Leo XIII put the Anglican issue to rest by declaring their orders were indeed invalid and illicit.
    “That assertian of Necessity (with its cannabalistic undertones…”.Christ’s audience were Jews. They knew that the Levites (priests) in the Temple sacrificed a lamb or beef with the ritualistic cutting of the throat (blood), then burning this offering to YAHWEH (God) (the holocaust) with the priest and the attendees then consuming what cooked flesh of the sacrifice remained. The “hard sayings” Jesus’s listeners referred to was that Christ was telling them that henceforth He would be the sacrificed Lamb. BTW, there has been no Temple, no Jewish priesthood (not to be cnfused with rabbis) and no Jewish Sacrifice since the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Tridentine Mass has always been referrred to as the unbloody Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. That is why a large crucifix is attached to the rear wall of the Church with the altar beneath it with the priest and the congregants facing the crucifix and offering the Host and the chalice of Blood to God. Holy Orders means the sacerdotal charism to “confect” the Body and Blood, i.e., to actually bring Chist down onto the altar. That is also why the Novus Ordo celebrant is referred to as the Presider as he imitates the Protestant pastor who is dealing only with bread and, in many congregations, grape juice. This change was effected in order to accommodate the anticipated streams of Protestants pouring into Catholic Churches as a result of ecumenism.Of course the result was that the Catholics became Protestant in their thinking and the Protestants simply drifted into disbelief resulting in the secular West we have today. Thank you.

  • Marie Therese

    A lovely text on this feast day. Thank you for this well-written reminder about how Christ’s presence is not dependent on how we feel. I believe in the Real Presence; recently, I had this belief ‘adjusted.’ I (naturally I would say) believed His presence was his crucified presence; after all the first communion took place just before his great sacrifice. I now understand the Real Presence is the Risen Christ, the transformed and resurrected Christ. This knowledge changes my understanding of what communion is. I may be a theological slow-poke, but I would love to hear how the Church arrived at this (now, completely natural) understanding.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Marie Therese:

    What a beautiful name (my daughter is Therese Marie)!

    For a wondrous, short, intelligent and yet ssible treatise on the Eucharist – I recommend Abbot Vonier’s “A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist” which was recently re-published by Zaccheus Press.

    Vonnier was a brilliant theologian of the early 20th C, and one of the youngest in history (I believe he was about 30) to take over a monastery. Vonnier explains that the sacramental presence of the Body and Blood of Our Lord is its sacrificial presence He asserted on Holy Thursday, and then enacted on Good Friday – the separation of His Blood from His Body. But then – Vonnier asks – how is it that the Church teaches that Jesus is fully present – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity?

    I won’t spoil it for you – but Vonnier’s answer is awesome and beautiful.

  • Marie Therese

    I’ve got goosebumps. On my way to Amazon. Com. Thank you!

  • jan

    Thanks for the recommendation of Vonnier; I will check it out as well, because transubstantiation is a difficult subject for me.

    Mr. Kainz’ article at one point states that Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist. That actually is incorrect, according to Fr. Ryan Erlenbush at the New Theological Movement: the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ are REALLY present; but not PHYSICALLY present. That seems correct to me.

  • ib

    Well, again Dr. Kainz has a wonderful post. I always enjoy his intellectually sophisticated and philosophically learned posts. Not all TCT posts must be about contemporary politics!

    It should be noted that transubstantiation is not a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a theological explanation put forward on the basis of an Aristotelian understanding of how-things-work. Remove Aristotle and it falls to pieces. It’s no wonder then, that in world in which Aristotle is not the most common frame-of-reference, many non-philosophically minded members of the fidelium, find it daunting, much as they find ANY philosophical thinking daunting. Of course, this says nothing about transubstantiation (true, false or somewhere in between), but quite a bit about the difficult nature of philosophy for many people.

    So, is Jesus Christ *physically* present in the Eucharistic species? Depends on what you mean by *physically*. For a Thomist, following Aristotle, of course he is physically present. For a Scotist or Ockhamist, the decision could go either way, since they attenuate reality. And for a Kantian, the question itself makes no sense, since Space and Time are merely in the mind, and we can never know things-in-themselves, let alone the Eucharist! So Jan and/or Fr. Erlenbush denying the physical presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist puts them outside of “la synthèse thomiste,” but to where they will go God only knows …

  • Howard Kainz

    The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “By virtue of the words of consecration, or ex vi verborum, that only is made present which is expressed by the words of Institution, namely the Body and the Blood of Christ. But by reason of a natural concomitance (per concomitantiam), there becomes simultaneously present all that which is physically inseparable from the parts just named, and which must, from a natural connection with them, always be their accompaniment.” The question of physicality is actually a disputed theological issue. If you take “substance” in the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic sense it is usually physical, although Aristotle in his metaphysics allows for the existence of non-physical “separate substances” like angels. But the substance of a human body would be physical. If Christ’s presence is said to be “metaphysical,” it’s hard to see the difference with Luther’s “consubstantiation.” The various Eucharistic miracles recorded in the Church ended up with flesh and blood, manifest to the senses.

  • Titus

    Luther’s teaching on the subject is not nearly so benign as Dr. Kainz’s dear interlocutor might want us to believe.

    Luther deprecated any connection between the Mass and Calvary. His doctrine denies that the consecration involves any participation in or presentation of the sacrifice on Calvary. Orthodoxy on the question, of course, makes no sense whatsoever without that connection.

    Moreover, as the term (which apparently some Lutherans dislike) “consubstantiation” implies, he taught the destruction of the substance of the bread, but merely its supplementation. Indeed, Luther viewed the process as an actualization of a potential to be Jesus found within the bread itself. This is why Lutherans do not reserve their hosts: the bread is not transformed, its potentiality is merely actualized or not actualized at any given time. Who worships an unactualized potentiality for deity in bread? At the same time, he regarded it as improper to posit any knowledge of the mechanism by which the transformation occurred—despite positing such a mechanism.

    Dr. Kainz’s essay is quite excellent. But Luther was nuts.

  • Rosemary

    I love the story about the Road to Emmaus. Imagine the shock of the two disciples (who were leaving Jerusalem) when the disguised Christ was revealed to them at the breaking of the bread. They got up and went back to Jerusalem! Do we let the Holy Eucharist give us that kind of resolve? Or do we keep it for ourselves?