EUCHARIST: DOING THE TRUTH WITH CHRISTIAN FAITH
Gabriel Daly OSA
I believe in theological diversity and the freedom that should go with it; and since we are in an Anglican church, let me say how much I admire the Anglican ideal of comprehensiveness, which I know has its dangers and its difficulties, as it must in most churches that try something similar. In the Roman Catholic Church we have a division between traditionalists and reformers. I belong with the reformers and I take a fairly critical view of my church in some matters. I have been involved with ecumenism for more than half a century, and I have tried to learn what I can from my studies of and with other churches whose insights have played a significant part in where I personally stand today.
I find it difficult to discuss the Eucharist without adverting to Catholic conservative attitudes some of which have to be changed if we are to make further ecumenical progress. I believe that conservative Catholics have a human and Christian right to hold to their views; but they have no right to impose those views on others as the only possible orthodoxy, and thereby put a barrier in the path of ecumenical progress.
In an ecumenical setting like this one, institutional self-criticism is necessary because ecumenism is primarily a search for the truth and is not a matter of horse-trading so that we may achieve some sort of unity. We must never be ecumenical with the truth. One of my favourite theologians is a Scottish Anglican, John Macquarrie, who wrote a sentence that I feel ought to be posted at the entrance to every ecumenical school: “The genuine diversity-in-unity of the body of Christ needs to be defended against uniformity just as much as against divisiveness”. (He was a liberal in the best sense of the word.) It cannot be said too often that ecumenism is a search for truth before it is a building-up of unity. For example, I and my church need to take seriously what Martin Luther said about faith: that being right with God is a matter of faith not of virtuous achievement. Justification by faith went far beyond remedying the scandals that afflicted the church at that time. It was a rediscovery of an old principle of doctrine and spiritual life which went back to St. Paul.
TRANSUBSTANTIATION: AN UNNECCESSARY DOCTRINE
Before the Second Vatican Council met in the early 1960’s, throughout the institutional Catholic Church there was one uniform theology of the Eucharist: it concentrated on what happens to the bread and the wine when the priest says the words of consecration. This means that a specific philosophy which goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had become part and parcel of church doctrine, and Eucharistic theology was reduced to a philosophical problem employing abstractions like substance and accidents which mean little to the average member of the church who probably turns it into a physical change, in spite of unmistakable evidence to the contrary. It was one thing to make a doctrine the subject of scholarly study, but it was quite another to popularise it at the risk of misleading the faithful. The church introduced the term ‘transubstantiation’ into common liturgical use in the Middle Ages, at the end of which the Council of Trent put it into the context of the Reformation and that made it a contentious issue between the churches.
Let us lay to rest the constantly affirmed and quite false proposition that church doctrine never changes. Join me now in a simple but highly significant piece of historical theology. There are no technicalities involved, the argument is historically straightforward, and it is very important. The only technical point is the definition of ‘metaphysics’. Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy which deals with realities that lie beyond the senses and sense-experience. There are different kinds of metaphysics. Science has no use for any of them.
FROM LEO XIII TO JOHN PAUL II
In 1879 Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, prescribed the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas as the most appropriate philosophy to express Catholic doctrine. His successor, Pope Pius X, went much further than Leo and condemned Catholics who departed from Thomistic philosophy, especially its metaphysics. I quote from Pius’ Motu Proprio, Doctoris Angelici:
“We therefore desired that all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviated so much as a step, in metaphysics especially, from Aquinas, they exposed themselves to grave risk.”
These papal statements make it very clear that philosophy has played a crucial part in the defence of Catholic dogma since Leo XIII’ encyclical. This solemn teaching lasted for just over a hundred years.
Let me now quote some words from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998): (Prepare for a shock!) “The Church has no philosophy of her own, nor does she canonise any one particular philosophy in preference to others”! That immensely significant sentence written by a pope no less, would have astonished most of Pope John Paul’s seven predecessors stretching back to Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century. Because of its importance, let me read it again: “The Church has no philosophy of her own, nor does she canonise any one particular philosophy in preference to others”. If you had written that in Pius X’ time you would have been severely censured, and possibly excommunicated! I sometimes wonder if John Paul, as a deeply conservative Catholic, realised what he was doing when he went against over a century of church teaching. I hope that he did, for he was only reflecting the tacit teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
It is my favourite example of how the church in fact changes its doctrine according to the pressures and insights of the age, while retaining the essentials of the original Gospel message.
In the 1960s a large and highly significant number of changes took place at the Second Vatican Council; and yet, you will find traditionalist clerics and laity still proclaiming that the Catholic Church never changes. A theology that never changed would be in danger of betraying the Gospel it was designed to serve, and a church that never changed by adapting itself to each new age would be a church that had finished with preaching the Gospel. It would have turned a living thing into a museum.
In practice, traditional Catholic theology of the Eucharist has been philosophically based and has centred on what occurs when the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ by the words of the celebrant. From the time of the Reformation, Anglicans and Protestants have taken issue with this, arguing that a philosophical word like ‘transubstantiation’ should have no place in the language of Christian faith and worship. Let me quote article 28 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England in 1563:
“Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
Interestingly, Martin Luther was more relaxed than this in his attitude to transubstantiation. He didn’t mind Catholics using the term ‘transubstantiation’ as long as they did not think that it came from revelation and that they were consequently obliged to use it. Many modern Catholic theologians would share this view today.
Here let me just say that it is regrettable that the philosophical term, ‘transubstantiation’ ever escaped from scholarly studies into general church life where it is commonly misused and misunderstood. It even fell into the hands of Richard Dawkins, the professional atheist who was lionized here in Dublin a few years ago, and in his usual magisterial fashion he proclaimed that if you do not believe in transubstantiation you are not a Catholic. You won’t find a more infallible magisterium than that!
BELIEF AND PHILOSOPHY
You can’t ‘believe in’ a philosophical term like transubstantiation: you either accept it or reject it as a tool in your theology. As a result of Greek manuscripts being translated into Latin by Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages, the great 13th century Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, was able to read the Greek philosopher Aristotle in Latin and use his writings to express Christian theology with satisfaction to himself and to others in the church. In itself a scholastic theology, like that taught by Aquinas, in the 13th century, can be a valuable addition to Christian theology for those who can use it competently and with a sense of history. The trouble is that it was imposed on the entire church – gently by Pope Leo XIII, and fiercely by his successor, Pope Pius X, who proclaimed Thomism to be an essential element in Catholic faith. This view lasted until it was quietly dropped at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and expressly by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
At the time of the reformation it unhappily became possible for Protestants, Anglicans and Roman Catholics to use the Eucharist as a major point of disagreement and a potent cause of disunity. The Eucharist became an occasion of bitter controversy and disunity – the very antithesis of what the Eucharist was intended to be. Protestants, following the lead given by Martin Luther, expressed an instinctive dislike of the role of philosophy in doctrine, and especially in the doctrine of the Eucharist. Since the Council of Trent is commonly credited with formally teaching the doctrine of transubstantiation, it might help if we examined what the Council actually did say:
‘by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.’
There is no suggestion here that the word ‘transubstantiation’ is defined Catholic doctrine; only that the Eucharistic conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is ‘suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.’ Admittedly, Protestants and Anglicans would find little to appease them in what the Council of Trent had to say; but careful reading of the Conciliar text may help us to avoid misunderstandings and to facilitate ecumenical progress.
CASE AGAINST ‘TRANSUBSTANTIATION’
Let me list some of the main difficulties that many Catholic theologians have with the word ‘transubstantiation’ as used in liturgy or teaching today:
It is a divisive term and has been divisive since the Reformation. True ecumenism needs to attend to the matter with diligence and urgency.
It is in no way necessary to Roman Catholic orthodoxy.
The church got on without it for a thousand years. After the 13th century, Thomism quickly became normal for Catholics – a point that would have appalled Thomas.
The word transubstantiation is constantly misused by both Catholics and others. This is an age of scientifically-based thought; people today do not use metaphysical language. They can share in the Eucharist without knowing what substance and accidents are. Medieval metaphysics today is in no way necessary for an orthodox understanding of the Eucharist, and in fact it can cause a great deal of confusion.
The Council of Trent approved of the term transubstantiation as ‘suitable and proper’ in the 16th century; we are perfectly free to reject it in the 20th. The Council did not make its use obligatory – though, in practise, it expected Catholics to comply with it.
This being an ecumenical occasion, let me quote with pleasure John Calvin who, it seems to me, made the wisest judgement of all when he wrote: “I [would] rather experience than understand [the Eucharist].” That is a truly Christian observation. Let me add to it a remark of Maurice Blondel, a French Modernist philosopher who was critical of the neo-scholasticism that had taken over Catholic philosophy and theology after Leo XIII’s encyclical. It was a simple enough observation, but it got to the roots of the Modernist case against the scholastics: “Some people see too clearly to see properly”.
Let me now turn to a word that is often seriously misunderstood and is vital to the theology of Eucharist. I am referring to the meaning of the word ‘symbol’. We need to visit a movement called ‘Modernism’ to appreciate why symbolism was treated with so much suspicion in neo-scholastic theology after the condemnation of Modernism.
Modernism was the Catholic Church’s first attempt, made by a small group of Catholic theologians, to modernise its theology in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. It was ruthlessly condemned by Rome in the first decade of the new century, and its condemnation had a strong influence on Catholic theology down to the Second Vatican Council. It was during the Modernist period that the idea of symbolism became highly suspect in Catholic theology, especially that of the Eucharist. Many conservative anti-modernists tended to think of symbolism as a way of avoiding subscription to the notion of ‘the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist’. Thus, if Protestants referred to the symbolism of the Eucharist, they were taken to mean that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not “real” – which is simply incredible. Of course the Eucharist is symbolic – how could it not be? It is not a denial of real presence. Symbolism enables us to speak about things that lie too deep for literal speech. Virtually all talk about God is symbolic. (When I was still teaching, I used to warn my theology students never to say “something is only symbolic”.) Symbolism has been carefully studied by scholars who are not concerned with religion. The American philosopher, Susanne Langer, wrote this:
“Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge”.
You won’t find a clearer statement about symbolism than that; and religion plays no part in it. Think of how we use symbols in everyday life: presents at Christmas; special dress for important occasions; a hug or a handshake after a row, the national flag, a military salute – to take just a few at random.
We employ symbolic language far more often than we may realise. Poetry would scarcely be possible without symbolism and metaphor.
JESUS AND SYMBOLISM
When we turn to religion we find symbols everywhere, especially in liturgy. Jesus himself depends on them for his method of teaching. This is because we are dealing with the transcendent God, who exists beyond the world of the senses, and literal language breaks down under the strain of trying to speak of it. Symbolism has a powerful presence in the Bible. A large portion of Jesus’ teaching was symbolic, possibly because his listeners needed to be made to think about what he was teaching them. The 6th chapter of John’s gospel is perhaps the best biblical commentary on the Eucharist, precisely because Jesus uses symbolic language to speak about himself as the bread of life. John the evangelist, and possibly Jesus himself, leaves his image of faith in himself as eating the bread come down from heaven. He must often have felt exasperated when his listeners failed to appreciate the symbolic drift of his teaching: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ ( Jn 6:52) A literal mind can be a major obstacle to rational faith. The historical Eucharist at the Last Supper is not mentioned in John chapter 6. It is deliberately left to the disciples to work out the connection for themselves.
Paul Claudel, the French Catholic philosopher, reflecting on modern failure of faith, says that it is not really an intellectual failure; it is ‘the tragedy of a starved imagination’. I think that Catholic preoccupation with what happens to the bread and wine when it becomes the body and blood of Christ can be rightly attributed to “the tragedy of a starved imagination”. Time does not allow me to dwell further on this point, but it may prompt you to think of the role that imagination plays in the life of the spirit in general and especially in our approach to the Eucharist.
It was the 20th century’s most influential English-speaking Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, who wrote most powerfully about symbolism in religious discourse. He lived most of his life in the USA where he was widely regarded as a leading authority in cultural studies. He made theology a major exemplar of intellectual life in the USA of his time. For Tillich a symbol is infinitely more than a mere sign. A sign, for example, gives you the name of a street, or instructs you not to turn right or left while driving. Even though the sign may be a matter of life or death there is nothing mystical about it; it is no more than a practical instruction. A symbol, Tillich says, always “points beyond itself”, to something which resists literal interpretation and is thus mysterious. As Tillich says, symbols reveal the “depth dimension of reality itself”.
The importance of symbolism for theology of the Eucharist could hardly be clearer: It is seriously wrong to contrast ‘real’ with ‘symbolic’, as I heard and read often when I was a raw theology-student. Symbolic presence is also real presence, and it is often a more powerful expression than literal language could ever be. The doctrine of transubstantiation tragically lacks mysticism, symbolism and poetic language.
WHY SO LITTLE PROGRESS IN SHARED EUCHARIST?
To ask a practical question: Why are we making so little progress towards sharing the Eucharist with each other? It would seem that some decision-makers in the Catholic Church are still acting on pre-Vatican II principles and doctrines, thus invoking a theology that is no longer mandatory in the Catholic Church and cannot be truthfully invoked as a defence for pseudo-orthodoxy. Although over fifty years have passed since the council, little has been done to allow us share the Eucharist. Procrastination (which today is often called kicking the can down the road) is a cowardly way of blocking reform.
As W.B. Yeats put it in another context, “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”. It is high time for the institutionally impotent to speak truth to power for the good of us all: denial of the right to share the Eucharist with our separated brethren has become a scandal in which we are all involved, if we fail to protest publically against needless and obstructive procrastination.
In conclusion, in my view we don’t hear enough about the human character of Holy Thursday. Let me explain what I mean.
A HUMAN VIEW OF HOLY THURSDAY
Holy Thursday is the emotional heart of what was going on in the last two or three years of Jesus’ life. Think, and especially use your imagination to appreciate, what Jesus was doing when in the course of a deeply emotional occasion, he washed his disciples’ feet, to their great discomfort, and explained to them the symbolism of what he was doing. When we take part in or simply observe this liturgical ceremony on Holy Thursday we don’t experience the sense of shock that the disciples felt, because washing feet is not a part of our culture as it was of theirs. In the time of Jesus, feet were washed by servants or slaves. According to John the Evangelist, Jesus then spoke movingly and at length about his love for them, blending that human love with his mutual love of his Father. Deep theology is going on here. In spite of its great solemnity and holiness, it was a thoroughly human occasion which lies at the heart of its deepest theological meaning. It is all too easy to allow Christ’s divinity to obscure his genuine humanity, forgetting that both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus belong to the heart of Christian revelation.
Human beings have emotions that are part and parcel of being human. To lack them would have serious implications for one’s status as a human being. Jesus underwent deep emotions on the last day before his death; and those emotions are a serious element in his sacrificial obedience to his Father. There were no news-reporters at that time asking the Apostles how they felt! We have evangelists, not reporters, in the four gospels. The evangelist John makes it very clear that what he writes in his gospel is “so that you may believe”.
In any contemplation of Holy Thursday we might with profit allow our imaginations to travel back to what we can see now as the Galilean springtime when Jesus began his mission to preach the Good News of the kingdom of God to the region of Israel called Galilee which included the lake, on the shore of which Jesus invited some fishermen to leave their boats and nets – their livelihood – and follow him. From a human point of view it was an extraordinary scene. There was no preliminary time spent on getting to know the men he apparently spontaneously called to follow him. Some of these fishermen may have been very ordinary Jews who were not very religious, or liturgically active in the synagogue; but they quickly fell under the spell of a magnetic man who, over the next few short years taught them about the reign of God and gradually came to love them; and they him. It was a very special relationship, and a very deep one, and it was human as well as divine.
At the climax of the evening, Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it into pieces and distributed them to his disciples in a spontaneously loving gesture intended to express in powerful symbolic and dramatic fashion all that he felt for them since he had met them first by the lakeside in Galilee. We cannot imagine that the disciples would have wondered what had happened to the bread and the wine at the Last Supper; they were far too preoccupied with a deeply moving occasion that summed up the entire time that they had spent with Jesus. In Jesus, they were discovering, human emotion becomes divine emotion.
Biblical history has left us with a moment of great emotional and spiritual significance; and, over the centuries, we have often reduced it to a tiresome metaphysical dispute about ‘real presence’ which has done little good and much harm to unity and peace. The theology of the Eucharist has always spoken of forgiveness; although we Roman Catholics may have allowed our traditionalists to insist on laws, penalties and refusal of the Eucharist as an instrument of punishment.
EUCHARIST AND FORGIVENESS
We have overlooked the forgiving aspect of the Eucharist by the attention we have given to the sacrament of penance or reconciliation. But that is a question for another occasion, except to say that to be forgiven by grace alone is to receive from God a totally undeserved acceptance that is the root of a truly Christian life. To that extent I’m happy to describe myself as an anonymous Lutheran.
Before concluding, I ought to mention that Martin Luther’s teaching on the Eucharist was accused by some reformers of remaining too Roman Catholic. Huldreich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer was Luther’s chief critic. Luther’s view did not differ significantly from Catholic teaching on the subject. Zwingli, however, felt the need for what he called a more “spiritual” analysis of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist: For him, the Eucharist comes about by what he called the “contemplation of faith”. The confrontation between Luther and Zwingli was as passionate and as acrid as any between Catholics and Protestants at the time.
In the light of the sad history of the theology of the Eucharist, it is no wonder that theology has a bad name with so many people today; yet to leave the field to the fundamentalists would be a betrayal of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. Critical theology is necessary in the modern world for the healthy practise of our faith and Protestants have, perhaps, appreciated this more than Catholics. As a German Lutheran theologian, conscious perhaps of the ravages that liberal biblical scholars had wreaked on the bible, has remarked memorably, God forgives us even our theology. It is a typically Lutheran remark.