Catholic World News reports that Fr. Michael Kelly, S.J. the CEO of the Asian Catholic News agency, finds the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” meaningless in this “post-Newtonian world of quantum physics”. Since I use quantum mechanics every day in my work, I think I can match my understanding of this post-Newtonian world of quantum physics against Fr. Kelly’s, and I do not find the doctrine “meaningless”.

Here is what CWN reports :

Stating that “Catholics can become fanatical about one form of the Body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist as the REAL presence of Christ,” Father Michael Kelly, the Jesuit CEO of the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News, criticized the doctrine of transubstantiation in a May 24 column.

In his column— a critique of the new, more accurate liturgical translations that reflect the content and dignity of the original Latin— Father Kelly writes:

“Regrettably, all too frequently, the only Presence focused on is Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine. Inadequately described as the change of the ‘substance’ (not the ‘accidents’) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist carries the intellectual baggage of a physics no one accepts. Aristotelian physics makes such nice, however implausible and now unintelligible, distinctions. They are meaningless in the post-Newtonian world of quantum physics, which is the scientific context we live in today.”


It was a standard maneuver of dissident theologians in the 1960s to affect incomprehension of binding doctrine rather than honestly and forthrightly saying that they rejected it. No one is fooled by that transparent ploy anymore, and one assumes that Fr. Kelly realizes that. It must be, therefore, that he is genuinely confused. I will try to unconfuse him.
The Church has made it clear that one does not have to accept all of Aristotelian philosophy to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation. The substance of the doctrine (so to speak) is easily explained without the Aristotelian terminology. To say that ‘the accidents of bread and wine’ remain after consecration means that empirically the consecrated elements are completely indistinguishable from bread and wine. They taste like bread and wine; they look like bread and wine; they would, if made to react chemically or placed in a mass spectrograph, behave in every way just as bread and wine do. To say that ‘the substance’ of the consecrated elements is the Body and Blood of Christ, means that in reality the elements are no longer bread and wine but are the Body and Blood of Christ.

If one looks at the consecrated elements and asks ‘What are these?”, the correct answer (according to the doctrine of transubstantiation) is “These are the Body and Blood of Christ.” If one asks, “What do these appear to be under any empirical test?”, the answer is “bread and wine.” Basically, that is all there is to it. The dogmatic definition used Aristotelian terminology to express this, but it can be expressed without that terminology.

Some alternative beliefs to transubstantiation are the following:

(a) The consecrated elements not only appear to be but are bread and wine, and only symbolize the Body and Blood of Christ.

(b) The consecrated elements are not in themselves the Body and Blood of Christ, but spiritually and in effect are for the believer who consumes them, in the sense that when the believer consumes them he is united in a spiritual manner with the Body of Christ. (The corollary being that if the elements are not consumed or are consumed by a non-believer, they are not the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus the “presence” of Christ depends on both what is done with the consecrated elements and on the internal disposition of the recipient.)

(c) The consecrated elements are still bread and wine, but in some way the Body and Blood of Christ is also present with them or in them in a manner that is objective in that it does not depend on the disposition of the recipient (“consubstantiation”).

In short, one can explain the doctrine of transubstantiation and distinguish it from other beliefs about the Eucharist without any use of the Aristotelian apparatus. I don’t know what quantum mechanics has to do with any of this. If anything, quantum mechanics makes a straightforward connection between what appears empirically and what is “really there” more obscure than it was in Newtonian physics, and to that extent would make it easier rather than harder to affirm the doctrine.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr

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