What do Catholics believe happens to the bread and wine that are consecrated during the Liturgy of the Eucharist?
As the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe put it in a classic essay from 1974, the easiest way to explain what we are supposed to believe is by thinking about how to introduce the concept of transubstantiation to a young child:
Not of course using the word “transubstantiation,” because it is not a little child’s word. But the thing can be taught, and it is best taught at mass at the consecration, the one part where a small child should be got to fix its attention on what is going on. . . . Such a child can be taught then by whispering to it such things as: “Look! Look what the priest is doing. . . . He is saying Jesus’ words that change the bread into Jesus’ body. Now he's lifting it up. Look! Now bow your head and say ‘My Lord and my God,’” and then “Look, now he’s taken hold of the cup. He’s saying the words that change the wine into Jesus’ blood. Look up at the cup. Now bow your head and say ‘We believe, we adore your precious blood, O Christ of God.'”
Anscombe was making two points. First, that a child’s instruction in the faith should be primarily “as part of an action; as concerning something going on before it; as actually unifying and connecting beliefs, which is clearer and more vivifying than being taught only later, in a classroom perhaps, that we have all these beliefs.” Catechetical instruction in precise formulae and official doctrine is relevant to religious formation. But such explicit teaching is dependent on a foundation of prior formation in religious praxis.
Anscombe’s other point was that the words used in the formulation of official Church teaching are often not the words we should use to explain what Catholics believe. “Transubstantiation” is her example of such a word, but there are more: “divine nature,” “human nature,” “hypostatic union,” “consubstantial,” and in some contexts even “presence” and “sign.” These words are not unsuitable because the concepts they express are too difficult for most people to grasp, but because they belong to a specialized vocabulary and most people do not have a prior understanding of what they mean. Use of these words can do the opposite of what teaching about doctrine is supposed to do: muddy, rather than clarify, the matters we are trying to speak about.
Consider the word “substance.” In ordinary speech, we talk of “substance” in connection with drugs and alcohol (“substance abuse”), as well as in scientific, medical, and environmental contexts. But the concept of substance that philosophers and theologians are trying to capture through the word has a much wider application.
Put simply, we talk about substances whenever we talk about stuff and about things. To say that the “substance” of the sacred Host and Chalice is different after the priest prays the words of consecration is just to say that what they are is now different: Before they were bread and wine, and now they are the Body and Blood of Jesus. This is how Anscombe’s simple catechism teaches this to a child. It’s also, in most cases, the clearest and most direct way that an adult can say what she herself believes.
Anscombe’s teacher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote in his Philosophical Investigations about the strangeness of saying something like “I believe that he is suffering” or “I believe that he is not an automaton” of a human being in one’s presence. Correcting these unnatural forms of expression, Wittgenstein tries saying: “My attitude toward him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.”
The important distinction to notice here is the one between an attitude and an opinion. Wittgenstein is showing us that when we relate to another human being, our way of relating to him or her is different from the way we would relate to a machine or a brute animal. We do not merely think, “this is a person,” but are oriented toward him or her in a way defined by the attitude these words express—just as in reaching for a hot cup of tea one’s hand is prepared, without needing to think about it, to touch the cup carefully.
When considering the attitude of Catholics toward the Eucharist, our concern should be less with their opinions regarding this great mystery than with the attitudes that define their orientation to it. That say they believe that during Mass the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus,” while close to 7 in 10 believe the Eucharistic sacrifice is merely symbolic, is less disturbing in itself than the of genuflection, Eucharistic adoration, and the restriction of Holy Communion to those initiated in the faith and spiritually prepared to receive it. The two things are related, of course, but the latter is more fundamental and more important on its own.
The widespread disbelief among Catholics in the reality of the Eucharistic sacrifice is not a situation that will be corrected by formal catechesis—especially since about a third of those who believe it is merely symbolic also know that the Church teaches the opposite, and many of the uninstructed likely would not care. For it matters less what Catholics are told about the Eucharist than what they are brought to do in relation to it. The most important thing is to take the same attitude toward this sacrament that we would take if Jesus’s dying body were laid out on the altar.
And where explicit instruction is undertaken, the words to do the job are not “substance,” “substantial,” “transubstantiation,” or even “Real Presence.” Our attitude toward the Eucharistic sacrament is an attitude toward what is there. The words of John the Baptist will do for instruction: “Look! Behold! Pay attention to what you see. It is Jesus, the Lamb of God.”
John Schwenkler is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.