Amidst a great deal of discussion and debate over surveys of what Catholics apparently believe (or don’t believe) about the Eucharist, permit me to raise three questions—one somewhat flippant, and the other two serious—that I do not think have not been sufficiently discussed.
First, did anybody else grow up watching the BBC series Yes, Prime Minister? It was easily the best political satire of the last four decades. And this clip from the show demonstrates in humorous fashion how easily it is to shape and even manipulate the results of popular surveys and opinion polls to get the results you want.
Second, has anyone else entertained the suspicion that the use of phrases such as “real presence” and “transubstantiation” and especially “symbol” have raised not entirely justified alarm because those surveyed have in fact a somewhat incoherent or only partially clear understanding of them? I state this in all seriousness because, in less than two weeks, I will be meeting this year’s crop of students, and in twenty years’ teaching I have now learned not to have a stroke during the early days of the semester when I begin to explore with students what they understand of God.
Regularly, when we get to the fourth century, I would do a kind of “pre-test” on them to gauge their understanding of Christology. This had led me to classify more than half my students as “semi-Arians” and an even higher percentage as “modalists” based on their often fumbling and shaky answers to questions such as “How many natures has Christ?” and “How many persons in the Godhead?”
But as the semester unfolds, the students feel freer in the classroom to talk more in depth, and to use their own terminology rather than an alien vocabulary that 99% of them—including those with twelve years of Catholic schooling!—have never encountered (e.g., terms such as dyophysite Christology or even Godhead, etc.). It is at this moment that I see many students in fact move firmly if unconsciously into the Chalcedonian and orthodox camp. Their explanations are often incomplete and certainly inelegant—one scarcely expects to find Cicero in a classroom of American undergraduates—but there is rarely any formal, willful, and contumacious embrace of a fully fleshed out “heresy” on their part.
My third question is, of course, ecumenical and historical: we must not forget that, for all its problems, the Christian East, which largely eschews talk of “transubstantiation” and similar Western terms, has never really experienced a major crisis of Eucharistic faith. In other words, if either a millennium ago or last Sunday you demanded of an Eastern Christian “do you believe in ‘transubstantiation’” they would likely answer “No” because it is a term rarely encountered in the East (and in fact outright rejected by some modern converts because of simple anti-Western prejudice). But if a priest holding the chalice asks the people in the communion line, “Is this the Lord?” very few, if any, would hesitate for a moment to declare His real and abiding presence in the sacred gifts.
Similarly, if you asked an Eastern Christian—especially someone with some familiarity with Greek—“Is the Eucharist a ‘symbol’?” some Western Christians might unduly collapse on their fainting couches at the many Eastern Christians who answer “Yes” for the simple reason that “symbol” is sometimes popularly translated as “thrown/brought together.” In preference to the Latin-derived word “creed,” some in the East still call the fourth-century doctrinal summary the Niceno-Constantinopolitan symbol of faith for it brings together many key claims—about God as creator and begotter, about Christ’s incarnation and passion, about the Holy Spirit, the Church, baptism, and so forth.
And in a rough-and-ready way that is also true of the Eucharist: it is a bringing together of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ (“soul and divinity!”) in one chalice—as the Byzantine tradition serves Communion. Once more, then, I suggest that some of the anxiety is overwrought if we are assuming that all Catholics take the word “symbol” in its arid late-modern sense of being an empty signifier separated from and merely pointing to or being a vacuous aide-mémoire for something else seen as substantial and “real.” If that, and that alone, were indeed how Catholics understood the Eucharist we would have a problem. But do they, and do we?
Perhaps, like juries in Scottish courts, we might consider a verdict of “not proven” pending further and deeper discussion. In the meantime, the Latin Church can and must do everything possible not just to catechize and clarify, but above all to recover once more the liturgical culture of reverence and mystery that the East has rightly retained but the West largely, and lamentably, lost.
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