The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Belief in the Real Presence: Thoughts from the East

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.

Bishop Benedict (Venedykt) of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saint Nicholas (Chicago) at a Hierarchal Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom celebrated on July 28, 2019, at Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, Oregon. (Photo: Felicity Rose Olson)

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.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Perhaps they haven’t experienced a crisis because they don’t have a sufficient grammar to discern a problem they may nonetheless have, maybe even worse than in the Catholic Church.

    • That’s a curious “argument”. And you do know there are Eastern Catholic Churches, correct? What Dr. DeVille states is true: historically, the Eastern Churches have never really had Eucharist heresies or problems in the regard. Plenty of Christological issues, yes, but not Eucharistic. But perhaps, as you suggest, they fail to be heretics only because they are too stupid and linguistically limited to know they probably are heretics? Brilliant.

  2. One could say “transubstantiation” (and some other teachings from Trent) were rather unnecessary additions due to the influence of scholastic theology.

    • SOL,
      Scholasticism has its origins in Greece and in the Western mindset. No one says that anyone has to use the terms, but once someone says something contrary to their meaning, the terminology quickly clarifies the situation.

      • Mr. Seitz, I am very familiar with scholasticism. See the discussion with Fr. Peter Morello below.

        Trent could have just reaffirmed the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist without dogmatizing a conclusion of speculative scholastic theology (that turns out to be erroneous).

        • Maybe “Transubstantiation” does not have to be reduced too much to “Greece and the Western mindset,” or fully reduced to “speculative scholastic theology (that turns out to be erroneous)”, or even with scientific molecular chemistry…

          Molecules, too, do not have the properties or appearances (Scholastic “accidents”) detected by our senses: color, texture, etc. And, further, maybe molecular elements (rather than, say, the secondary composite of bread) do not exist substantially either, but instead are comprised not only of subatomic particles, but these, in turn are comprised of so-called “strings” infinitely smaller in scale? What then of any non-chimerical “substances”?

          Maybe the metaphysical term “transubstantiation” has a permanently elevated meaning apart from any such physics? That is, maybe we need not dismiss the historic meaning of Transubstantiation as a quaint artifact of Aristotelian physics or of any other?

          Indeed, maybe, it’s a term used even a bit before (!) Aristotle entered into Scholastic thought in the 12th century or the formal doctrine of Transubstantiation at Lateran IV in 1215 A.D. or later at Trent. (Hildebert of Tours, 1079 A.D.)? Besides, as for what is left of the consecrated “bread,” the definition from Trent uses the generic term “species” in place of “accidents.”

          Maybe the ENDURING COMPARISON to be made is between the substances or the “things” self-evident to the human intellect, and the anti-intelligent solvent of Nominalism? Nominalism denies the real existence of things, holding instead that we have only the names of things and that these names are only linguistic or political conveniences—-without real substance.

          Nominalism is especially virulent today, as in the arbitrary redefinition of “marriage,” or in non-binary gender theory, or the overall “tyranny of relativism,” or any street-level double-speak and the denial of the non-demonstrable principle on non-contradiction.

          But, untouched by this mind game of Nominalism is the thing-ness (essence) and the very is-ness (existence) of created reality and of real “things,” like the physical substance of bread, or the spiritual substance of the personal soul; or even the uncreated divine substance of the Triune God—-or, then, the gifted actions by those ordained by the incarnate Christ (fully two natures in one Person) to perform, in harmony with the subsisting Holy Spirit, the Consecration: “do THIS in remembrance of Me.”

          Transubstantiation: Real “remembrance” of the Real Presence, versus unreal forgetfulness and Nominalism?

    • Actually “transubstantiation” not really the real presence, it is rather the philosophical explanation describing the real presence, i.e. how can the bread and wine trully the body and blood of christ.

  3. It is a mistake to state that Roman Catholic Church “lost” its liturgical culture of reverence and mystery.”

    It is correct to say that Pope Paul VI and his “comissars” and deliberately rejected, destroyed and abandoned its liturgical culture, and that they delighted themselves in treating our Latin Rite endowment as if it was their personal property.

    “Msgr” Bugnini, who the reckless Pope Paul VI hired to “de-Catholicize” the Mass, is described by Fr. Louis Bouyer as a man “as bereft of Catholic culture as he was of basic honesty.”

    In closing, liturgical culture and reverence and mystery were stolen (NOT LOST) and were thrown in the trash heap by the arrogant, ignorant and dishonest clerics and bishops of the Paul VI pontificate, all of which quite obviously satisfied Pope Paul VI.

    And now, the so-called “Roman Catholic” Church has no “Roman Catholic“ liturgy or culture. It has only what Laszlo Dobszay stated is a new, non-Roman Rite, a mere “manufacture” (per Ratzinger) by a juridical act.

  4. “The meaning of substance gained acuteness concerning the dogma of Eucharist. The archbishop of Tours Hildebert of Lavardin introduced the term of transubstantiation about 1080; its use spread since the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215.” (Wikip). Aristotle used the term Οὐσία similar to Aquinas’ later reinterpretation regarding substances or entities [beings] that are composite, whose substance is not essentially altered by change or modification of its accidents, color, texture and so forth unless such absence is complete. If the substance of something is not identified and separated from its secondary form, its accidents we inevitably fall into the Kantian error of signification. Transubstantiation explains the substance of bread changes while the accidents remain. The substance of bread become the being of Christ. RWC in ‘Thoughts from the West’ comments that Aquinas refuted the Averroists [those who used the arguments of Ibn Rushd] by application of Aristotle’s notion of Being [Οὐσία is understood alternately as substance or entity]. Another important rationale for the Latin Church application of Transubstantiation is that only in God is Essence identical with Existence. Angelic creatures though essentially intelligence, what they are, do not possess the cause of their existence in their essence. What God is cannot be subject to change as in composite being. Consequently all the more necessary to identify that his Real Presence in the Eucharist is not subject to the essence of bread, its material form, rather to the substance. The West or Latin Church not the East had to eventually respond to the Reformers who denied the Real Presence including Luther who eventually succumbed to Kantian signification, whereas Lutherans today have largely returned to theories similar to transubstantiation. This completes my response to DeVille’s ‘thoughts’.

    • Luther does not deny the Real Presence but he does reject transubstantiation and scholasticism.

      It is questionable whether Aristotelian metaphysics thus far has been adequate to explain the Real Presence, especially when the Aristotelian categories are limited and probably need to be expanded to incorporate our better understanding of living things. As it is, the definition offered at Trent for transubstantiation is wrong in so far as bread is not a natural substance but a collection of natural substances made through human artifice, and whatever form bread may have is an accidental one as proper to a human artifact, not a substantial one.

      • Sol you misunderstand the meaning of substance as a metaphysical principle [principles that transcend the physical] of being. It is not a conglomeration of physical substances. For example when you refer to form you conceive a physical form. Form in metaphysics is an act. Luther’s idea of real presence was that God is not in the Eucharist rather ‘underneath’, which in effect means that the Eucharist itself is not the Real Presence.

        • Thank you Fr. M.

          You are handling this with genuine expertise, especially in responding to Dr. DeVille, and I am in your debt.

          God bless you and keep you.

      • To help you better understand Sol what St Thomas Aquinas is saying, as said form is a metaphysical principle inferred from the physical world. The act of the form’informs’ matter, matter not physical rather a transcendent principle of being. That act of the form on matter belongs to a substance, it is what actualizes substance giving its form as an entity. Over and above the act of the form on matter an entity like this person, or a host consisting of bread called a substance receives its act of existence, esse in Latin from God. Luther’s error was that God is not ‘in’ the bread but under. God whose omnipotence enables him to come into our physical world as a Man is certainly able to come into this world in the physical form of bread. The consecrated host then is Christ. He is not in or under the host. The host actually becomes the living Christ by the power of God given to the priest.

        • Fr. Peter Morello, form and matter are both principles studied under Aristotelian physics before they are reconsidered under metaphysics. While the human soul is the form of the human body, there is no natural substantial form that gives unity to bread as bread — its unity is an accidental unity. It has no more substantial unity than a chair. This distinction goes back to Aristotle, who distinguishes between things that exist by nature and things that exist by human craft when discussing change and the principles of change. Again, it is erroneous then to speak of the substantia or ousia of bread rather than of multiple substantiae or ousies of bread. St. Thomas is just wrong on this point, even if that sort of erroneous naive judgment is understandable.

          • Sol what we are discussing is vital to Catholicism and the doctrine of the Real Presence. While we differ on the meaning of substance [I do not disagree with your interpretation of Aristotle’s understanding], in Aquinas substance is present as the form of composite being whether attributed to natural causes in God’s creation or as an artifact of man. Aquinas is not limited to the thought of Aristotle. He advanced beyond Aristotle in defining all being as that which possess existence and essence. All things have form. Thus the word substance as understood by Aristotle is surpassed in Aquinas to include all composite being. We may remove all the accidents from an artifact and are left with nothing. Nevertheless accidents such as color, texture, form have no existence apart from that being. Although that being is dependent on its accidents we could not name it unless it possessed a specifying form that gives reality to its accidents. Bread or chair therefore is called bread or chair not a compilation of accidents. Transubstantiation in Aquinas means exactly what it says, that the substance of bread [that which underlies its accidents] becomes the substance of Christ. Simply put that which is bread becomes the living Christ retaining the accidents of bread. Aquinas calls this Mystery a ‘miracle of love’ sacred to me as a priest and to the faithful, not to be the subject to contention rather a source of unity and a matter of faith supported by reason.

          • He may have “advanced” beyond Aristotle in metaphysics but on the question of substance he did not correct Aristotle. If it were just the opinion of St. Thomas it would not be vital to Latin Catholicism, but it is “vital” just as the question of when consecration occurs is “vital” because of the status attributed to Trent by Latins.

          • ” Nevertheless accidents such as color, texture, form have no existence apart from that being. ”

            Again, wrong, especially since it contradicts our experience of the world — accidents of those things which make up an artifact have no existence apart from the substances of which they are accidents. You can try to save the words of Aquinas regarding substance in his teaching on transubstantiation by claiming that he “modified” the teaching of Aristotle and longer uses the word “substance” univocally as Aristotle, but equivocally, but then you have done away with the distinction between the unity proper to natural substances and to artifacts, which is no minor problem. Besides that, there is no textual evidence that Aquinas did so.

          • Sol a word in response to your Aug 17 refutation that accidents somehow exist apart from an entity or substance. Red is always accidental to some object like particles in the air that exhibit red [Red is clearly not an independent ‘thing’ as mistakenly held by David Hume. See Wolfgang Kohler Address of the Pres Am Psychologist 14 No 12 1959] as well as it is always some thing that is textured. Experience and scientific knowledge affirm that. Aristotle does not ‘own’ the word oὐσία which etymologically means to be, existence, essence, entity as well as substance the later primarily due to entities that remain despite non essential change to their accidents. Any artifact is an identifiable entity or being. Even Aristotle acknowledges what exists are things, oὐσίαi. That is all things. If we analyze substance in Aquinas the word must be assessed in the context of his metaphysics. As I responded to Rev Jogerst over and above the act of the form is the act of existence which belongs to God. God intends as he wills specifically regarding the Holy Eucharist. Therefore it doesn’t behoove us to be stymied by the historical development of the use of the word substance as an obstacle to faith and reason. My counsel if I may is not to remain locked into a position so as to favor one tradition v another if indeed such is the case. The Fathers at Trent rationally defined a mystery insofar as it can be correctly understood. If there is better cite it. The rest is Faith.

        • I think you misunderstand Luther’s intention here (along with under, he would say Christ is with and in as well). Rather than a conversation about substance, he eschews the metaphysical conversation entirely in favor of Christ’s words “is my body…is my blood,” and leaves it at that. The language of in-with-under is not a claim about metaphysics but a claim of Christ’s absolute presence in the supper due to His promise to be there, ergo, we Lutherans believe in the True Presence. We believe Christ is truly there in-with-under because that is the only thing we can claim about it, because that’s the only thing we know from the text, it’s the only thing in which we can trust, and upon which we cleave in faith.

          • Rev. Dr. Jared Yogerst:

            And if the Latins had just agreed to end the discussion of the Real Presence in the Eucharist at that point, instead of insisting on the favored metaphysical explanation as dogma, there would have been one less point of division.

          • Rev Yogerst the issue regarding the Real Presence is exactly as the words of Christ say, This is my Body which will be given up for you. It not a matter of semantics or scholastic philosophy as again criticized by Sol regarding “Latins”. The original etymology of the Greek word Οὐσία means to be, to exist as well as substance. And in Latin esse. The Church to insure faith in the Real Presence reasoned a way of expressing this with certitude, that the bread itself becomes the Body of Christ. Bread has its own act of being called its form. Over and above the act of the form as said is the Act of Existence given by God. As are all things that exist. The Church confirms that God who gives all things existence is present to us by his actual existence in the form of bread in the very act of existence. Thus there can be no mistake or question whether the bread itself actually becomes Christ himself. The Missouri Synod came to a mutual agreement with the Catholic Church on this doctrine in recognition of its importance.

          • Rev Jogerst I correct my Aug 17 response regarding the implied extent of agreement on the Eucharist between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Missouri Synod. There was no substantive agreement regarding the Catholic understanding of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. The Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation had as known been condemned by the Missouri Synod and that did not essentially change during the discussions. The closest Lutherans have come is the notion of Consubstantiation meaning two substances Christ and that of the bread and wine, which complies with Luther’s underneath the bread and wine. Just a parting note of goodwill. When our Catholic church in Brooklyn required rebuilding following a fire the neighboring Norwegian Lutheran church offered its use to us. I offered Mass there my closest experience of unity on the Holy Eucharist.

  5. Today at Mass the priest stated that The Virgin Mary was the first priest.

    To their credit many people walked out. A woman setting behind my wife said that she was not staying to hear sacrilege.

  6. I think an important thing to remember is that Eastern Christians do not do theology apart from the liturgy; they truly embrace the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (law of prayer reflects law of belief). When doing theology they even quote their ancient liturgical texts to prove their arguments or demonstrate their belief. The Eastern liturgy leaves no doubt about their belief in the Real Presence.

    I find that in the modern Roman Church (since Vatican 2) there is a mammoth gap between the beautiful theology on the Eucharist in the Catechism and what we see in your average Catholic parish. Not so in your average Eastern Catholic/Orthodox parish.

    We should look to the East and restore reverence in the liturgy. As the axiom goes; our worship should reflect our belief. It does in the East. It does NOT in most parishes in the West. We have much to re-learn from the East.

      • Dave: I didn’t say the East was perfect. But we can learn from them, especially when they do things better or have retained the true spirit of the Faith. I would argue that they have done this in regard to their liturgy and their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

        b) Eastern Catholics do not have divorce and remarriage so I don’t know what you’re talking about. Moreover, don’t get on your high horse. One could argue that we now have divorce and remarriage thanks to Pope Francis.

  7. If people walked out when the priest said that “Mary was the first priest”, they probably weren’t listening. Did he mean that she was the first to offer her Son in sacrifice? Obviously there were priests before her in the Old Testament.

  8. Your argument itself may be overwrought. I’m in the west, and this is what I see at Mass: young people approaching communion with their hands in their pockets and looking disinterestedly around; I see most people going through motions with apparently no contemplation going on inside their heads; I see ushers glad-handing just about everyone exiting the pews and then gulping down what’s left of the wine like their drinking a beer at a barbecue. Academic debate aside, it’s hard to argue against the general notion that people have drifted away from internalizing the real presence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.