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Belief in the Real Presence: Thoughts from the West

Catechesis must be supported then by devotional practices that stir up the affections, that appeal to pathos.

Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Ore., leads nearly 1,000 worshippers in prayer before the Eucharist in Portland June 3, 2018, the Feast of Corpus Christi.(CNS photo/Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel)

A recent Pew survey shows a shocking lack of belief among Catholics in the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. The survey inquired along two lines: asking what the participants believed, and asking what they understood the Church to teach about the Eucharist. The results were staggering.

Only 28% of those surveyed knew that the Catholic Church teaches that in the Mass, the substance of the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ while the appearances of bread and wine remain—what the Church has traditionally described as “transubstantiation.” 43% of respondents believed, and thought that the Church believes, that the bread and wine are mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Perhaps most astonishingly of all: 22% said that they know the Church teaches transubstantiation, but themselves hold the “symbolic” belief.

What are we to make of this? Not a few commentators have pointed to a decades-long failure in catechesis, and many a survey and poll has shown that many Catholics today simply do not know even the basics of their faith. Certainly this would account for the significant plurality that think the Church agrees with them in their erroneous understanding of the Eucharist. But beyond better catechesis, what is needed to convince Catholics of the truth of the Church’s belief about the “source and summit” of its life?

I would propose a course that will at first sound antiquated, but is in fact more multifaceted than most suggestions given: we should turn to Aristotle.

One might respond that it is the Aristotelian turn in theology that is the problem in the first place. Was it not when the Church subordinated Scripture to Greek philosophy that theology became so incomprehensible in the first place? Should we really expect the impenetrability of the Summa Theologiae to inspire people to greater faith?

This betrays a number of misunderstandings. First, apart from the occasional Tertullian who doubted that Athens had anything useful to say to Jerusalem, the Church has always made use of philosophy and philosophical categories to help in thinking about God. From Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria to the Cappadocians and the Damascene, the writings of the Church Fathers are awash in Plato and Neo-Platonism. The medieval embrace of Aristotle, far from being a radical shift, was simply an amplification of a tendency in theology that had always been present.

Second, the Church has used Aristotelian categories in its dogmatic definitions of what the Eucharist is (see Canon 1 of the Fourth Lateran Council and Session 13 of the Council of Trent), calling the explanation of transubstantiation “suitable and proper.” This Aristotelian expression cannot be discarded. Moreover, far from being an opaque or abstruse system, Aristotle’s philosophy is really quite common-sensical—as one professor described it, it is a “what you see is what you get” philosophy. (Compare this to the writings of those who pushed for the use of Kant or Hegel and a “transsignification” theology of the Eucharist.)

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: explaining transubstantiation has not been tried and found wanting, but found difficult, and left untried. And it has only been found difficult because too many priests and catechists have not wanted to take the extra two minutes to explain the concepts of substance and accident. (I make an attempt at a reasonably simple explanation here.)

But philosophy is not the only tool that Aristotle can offer us in helping the Church to pass on her belief in the Eucharist. In addition to philosophy, Aristotle wrote some of the foundational texts of politics, biology, and literary theory as well, to name a few. And in his Rhetoric, Aristotle lays out the key modes of persuasion in speech, who to move the listener to belief or action. By being aware of the three modes of persuasion and engaging all of them, the Church can help to bring its members to a deeper belief in the Eucharist.

The first mode is logos, or the appeal to the intellect. In order for a proposition to be acceptable to the listener, it has to make sense. It has to be rationally compelling. As discussed above, the Church has long had a cogent and compelling explanation for how it is that the Eucharist can be the body and blood of Christ, and why it is that we must understand Christ’s words in this way, and not in a merely symbolic fashion. From St. Paul’s words that the bread we break and cup we drink allow us to participate in the Lord’s body and blood, to the hyper-real language of the earliest Fathers like St. Ignatius of Antioch, right through to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine, the Church has expressed and defended a realist interpretation of Christ’s words, “This is my body… this is my blood.” Here catechesis plays its role, to teach these propositions and arguments to the believer.

But the knowledge of the Church’s teaching alone will not penetrate the heart. The believer may know this is what the Church teaches, but why should they care? What will it matter to them? And how likely are they to maintain that belief if it remains as mere dry fact? Catechesis must be supported then by devotional practices that stir up the affections, that appeal to pathos: litanies expressing adoration for the Sacred Host and the Precious Blood, Eucharistic processions on major feast days, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament offered in the parish as often as possible. Such practices help the parishioner not only to know that Christ is present in the Eucharist, but to desire Him there, to long to be united with him sacramentally.

The last mode of persuasion is intimately tied to the other two, and is perhaps the most important: ethos, the appeal to the speaker’s own credibility. Unless the listener deems the speaker to be believable, any appeal to logos will be viewed with suspicion as verbal trickery; and any appeal to pathos will be perceived as false emotion or manipulation. Thus, if teachers of the faith want to convince Catholics of the Church’s belief in the Eucharist, those teachers must first convey that they belief the Church’s belief in the Eucharist.

How does one do this? By engaging in the devotional practices mentioned above. By speaking with conviction. By not rolling one’s eyes or talking about the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist with a wry smile. By genuflecting to the tabernacle, even prostrating oneself before the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. By making time for adoration themselves. By speaking with love about the Eucharist, and with passion about their desire for Christ’s presence in Holy Communion.

Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi that modern man listens to teachers only insofar as they are also perceived to be witnesses. Yet Aristotle suggests that this in fact is a trait common to humanity in all times and places: that the most convincing thing in the world is a person who believes what he’s saying. Our family and friends, our parishioners and students, will once again belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ when we think, speak, and act like we truly believe it is.


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About Nicholas Senz 17 Articles
Nicholas Senz is is Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children. Visit him online at www.nicholassenz.com.

9 Comments

  1. Mr Senz misses an important factor in the development of the doctrine on transubstatiation. The Church’s reliance on the categories of Aristotelian philosophy was a response to the heresies proposed by the 13th century disciples of the muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The christian Averroests at Paris were attempting to use Aristotle to dismantle core sacramental doctrines. It was Thomas Aquinas who also taught at Paris, used Aristotle to refute the Averroests, beginning in his Summa Contra Gentiles. This is probably one of the reasons why Aquinas, a theologian, wrote detailed philosophical commentaries on all of Aristotle’s major works, so that students could no longer use Aristotle in an attempt to dismantle Church doctrine.

  2. I think Holy Communion is like the Trinity a mystery. By thid I mean not really understandable in human terms. You have to accept it by faith. If it were understandable it wouldn’t be faith it would be knowledge.
    Perhaps Luther was more correct with his con sustantation. Jesus was both God and man. The Eucharist is both God and man. The only thing I truly know is that if a person receives regularly and is in a state of grace that person becomes more and more like Jesus. Don’t overthink it accept it and believe.

  3. There has been much talk lately about the percentage of (I presume) practicing Catholics that do not believe in the Real Presence. For anyone who is wavering on this very important Catholic teaching, I suggest Bishop Robert Barron’s either DVD or CD called the Eucharist. After watching, or listening to his most clear, biblical based explanation, if there is any problem at all with belief, you are simply NOT listening! Do yourself a favor and listen to this presentation. You will be glad you did and in addition, you will be able to defend and explain your belief to others!

    • I remember watching that DVD when it first came out, and being rather confused when I saw then Father Barron standing with his back to the tabernacle and explaining the Real Presence.

      • Agnieszka, I was as well, but I could not see the lights indicating the Blessed Sacrament was IN the tabernacle. In addition, I see many priest, especially in post Vatican II churches walking back and forth, giving their homilies and not paying homage to the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, in our parish, we have a decon that does this. I am not sure what the Church teaching is on this point but surmise the permission is given to priests and ordained deacons from the local bishop. That’s all I can think of. That aside, what did you think of the substance of Bishop Barron’s three talks?

  4. This article, while excellent and true, illustrates the problem with Western Christianity. Its all based on philosophy. Not once does he mention the Mass and the liturgy where the Real Presence in the Eucharist actually manifests itself. This is the problem with Western theology. It is divorced from the liturgy. This is why there is such a divide between the excellent theology in the Catechism and what we see in your average parish on Sunday. Until our orandi (prayer/worship) reflects our credendi (belief) there will continue to be the serious problem of Catholicism being beautiful on paper and ugly in the parishes.

  5. This article leaves out the most important, the primary reason why so many Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. Where is it that this doctrine is supposed to be specifically understood? The Mass. Which Mass do most Catholics attend? The Novus Ordo. It is the Novus Ordo itself that does not specifically and clearly contain the essential rubics, words, prayers, and actions that make Christ’s Real Presence clear. In fact, it was invented by a committee specifically to change the Mass so as not to offend Protestants! in the name of “ecumenism”.

    If you read the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani of 1969, the Novus Ordo Missae, which is the text of promulgation given in the missal which explains what the missal contains, throughout the whole General Instruction the word transubstantiation is not mentioned once. Not only has this essential notion been omitted, but also any specific mention of the Real Presence of Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharistic Species.

    Such an omission is astounding, inexplicable and, according to the teaching of Pius VI, “dangerous, derogatory to the exposition of Catholic truth and the dogma of transubstantiation, favourable to heretics.”

    If you compare the Novus Ordo Missae’s rubics with those of the Tridintine Mass,
    you cannot deny that the Mass, as previously known and formulated in the Tridentine Ordinal, has undergone a substantial change. Indeed, one may go so far as to assert that the main and most important prayers of the Tridentine Rite, those most pregnant with doctrine and truth concerning the theology of the Mass have been suppressed and replaced in most cases by nothing whatsoever, or in some rare instances, by prayers devoid of any compelling theological content.

    The majority of prayers and actions (bows, genuflections) expressing the virtues of humility, contrition, compunction, or the truth of sacrifice, propitiation, the Real Presence, the sacramental priesthood, all these have disappeared for no valid reason at all. Furthermore, the alarming fact of their exclusion from the new rite of Mass is enhanced by those declarations, definitions and affirmations of the Institutio Generalis, incompatible or at least dubious when compared with true Catholic Doctrine.

    These suppressions, and reality is proof to this, serve only to diminish in the liturgy and in daily life, the expressions of contrition and compunction for sins committed, so essential to a stable religious life. They reduce the belief in the existence of grace, of true justification in the Catholic sense. They sap thereby at the ever necessary virtue of hope, for, without grace, what hope have we of being restored to a state agreeable to God?

    In short, the New Mass does not, cannot nourish the essential theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The lack or ambiguity of its theological content weakens faith. Its similarity to Protestant liturgy and its Protestant outlook destroys our hope in real and true redemption from sin. Its excess of words and actions devoid of any true knowledge and apprehension of the majesty of God and the mysterious re-enactment of Calvary eventually quench the flames of Divine Love burning in the heart of man.

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