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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