Not too long ago, I had occasion to observe in a piece for Catholic World Report (CWR) that a series of previous articles on the Brebeuf Jesuit controversy in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis were conspicuous for failing to discuss the issue of same-sex unions and marriage in terms of love. My comments were meant to be not so much an accusation as an exhortation to be aware that public discourse on matters of faith are an opportunity to bear witness to the fulness of Catholic faith, the center of which is the love of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
Now I find myself experiencing elevated theological blood pressure over a similar lack of definitive context regarding recent articles on the crisis in faith among Catholics regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. A survey of the Pew Research Center, made public in early August, confirmed yet again that there is a crisis of faith among Catholics regarding the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Since then, CWR has served its readers by hosting several articles on the subject. These articles address various aspects—doctrinal, liturgical, historical—of the Church’s faith regarding the Eucharist, as well as pastoral concerns related to the current crisis. Yet, it is telling that, with the exception of two passing mentions of love, neither of which concerns the love that Christ made the meaning of His sacrifice, there is no mention of Christ’s love.
It is understandable that short articles focus on the issue at hand and cannot always bring things back to first principles. But at some point the failure to place matters of doctrine and morals in a Christocentric perspective that emphasizes Christ’s mission to reveal God’s love verges on being scandalous. How can serious and well-informed Catholics write about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist without making any mention of His love? And why should the doctrine of the Real Presence be meaningful to anyone if not for the fact that the One Who is present in the Eucharist is present as Love? How can the fundamental meaning of the Eucharist as thanksgiving—as the response of faith to Christ’s redeeming love FOR US—be absent?
The result is that the doctrine of the Real Presence is isolated from that which gives it its definitive meaning, the very meaning that Jesus attributed to His death and anticipated at the Last Supper. It suffices to read through the section on the Eucharist to be impressed by the emphasis given to Christ’s love by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). The Eucharist is “a sacrament of love” (1323), which Christ instituted “in order to leave them a pledge of His love” (1337). “Them” in this sentence refers to those whom Jesus loved as His own and whom He loved to the end. This is a clear paraphrase of John 13:1 (the biblical verse that is quoted most often in the CCC, and most frequently in the section on the liturgy) precisely to establish the link between His love and His paschal mystery. Finally:
It is highly fitting that Christ should have wanted to remain present to his Church in this unique way. Since Christ was about to take his departure from his own in his visible form, he wanted to give us his sacramental presence; since he was about to offer himself on the cross to save us, he wanted us to have the memorial of the love with which he loved us “to the end” (Jn 13:1), even to the giving of his life. In his Eucharistic presence he remains mysteriously in our midst as the one who loved us and gave himself up for us (cf. Gal 2:20), and he remains under signs that express and communicate this love. (CCC, 1380).
Christopher Plance’s article for CWR calls for addressing the crisis of faith in the Eucharist by placing the doctrine of transubstantiation in a complete theological context, i.e., of the economy of salvation. That is by no means a novel suggestion. Following Vatican II, the CCC deliberately and systematically presents the Church’s faith from the perspective of the history or economy of salvation. This is a key element of Vatican II’s pastoral presentation of doctrine, which is so commonly misunderstood, exaggerated, and maligned by not-a-few well-educated Catholics, and who are prone to place the blame for the crisis of faith on the Council. The crisis of Eucharistic faith among a majority of Catholics is not an effect of Vatican II and the CCC. Rather, these are the solution.
If, by miracle, every Catholic in the U.S. were to learn overnight the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence, what would it mean for them to say “I believe this” without knowing Who is present and why He is present? The Mass itself points to the answer. In the Penitential Rite, the celebrant invites the faithful thusly: “Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” And in the Creed we profess, “FOR US men and FOR OUR SALVATION He came down from heaven,” and “FOR OUR SAKE He was crucified …” The point is that faith in the Real Presence cannot be isolated from Christ’s mission to reveal God’s love FOR US.
Even more, this FOR US dimension of professing faith cannot be a mere assertion of factuality, as if a believer had not encountered and experienced Christ’s love. To believe in God’s love is not merely to adhere to an objective truth about God. It is also to bear witness to the fact that this love is efficacious, and thus to the effects of His love. This is the place of the Church in the Creed. The Church is the effect of Christ’s saving love. And since by Baptism all participate in the mystery of the Church, every believer professes faith according to the paradigm of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul: “He who is might has done great things FOR ME” (Lk 1:57); “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who LOVED ME and gave himself FOR ME” (Gal 2:20).
There can be no thanksgiving without this FOR ME awareness of having been efficaciously loved by Christ. This is seen in the one of ten lepers who, “when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (Lk 17:15–16). For “giving Him thanks,” St. Luke uses the verb, eucharisto.
When the post-Vatican II popes identify the need for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, it is this FOR ME dimension, this awareness of having been loved, that they have in mind. This corresponds to a theme in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas: “Nothing can provoke love more than to know that one is loved.”1 Again, “Nothing so induces us to love someone as the experience of his love for us.”2 Benedict XVI conveys the same thing when he writes: “this is faith: being loved by God and letting oneself be loved by God in Jesus Christ”;3 “Everything begins from the humble acceptance of faith (“knowing that one is loved by God”) …”;4 and, “The source of Christian joy is the certainty of being loved by God.”5
The CCC links this certainty of having been loved to the liturgy when it comments on the priest’s invitation to pray the Our Father: “At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say.” The Greek word for this daring is parrhesia, a supernatural boldness, rooted in “the certainty of being loved” (CCC, 2778). The experience of being loved by Christ makes it possible for our spirit to bear witness with the Holy Spirit that we are children of God (see Rom 8:16). This is the baptismal faith—which includes the FOR ME/FOR US profession of faith as seen St. Paul, the Blessed Mother, and the Creed—that the liturgy presupposes and intends to stir as the necessary condition for full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy (see CCC, 1072, 1098, 1122, 1128, 1229, 1415).
Quoting the Roman Catechism, the CCC also makes the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ the unifying theme of all that the Church believes, celebrates, lives, and prays:
The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. (CCC, 25)
Similarly, John Paul II:
The Church’s faith reaches its peak in this supreme truth: God is love! … The truth that God is Love constitutes as it were the apex of all that has been revealed “by the prophets and in these last days by the Son …” as is stated in the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1). This truth illumines the whole content of divine revelation …6
And Benedict XVI:
Following in the wake of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and of my venerable Predecessors John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II, I am convinced that humanity today stands in need of this essential message, incarnate in Jesus Christ: God is love. Everything must start from here and everything must lead to here, every pastoral action, every theological treatise.7
The preceding should make it clear that the crisis regarding faith in the Real Presence is yet another manifestation of a crisis of faith tout court. Any strategy for addressing lack of faith in the Real Presence must take this into account by inserting the doctrine of transubstantiation into the history of salvation, that is, the economy of God’s love fully revealed in Jesus Christ. As an eminent theologian of our day has observed, this is precisely what Vatican II intended: “To see doctrine as the representation of the history of salvation was the principal lesson they [the Fathers of Vatican II] drew from the patristic Church.”8
Long before Fr. Nichols, and prior to the Council, Joseph Ratzinger wrote an important piece on Christocentric preaching,9 in which he elucidates the relation between metaphysically oriented dogmas of faith and the biblical witness to the history of God’s saving love:
The clarification of the ontological difficulty in the doctrine of the hypostatic union was essential to proper Christian belief, yet as far as salvation was concerned, of less import than the acknowledgment of God’s past activity among men in this world through Jesus Christ. It is evident, then, where the real emphasis of the Christocentric must lie. Theology and preaching become truly Christocentric when they proceed directly from the saving action of God upon man, from the history of salvation between man and God, and when they understand ontological declarations as safeguards for proper Christian belief, necessary for theology, but not the primary object of preaching.
“While dogma,” he writes, “stresses the ontological aspect … Scripture is concerned almost exclusively with the soteriological aspect of Christ, His salvific work for mankind.” With this he emphasizes the FOR ME dimension of revelation and thus of faith. And with this we possess the key to understanding his pontificate as an extended meditation and preaching on the text that he takes as a summary of Christian faith: “We know and believe the love that God has for us” (1 Jn 4:16).
No doubt, preachers and catechists can do a better job of building up the Church’s faith in the Real Presence. Nor is there any doubt that art, architecture, vestments, decorum, and rubrics have their own contribution to make. Explicit catechesis on the real presence, by all means; and liturgy worthy of its sacred nature, of course. But all in the context of living faith in the economy of salvation, which is the economy of man’s sin and God’s mercy—an economy, a history, of God’s love that culminates in the paschal mystery that is re-actualized in the Eucharist, that is, in the memorial of Christ’s anticipation of His sacrificial death in the Last Supper, during which He says, “This is my body, which is given FOR YOU,” and “This cup which is poured out FOR YOU is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:19–20).
1 Thomas Aquinas, De rationibus fidei, Ch. 5.
2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, IV, 54.
3 Benedict XVI, General Audience, February 16, 2011.
4 Benedict XVI, Message for Lent, 2013.
5 Benedict XVI, Address, June 5, 2006.
6 John Paul II, General Audience, October 2, 1985.
7 Benedict XVI, Homily, April 22, 2007.
8 Aidan Nichols, Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 45.
9 Joseph Ratzinger, “Christocentric Preaching,” The Word: Readings in Theology (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1964), 206–219. The original German appeared in 1961. Ratzinger elaborates on this in Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 153–190.
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