We have recently been discussing the reducing percentage of Catholics in our society. But today I want to look at what we believe. I am triggered by a Pew Survey which tells us that 69% of all self-identified Catholics said they believed the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus but were instead “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The other 31% believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, known as transubstantiation. I wonder whether those two views are also reflected in the Catholic readership of this Blog.
The Church’s teaching is absolutely clear – see the Council of Trent. The Eucharist is not merely symbolic. In actuality it is the body and blood of Christ – that is what substance means. It does of course retain the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine (appearance, taste etc.) but it is no longer bread and wine. Nor does the body and blood share its substance with bread and wine. It is no longer bread and wine – irrespective of the fact that scientific analysis and human recognition show it as such.
Compare, by contrast, the water used for Baptism. It remains water but in the Sacrament the water is indeed the symbol of cleansing. It is God’s power which is effective directly in this case. “An outward sign of an inward grace” is the common phrase.
Why should we believe in transubstantiation? It is a miracle of God, brought about through God’s will. Nor was the definition by the Church easily agreed. It was necessary to look at the history of the Church’s teaching and practice since the time of the Apostles — in order to confirm that the historical practice throughout the Church’s history accepted the essence of this teaching – although it was not yet expressed in the formal definition of Trent.
It would seem to follow that two thirds of the Catholic population are heretical, and in consequence reject the infallibility of the Catholic Church through their refusal to accept one of her most serious teachings.
Or perhaps not. Your average Catholic does not always look at the precision of words. It may be that ‘symbol’ has different possible meanings in different minds. Nor would we expect everyone to understand the concept of transubstantiation. In the end it seems to me to be enough that to believe at the altar we receive Christ himself — body, blood, soul and divinity — through the means he chose.
It would also be interesting to hear what Anglicans, and other
Christians, believe, and why.