A Pew Research poll released last week showed that just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ.
We thought it might be a good time to give a refresher on what the Church actually teaches.
The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharistein, which means “thanksgiving.” It is the memorial sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood, presented under the form of bread and wine, which is offered to the Father for the forgiveness of sins. After this offering, the Eucharist is consumed, and through this act it transmits sanctifying grace to those who are properly prepared to receive the body and blood of Christ.
Like baptism or confession, the Eucharist is a sacrament—an outward expression of an inward reception of grace. The Catechism teaches that “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being” (CCC 1325). However, the Eucharist differs from the other sacraments in an important way because it “is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’ The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it” (CCC 1324).
For example, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation initiate us into the Church so that we may receive the Eucharist. The sacrament of reconciliation spiritually heals us so we can receive the Eucharist after receiving absolution for our sins. The anointing of the sick physically and spiritually heals us so we can receive the Eucharist anew, and sometimes it even provides us the last Eucharist we will receive before we depart this life (what is called viaticum, which literally means “with you, on the way”). Lastly, the sacrament of marriage gives spouses the grace to raise families that partake of the Eucharist and the sacrament of holy orders gives us the priests who offer up the Eucharist at mass.
The Catechism goes on to say, “For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch” (CCC 1324). The word pasch refers to the Jewish celebration of Passover, and it is no coincidence that the Eucharist commemorates the Passover meal Christ held with his disciples before his Crucifixion. But unlike the old Passover, the Eucharist is our new Passover and represents the sacrifice of the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And just as the lamb of the old Passover was consumed, Christ, the new Passover lamb, must also be consumed. This is why the Eucharist is also called “the Lord’s Supper” or “The Breaking of Bread.” As the Catechism explains:
“[It is called] the Lord’s Supper, because of its connection with the supper which the Lord took with his disciples on the eve of his Passion and because it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem. [It is called] the Breaking of Bread, because Jesus used this rite, part of a Jewish meal when as master of the table he blessed and distributed the bread, above all at the Last Supper. It is by this action that his disciples will recognize him after his Resurrection, and it is this expression that the first Christians will use to designate their Eucharistic assemblies; by doing so they signified that all who eat the one broken bread, Christ, enter into communion with him and form but one body in him” (CCC 1329).
Finally, this new Passover sacrifice is offered in the context of the mass. It is called “mass” because, “the liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished concludes with the sending forth (missio) of the faithful, so that they may fulfill God’s will in their daily lives” (CCC 1332). Within that context the Eucharist is also called “the Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, “sacrifice of praise,” spiritual sacrifice, and pure and holy sacrifice are also used to describe the Eucharist, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant” (CCC 1330).
Why do Catholics believe the Eucharist is the physical body and blood of Christ when it looks exactly like bread and wine?
In order to understand why Catholics believe the Eucharist becomes the actual body and blood of Christ after it is consecrated at Mass, we must understand two philosophical ideas: substance and accident. A substance is what something is: an accident is what a substance possesses. So, for example, an apple (a substance) has many accidents. It has a skin of a particular color, a certain weight, shape, taste, and so on. These accidents are what we perceive with our senses, but an apple is more than just a bundle of accidents. These accidents could change and the apple would remain an apple (that is, the apple could come in a different color or size). These ever-changing accidents are united within one unchanging substance that ceases to exist only when the apple ceases to exist (such as when it is eaten and digested).
When it comes to the Eucharist, the Church teaches that after consecration the substance of the bread and wine—what these objects are at their metaphysical core—changes and becomes the body and blood of Christ. But although the substance of the bread and wine changes, the accidents of the bread and wine—what we perceive of these substances—remain. This is why the eucharistic host still looks and tastes like bread and the precious blood still looks and tastes like wine. The bread and wine have not transformed, because the form or appearance of the bread and wine has not changed. Instead, it is the substance of the bread and wine that has changed, and so Catholics teach that during consecration the bread and wine have been transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.
However, the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers rejected transubstantiation, believing that it was unbiblical and nonsensical. Luther said, “[I]t is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand ‘bread’ to mean ‘the form, or accidents of bread,’ and ‘wine’ to mean ‘the form, or accidents of wine.’ Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents?”
The answer to Luther’s question is that Jesus referred to bread as his body and the wine as his blood. Jesus did not say, “This bread contains my body” or “I am in this wine.” Jesus just said the bread and wine were his body and blood. But because we still perceive the bread and wine at Mass to be bread and wine, and because Jesus says this is not bread and wine but his flesh and blood, then the only logical conclusion is that although the accidents of the bread and wine that we perceive have remained, the substance, or what these things are, has changed into Christ’s body and blood.
Other critics of this doctrine object that the term transubstantiation is found neither in the Bible nor in the writings of the Church Fathers for the first thousand years of the Church’s history. But the reason the term was not used among the early Church Fathers was because there was no disagreement among them about the nature of the Eucharist. They unanimously agreed that the Eucharist represented in a physical and real way the body and blood of Christ
Moreover, it was common in Church history for doctrines to be officially defined (and terms to be created for those definitions) only when heresy had to be combated. For example, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ were not defined until centuries after the time of the apostles because they were not seriously challenged until then. In order to respond to these trinitarian and Christological disputes, Catholic theologians developed extrabiblical language to help them explain doctrine and refute heretics. Terms like homoousios, which describes the one divine substance that belongs equally to each member of the Trinity, and hypostatic union, which describes the complete union of Christ’s divine and human natures, are examples of this.
Something similar happened with the Eucharist. In the eleventh century, a monk named Berengar of Tours argued that the bread and wine only became symbols of the body and blood of Christ. In response to teachings like his, the Church declared at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that “his body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.”
This teaching was later defined at the Council of Trent in 1551, which taught that “by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.”
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