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As I understand it, the doctrine of transubstantiation maintains that bread and wine *literally** become the body and blood of Christ... yet it is impossible to detect this. That is, they do not materially change, so we don't and can't notice, nor can we scientifically show any change.

I'm curious: how do Catholics support this view? Especially considering Jesus' statements that the bread and wine were His body and blood could easily be taken as symbolic.


*In the literal sense of "literally".

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Boy that's a great question. Wish I could +10 this. –  Monika Michael Aug 7 '12 at 10:50
    
Jesus said, "This is my body and blood" prior to His crucifixion. It would be an interesting addendum to your question to ask whether or not that was literally His body and blood at the Last Supper. –  Narnian Aug 7 '12 at 14:26
    
@Narnian That might be put up as another question, but the short, short answer is yes. –  Ignatius Theophorus Aug 7 '12 at 14:50
    
I'm curious: how do Catholics support this view? The not-so-great-part of the question. Catholics do not and need not support anything, they take the LORD at his word. –  FMS Aug 8 at 22:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

On the Meaning of Transubstantial

To me, the prefix "trans" is the key.

  • Transformation is change of form
  • Transmutation is change of shape
  • Transfiguration is change of appearance
  • Transubstantiation is the change of substance.

While often one will be related to another, it does not follow that there is a co-dependence. So, while it is possible that something will change forms but not substance or shape (ice will change to water to steam and back and, given the right circumstances, that can all be in the same shape), it is also possible that the substance of a thing can change without a change to the form, shape, or appearance (this is not to discount Eucharistic miracles where both the form and substance of the host changed).

Admittedly, it is difficult to give an example of "change of substance" in nature, because so much of nature is of the same substance. But, there are two things we can use to inform our understanding. First, an example might be found in a piece of paper. A piece of paper, so long as there are no intelligible writings on it, is merely a piece of paper. Once it has intelligible markings, however, it becomes significant. It becomes a letter or a pamphlet or a list. Admittedly, this does have some easily detectable change of form, but the change in significance is far greater than any change in appearance.

The other fact we might use to inform ourselves on the nature of substance is the Creed. Recently, the Catholic Church finally corrected the english translation of the Nicene creed to read, "Consubstantial with the father" (I say finally because for forty odd years it was "one in being", which is a fundamentally incorrect translation of the Latin word, "consubstantialis"). This word implies that we should see the universe as having at least two meta-substances: natural and temporal vs. divine and eternal. It is in this sense that Catholics understand the word, "transubstantial." It is a piece of matter which becomes of the divine substance.

On Justification of the Doctrine

A hint of Scripture

The words of Christ have been debated quite frequently and it is very difficult to say that they must be held as figurative. While I am not willing to enter that debate fully at the moment (that would take quite a bit of time and effort), I will say that it is apparent that communion in the New Testament was something very important (celebrated daily) and that it was very significant (leading to illness if it was mistreated). Both of these strike rather substantial blows against a purely symbolic view of the breaking of the bread.

Theological Archeology

On the other hand, there is ample evidence from the first 1500 years of the Church that it was the universal belief that the eucharist represented a sacramental reality. This is known in two ways:

  • By "sacramental reality" we do not mean, "an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace," but rather that a sacrament is, "a symbol which effects itself." Now I know, that word, "symbol" does become a bit vague, but the phrase is understood (in context) to mean, "something which represents something else bringing about and becoming that which it represents." Therefore baptism is not merely the symbol of washing, but it is washing. Marriage is not simply two symbolizing unity, but it is two becoming unified. Eucharist is not merely a symbol of us receiving Christ, but it is actually the divine meal. This belief of the nature of the sacraments is something which is clearly present from the earliest of days.
  • Even if that sacramental understanding were missing, there is direct testimony to transubstantiation itself. I know of one eucharistic miracle which predated Constantine. And Ignatius of Antioch (my patron) may not say the word, "transubstantial" directly, but it is harder to say that he did not believe in it than it is to argue that he did (this plus Occam's Razor...).
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+1 I don't agree with the doctrine, but this is a good answer. –  Narnian Aug 7 '12 at 14:49
    
"substance" is traditionally related to (using dictionary.reference.com) "a species of matter of definite chemical composition", or (using google) "A particular kind of matter with uniform properties", i.e. largely: the chemistry. Is there a different definition of "substance" that is being applied here? –  Marc Gravell Aug 7 '12 at 15:19
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@MarcGravell I think that definition does not fit unless we are willing to define God in terms of chemistry. It is the philosophical understanding of the word "substance". You can find an overall analysis of its use in philosophy here, but the word transubstantiation uses Aristotle's view of the world more than anything else. –  Ignatius Theophorus Aug 7 '12 at 15:51
    
(Actually, a bit of self-correction here, the understanding of "transubstantiation" predates most Aristotelian thought in Christendom) –  Ignatius Theophorus Aug 9 '12 at 17:54
    
No support presented for this answer. –  FMS Aug 8 at 22:16

how do Catholics support this view?

Among the prayers that Catholics pray, there is the:

Act of Faith
My God, I believe in you and all that your Church teaches, because you have said it, and your word is true. [cf. A Simple Prayer Book | Catholic Truth Society].

This is the basis of the Catholics' belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

They believe it on the LORD's word, and not that they can support the view, nor do they have to.


Especially considering Jesus' statements that the bread and wine were His body and blood could easily be taken as symbolic.

Question hasn't stated the the basis of this assertion, because the plain reading of the pertinent biblical passage reveals just the opposite.

This teaching of Jesus, that he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Caper′na-um, was the occasion of many of his disciples [drawing] back and no longer [going] about with him. If Jesus had meant it symbolically, how easy it would have been for him to call them back and explain himself.

It is well to note that it appears that it was at this juncture that Judas the son of Simon Iscariot stopped believing in Jesus. We know how that ended.


Please see: The presence of Christ by the power of his word and the Holy Spirit | Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1373ff.


cf. Card. Pell: Dawkins and Cardinal Pell on Catholic Dogma. (start @ 2:55)

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