The 2019 Pew Report which revealed the pathetic state of America’s Catholic understanding of the Eucharist should have been a wake-up call to the American hierarchy. Two years after the publication of this report, and after more than a year of the closure of the celebration of Mass from one sea to another, while the Church is temporarily returning to “normal” (a “normality” that I have questioned here and here), the Lectionary of the Church has given us the opportunity to fill in the gaps in Eucharistic catechesis. From July 29 to August 22 (except for the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15) all Sunday Gospels focus on the Eucharist, including a continuous reading of John 6.
John 6 lends itself perfectly to the treatment of American Catholic Eucharistic illiteracy, precisely because Jesus is tackling the same question. Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors rejected his teaching that he could be âreally presentâ by eating in someone’s soul. Despite Jesus ‘clear insistence on the Eucharist as his true flesh and blood, most of those who had come to follow him when they thought the program was “Jesus’ plan for free lunches in Galilee” left when he asked for something else.
In my âWriting and Artâ blogs, describing the Sunday Gospels in painting, I have tried to address the theological truths that should be emphasized during these weeks. Today I want to offer some thoughts on why culture at large needs us Catholics to clearly know what we understand to be the Eucharist.
The larger culture generally doesn’t really care about the Eucharist. They’ll think it’s just a theological question, and since they don’t share theology, they don’t really care what we think. I understand.
But our understanding of the Eucharist also involves certain philosophical understandings. Now I know that faith is not tied to a particular philosophy, but it is linked to reality.
There have been attempts to rethink the philosophical foundations of how we understand the Eucharist, to go beyond the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding that so-called Catholics no longer understand.
But not all philosophies lend themselves to Catholic thought. Materialism, for example, will never be usable in Catholic theology. No more than a version of Kantianism excluding the possibility of understanding things in themselves.
The Pew Report showed that many American Catholics have a predominantly Protestant understanding of the Eucharist. For them, the Eucharist is not the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a symbol of Jesus. It “reminds” us of Jesus. But it is bread and wine. Perhaps Jesus is “also” “spiritually present” in this “symbol” (whatever the this ways).
But the idea that at the consecration the bread and the wine, while keeping appearances, to become the Body and the Blood, the Soul and the Godhead of Jesus Christâ¦ well, alas, many Catholics do not understand this or, like the Jews of John 6:60, have decided âThis is a difficult teaching! Who can accept it?
Transubstantiation is a “hard teaching”. But the reality is harsh.
Jesus speaks of the Eucharist in a world where reality exists in itself. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ because it became the Body and Blood of Christ, not because the spirit of the Christian has in fact the Body and Blood of Christ for him. The transformation is real and it comes from God. Those who deny the Real Presence deny that the transformation is real and bring about the change of man.
We shouldn’t be completely surprised at this. This way of seeing reality has been mainstream in Western philosophy since the 17th century, although it arguably has roots dating back to the 14th century.
Descartes destroyed the idea of ââa real world with his systematic doubt. Instead of a real world facing man, the Cartesian world is built from the head of man: âI think; therefore, I am “versus” I am; so I think that. âI would say that all subsequent efforts to make reality unattainable – the noumenon and phenomena, the quests of pure phenomenologists, and many others in between, are all essentially variations on a theme that begins when reality (at least in what matters) comes from the thinking subject’s head rather than from reality itself. same.
Descartes, in my opinion, put Western thought on a sterile path, but the damage was already done at the end of the Middle Ages with the nominalism of William Ockham. Ockham, taken by the omnipotence of God, has essentially made reality – at least in morality – a matter of divine will. For Ockham, it is not that “God forbids murder because it is wrong” but “murder is wrong because God forbids it”. The Divine Will could do good from bad and bad from good.
Solid Catholic philosophy and theology, of course, recognized that Ockham was wrong. God, who is Truth and Goodness as well as almighty, cannot make a moral order that contradicts himself.
Ockham could have been forgotten without a German monk named Martin Luther, who imported nominalism into Protestantism. While Luther claimed that his “Eucharist” was Jesus in bread and wine, in his day Ulrich Zwingli pointed out the philosophical contradictions involved with Luther’s âgod of breadâ. We know, of course, that for most of the rest of Protestantism the Eucharist is just a meal in which we remember Jesus, but there is nothing else there (except, for some Anglicans, perhaps a vague âspiritual presenceâ).
Nominalism has infected Protestant theology in other ways as well. Consider Luther’s understanding of âjustification,â which makes us righteous before God. For Catholicism, grace changes we: the sinner is freed from sin. For Protestantism, grace changes the way God sees us: we are as corrupt as we were, but God is playing the supernatural cuckoo clock, not seeing (“attributing”) our guilt. We are filthy, like excrement. God’s grace does not change that; it covers it, like snow covering the ground. But what is under the snow remains.
Since Protestantism embraces Eucharistic theologies which, whether they admit it or not, are essentially “real absences”, those who have come from these traditions are used to talking about things as labels. The Eucharist is bread and wine, but we call it the symbolic Body and Blood of Christ. Grace “saves a wretch like me” not by making me less miserable, but by covering and perfuming the stench.
Catholics, emphasizing the Real Presence and the real transformation of grace, were the last major cultural force to claim that reality is reality. Transformation happens through the Love of God, not by changing labels. This is why, for the love of God, five loaves of bread and two fish become food for others – not by making people open their picnic baskets but by divine Grace alone – while simple games of power (“to turn these stones into bread”) are rightly rejected. like the temptations of the Devil, denying the autonomy of created things. This is why, for the love of God, the bread and the wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ – and not just coexisting in bread and wine (as Luther claimed), because people are superior to things.
Western culture has rubbed shoulders with the gases of nominalism and man-made reality for several centuries, but all of its implications have not been apparent because these vapors have kept those implications from being apparent in their harsh reality. But in a world where people no longer believe in God (or at least deny the right to speak of him in polite or public society), divine omnipotence has now become human omnipotence, where man himself -even “changes” reality by changing labels. Science has nothing to say about the beginning of life as long as we change the labels to “fetus” or “product of conception” and feign agnosticism about the connection between biological continuity and humanity. Even “man” and “woman” are increasingly meaningless in themselves, but rather must be determined by probing the mental states of particular people.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Our culture has been on an escape route from philosophical realism for at least half a millennium, and some even call it âEnlightenmentâ. Catholic theology was one of the few places which, unlike those who disparagedly called Catholic Eucharistic theology magical Hocus pocus (a word that originates from mocking the Latin formula of consecration, Hoc est enim corpus meum), emphasized the reality in itself, rather than the reality constructed from the head of the believer (or someone else). Catholic theology has insisted that reality is reality, with its own inherent essence, and not just a label that can be changed at will.
The fact that even Catholics do not receive this shows how we have been “acculturated” by a hostile worldview rather than having evangelized the culture in which we live, move and breathe. It also shows why the recovery of our true Eucharistic theology, although it concerns first and foremost our faith, has implications that do not end there. Either reality starts from its essence, or it becomes a stuck label.