Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

Why Bread And Wine Are Not 'Transformed' Into Christ's Body And Blood In The Eucharist

Don Boland

Following Andrew Nimmo's example in his article, I have adopted this seemingly provocative title, not in order to argue that Christ is not bodily present in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine but to attempt to explain the doctrine of transubstantiation to the modern mind.

First of all, we must remember that it is a greater miracle than what happened to St. John, indeed of a greater order altogether. The preservation of St. John from the fatal, or indeed, any harmful, effects of being immersed in boiling oil was no doubt a miracle. The reason for this, as Andrew has explained, was that God withheld his necessary concurrent activity from the power in the hot oil to heat what it came into contact with.

Normally we do not make the distinction between an active potency and the act itself. For a natural agent, like fire, is acting upon something else all the time. But the distinction can be seen when we consider the particular object acted upon. Fire has the power to heat water. But it needs to come in contact with it. Immediately it does it actually heats it, naturally. Before that it was capable of causing that effect. Similarly, hot oil has the power to burn flesh and immediately it comes into contact with it the hot oil will certainly do so. But only if God goes along with it, as it were. For nothing at all even exists without God continuing to preserve it in existence. So too nothing happens without God concurring in the activity.

So, as Andrew has explained, God did not allow the burning oil to harm St. John. Now what happens in the Eucharist? How does God "intervene" in the natural order? What we have to start with are bread and wine, which have their natural powers to nourish us, to satisfy our hunger and thirst. What we have after the consecration is the body and blood of Christ existing now "under the appearances" of the bread and wine we started with. The doctrine of transubstantiation explains the change as taking place at the level of substance. It is called transubstantiation instead of transformation for a very good reason. The transformation of one thing into another is a substantial change, or conversion of one thing into another, that is an everyday occurrence in nature. It happens, for instance, every time the horse eats the hay, or indeed whenever we ourselves eat bread. Transubstantiation, however, is something entirely unknown in the natural order of things. In the sacrament of the Eucharist to all appearances we are doing the same as when we eat bread, but in reality we are not. For in the consecration the substance of the bread has been converted into the body of Christ.

That it occurs is a matter of faith. But, faith aside, our ordinary way of thinking will encounter difficulty in understanding its very significance. We should not be surprised, moreover, if the modern scientific mind has much greater trouble with it. For, the notion of substance has changed its significance for the scientific mind since the time when the Eucharist was first explained in terms of transubstantiation. This change in the notion of substance began with Descartes, who confused substance with the accident of quantity in a body. This confusion is understandable if one remembers that Descartes was a mathematician.

In our experience of the physical world, as it appears to our senses, we do not get below the superficial appearances of things, their hardness, colour, odour etc. These sensible qualities and activities, however, only appear with their definite dimensions. Thus I never feel a hardness or see a colour except in an extended surface (of something); I never hear a sound unless it is in a particular period of time.

So from this perspective (of sense and imagination) the quantitative aspect (an accidental feature of things) is what is seen to support the other (qualitative and mobile). Hence, when we move from mere sense knowledge and come to scientifically study bodies, or physical reality, our abstract notions are focused on things from the aspects of their "accidents", i.e. sensible activities, qualities and quantities. If we wish to concentrate upon what is supporting these sensible qualities we abstract from them and consider quantity by itself. That is what we do in Mathematics. From this abstract perspective then we seem to be dealing with the "substance" of bodies. Descartes, imitating the old Pythagoreans, was prepared to leave it at that.

However, we know that the rose is more than its redness of a certain extent or its sweet odour that lasts for a limited time, or the combination of these and any other sensible qualities and effects, and their measurements. The botanical scientists are content if they can define it in terms of these. The poet and the philosopher are not. Why is that so? Is it not because they deal in the mystery of ultimate reality, in the substance of things?

No one is contending that the scientists and the mathematicians are not entitled to proceed in the way they do. But when they make claim to the ultimate understanding of things, and deny the wisdom to be found in the perspectives of the poet and the metaphysician, it is then that we protest. In doing that indeed the scientists are passing beyond the legitimate limits of their sciences into the province of philosophy. For they are then wanting to decide what is the substance of things.

In a natural transformation or change of one substance into another (or others), e.g. of a tree into ashes (supposing the wood to be completely destroyed and all that is left is a combination of other chemically distinct substances) one thing is changed substantially into others. But the "accidents" (shape etc) of the former are also destroyed, and the new substances come into being together with their natural accidents (whatever they may be). Naturally it could not be otherwise, given the dependence of the accidents on the substances for their existence.

What happens, though, in that sort of change to which we give the name transubstantiation? Now, let us acknowledge right at the outset that we are not trying to give a final explanation of the process. It is after all a matter of faith, which is by definition beyond reason, and so it will always remain a mystery to us "wayfarers". All we can attempt to do is show that it does not require us to believe something we know to be contrary to reason and hence impossible to believe. The best we can hope for in discussing the mystery with those of no faith is to make sure their criticisms do not flow from a misunderstanding of what is said by the Church to be occurring. Along the way it may be helpful also to those of the faith who, often not because of their lack of education but by reason of the particular kind of education they have had, have difficulty with the significance of transubstantiation.

Nor do I pretend that I can improve upon the exposition given by St. Thomas (cf. Summa Theologiae, III, qq. 73-83). In fact here I am principally concerned with understanding from a human point of view what "transubstantiation" is supposed to mean and to relate that meaning to our understanding of things in our own times. Insofar as I draw on the mystery of the Eucharist to help in this task what I say is to be taken subject to the judgement of the theologians, and finally of course to the judgement of the Church.

As the name suggests, in transubstantiation the change is from one substance to another, as in the conversion of the substance of the bread into the body of Christ. We know that this cannot happen naturally, on two scores, for it leaves a bodily substance (the new one) without its natural accidents, its shape etc, existing according to their natural mode, and it leaves bodily accidents without the substance to which they naturally belong. If the accidents naturally belonging to Christ's bodily substance do somehow remain (as St. Thomas explains they do) they will have to do so in a supernatural manner, after the mode of substance. For Christ's body takes over, as it were, from the substance of the bread.

If the accidents of the bread remain, as they do, they take on, supernaturally, the modality of a substance, in that, subject to God's concurrence, they exist on their own, as only substance does, naturally. The whole process of conversion, then, occurs at the level of substance, and everything connected with it is "substantialised". This is not meant to suggest that the accidents take on the character of little substances.

As St. Thomas says, "... it is not in virtue of their essence that accidents are not in a subject, but through the Divine power sustaining them; and consequently they do not cease to be accidents, because neither is the definition of accident withdrawn from them, nor does the definition of substance apply to them". (III, Q. 77 a. 1, reply to Objection 2)

But, God miraculously gives the more fundamental accidents of the bread a kind of instrumental power and action that naturally is proper to the substance of bread, so that they can produce the same effects as if the substance of the bread had remained. Thus, St. Thomas explains, "Those sacramental species are indeed accidents, yet they have the act and power of substance... " (Q. 77, a. 5 reply to Objection 2).

What are we saying about God's power in this regard? God is the author of all things and all that is in them. If he can suspend the forces of nature or the actions of things, why can he not hold in existence things that naturally depend upon one another, either to complete or support their existence? There is no reason, then, absolutely speaking, why he could not create a substance without its proper accidents, or accidents without the substance in which they naturally inhere. Why, also, could he not use accidents, admittedly necessarily beyond the order of nature, as the means for achieving what he does naturally through substances?

This would mean, of course, that he as their first cause supplies directly for the conditions without which such things or determinations of things could not really exist. In the order of natural or secondary causality accidents must have substances to be accidents of. But God can directly support them in existence, without them for that ceasing to be accidents, if they therefore seem then to exist after the manner or mode of substance, i.e. without a subject, rather than of accident.

Bodies, we know, cannot exist except as individual in some way. We may be able to think of a body, e.g. a horse, in general or universal but the horse that exists has to be this horse or that. But there is nothing intrinsically contradictory with there being substances and accidents existing separately, outside the order of nature.

What do we understand to happen in the Eucharist? It is something still more mysterious than what happens in an "ordinary" miracle. The one body of Christ, that walked this earth 2000 years ago, is made present to us bodily, existing and operating where we see only small pieces of bread. This presence is of the whole individual body of Christ as he exists but the condition of his body in the sacrament is outside the order of nature. To all appearances and for all natural purposes, such as our nourishment by the bread, it is the accidents of the bread that are operating upon our senses and bodies. Under God's power they continue to act as they would in the natural order, but now virtually as substances themselves. To them too belong the natural consequences of individual physical existence, such as location in a particular time and place.

Christ is present substantially only, and hence not with all the attributes of physical existence as we ordinarily understand them. Though he is really where the host is, he is not contained by the limits of its particular place. He is not therefore physically located in the various places where the sacrament is celebrated. For though he retains his due quantity and place they are only operative as accidents where he exists simply according to a natural mode. In his sacramental presence he exists with his natural accidents, but they are there in a supernatural mode. He is not there with them operative in a natural mode with their natural consequences. That natural mode of place belongs only to the accidents of the bread. Christ's body is present not in such a way as to be limited by the determinate quantity of the bread but by virtue of the fact that the substance of the bread, what was bread, has been converted into his body.

Is it true to say, then, that Christ is "physically" present in the Eucharist? We can perhaps appreciate that we have to be very careful here to define exactly what we mean by "physically". Taken in the sense used by Andrew in his article referred to, "by 'physical' here is not meant 'bodily' but 'in the order of actual existence'", Christ is definitely "physically" present. That is generally what people mean by "real presence". Hardly any Catholic would dispute that. The doctrine, if it says anything, says that Christ is really actually present. But, as Andrew's use of the term indicates, that sense of "physically" accommodates a purely spiritual presence and does not necessarily signify that Christ is bodily present. But "bodily" is what people generally mean by "physically", for we are focused upon material or bodily reality.

Is it correct to say, then, that Christ is "physically" present when we mean that he is present in his human body? Thomists, and those who can appreciate the distinction between substance and accident, have no difficulty with using this expression. For they know that the doctrine says that the substance of Christ's body is present under the appearances of bread. It is true, therefore, to say that Christ is physically, if only according to all that he is in the mode or manner of substance, so present. All the physical (bodily) reality of Christ as man, becomes bodily present, as true as if he were teaching us in the Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Why then can we not see him or hear him with our senses of sight and hearing? Simply because he is there supernaturally (which transcends not only our senses but also our natural reason). To put it in philosophical terms the reason is that the accidents whereby and through which we would normally perceive the substance of his body, are not functioning naturally. So we do not see his body nor do we understand without faith that he is present bodily. Nonetheless, given that faith assures us of the fact, there is no philosophical reason why we cannot say that Christ is physically present, by reason of him being bodily present, according to his (individual) substance.

But we do not want to bind ordinary language to the language of philosophy. If the ordinary person means by "physically" a body that is visible, tangible etc, or a physical substance with all qualities etc functioning in a natural way then we can agree that Christ is not physically present in that complete natural sense. If people's education in science constrains them to consider the natural and the physical purely in terms of what is perceptible by the senses, or observable, then they will tend to equate "physical" existence or presence with the order of accidents, or appearances or "phenomena". In that case, there is more reason to say that Christ is not physically present - for what is meant is that his presence is not able to be detected or verified by natural means of observation. This is something that the person of faith will readily concede.

We will only object if people assert that things can only exist naturally, and are known only through their appearances, or as some believe science to be saying, are known only in their appearances. Such a position is not an open common sense or scientific one, as some would like us to believe. It does not avoid taking a philosophical position. That position generally speaking has the name naturalism; in its grosser forms it may also be called materialism and sensism.

One does not have much chance of communicating the deep significance of transubstantiation to people firmly committed to philosophies such as these, which would exclude the possibility of faith in an a priori fashion and also arbitrarily limit the scope of human reason. It is rather sad that our modern education in science, influenced in no small way by such naturalistic, and ultimately atheistic, philosophies, should prevent many from more fully appreciating the wondrous event that daily takes place in the celebration of the Eucharist.

The age of miracles is past, some want us to believe. This is said when the greatest miracle of all is being performed at every time of the day all around the world. What is lacking, then, is not the miraculous power of God, but faith.

Don Boland


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
We would be grateful to receive a copy of any republication.