Note on Article on Transubstantiation
by Don Boland
In the article in Universitas 10 entitled Why Bread And Wine Are Not 'Transformed' Into Christ's Body And Blood In The Eucharist the writer contrasted the ordinary philosophical meaning of transformation with the special word transubstantiation adopted by the Church to signify what occurs in the celebration of the Eucharist. The need for the invention of a new word in this context arises from the fact that what occurs is something entirely outside the natural order of things and consequently not to be understood in terms of a natural change or a transformation in the ordinary sense.
When I consume bread in the ordinary way the substance of the bread is changed or transformed into my substance. Transformation in its original and natural sense signifies a change of form only, i.e. the same matter (understood philosophically as primary matter) remains under a different form. When I partake of the Eucharist I receive the human substance of Christ but in no way is there a transformation of Christ's body into my substance -there can be no transformation either of the substance of the bread into my substance, for the total substance of the bread has ceased to exist.
Nor is there a change in the ordinary way, or a transformation according to its natural significance, when the substance of the bread is converted into the bodily substance of Christ. It is not a case of the matter then under the form of bread now being "informed" by a new substantial form as happens when changed naturally. The bread is not changed or transformed into Christ's bodily substance by any process that could be understood in natural terms. We may use the same word "transformation" but it signifies something entirely outside the natural significance of the word. Thus it was that, in order to signify more accurately what happens, the word "transubstantiation" was adopted. If we wished to speak most strictly in this context we would use the verb "transubstantiate" in preference to "transform".
Is it always incorrect, therefore, to use the word "transformation" in relation to what occurs in the celebration of the Eucharist? The answer to this question is no, for the simple reason that the use of language in social communication is not governed by philosophical correctness, or any other particular kind of correctness, but by common usage. The use of language too is governed by the context of the discussion. In a theological discussion of the Eucharist it would not be acceptable for instance to speak of the "doctrine of transformation", rather than the "doctrine of transubstantiation". For here the two words are being contrasted. But in a discussion of the Eucharist outside such a context it may even be better to use the word "transform" rather than "transubstantiate", provided that it is understood to signify what truly and uniquely occurs in the celebration of the Eucharist. One needs to get one's message across in the way best adapted to one's audience and the use of philosophically or theologically correct terms can sometimes militate against that aim. A more generally familiar word, or one used in a sense that is per force extended beyond its natural or original meaning, may be the better word to use.
The word "transform" is used in the Message of the Synod of Bishops to the People of God, at the conclusion of the XI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops( para 7): ."From its beginnings, the Church has remembered the death and resurrection of Jesus with the same words and actions of the Last Supper, asking the Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the Body and into the Blood of Christ." The word was also used forcefully in the same context by His Holiness Pope Benedict XIV in his homily of 21 August 2005 to a huge gathering of world youth.
The previous article referred to was intended to highlight the difference between the strict meanings of "transformation" and "transubstantiation". To some it may seem that the contrast was put too strongly but it should in no way be taken to criticise the use of a particular word in the discussion of the Eucharist. This will always be a matter to be determined according to the context of the discussion.
Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies,in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted Dec 2005. It was published in
Universitas Number 12 (Dec 2005)
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