Transubstantiation and Aristotle. Warning: Heavy Philosophy

The comments on “Liturgical translation backflip unlikely to hold” took an interesting turn – into eucharistic theology and Real Presence. One commenter stated that “transubstantiation” – which I take to be a philosophical explanation of the doctrine of the Real Presence – is not intrinsically tied to Aristotle’s philosophy.  It would be most helpful if that were true – for surely our Christian faith cannot require us to accept a specific philosophical school of thought, Aristotelian or other. But I was curious whether the separation of transubstantiation and Aristotle held, so I asked confrere Br. Dennis Beach from our philosophy department what he thought. He wrote the following.     awr

I think it is technically right but quite misleading to say that transubstantiation is independent of Aristotelian Metaphysics. Yes, the use of the term “transubstantiation” antedates Aquinas by a good century or more. Aquinas is mid-13th century, and  the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 already used the verb “transubstantiated” in a way that shows it was generally accepted well before William of Moerbeke began making literal translations of Aristotle available to Aquinas. However, I would argue that the Neoplatonic embrace of substance metaphysics means that Aristotle is tacitly present in any account of “substance” after the 4th century BCE. And Neoplatonic thought or at least conceptual terms are clearly interwoven with Christian theology long before the 13th century. One cannot disentangle Aristotle from Christian theological categories simply by identifying Aristotle with Aquinas.

It also seems disingenuous to claim that “All that is required, philosophically, to affirm transubstantiation is to accept that there is a distinction to be made between the identity of something and its appearance.” The doctrine of transubstantiation completely reverses the usual distinction between being and appearance, where  being is held to be unchanging and appearance is constantly changing. Transubstantiation maintains instead that being or substance changes while appearance remains unchanged. Such reversals in the order of things are affronts to reason and require much, not little, to affirm philosophically. Moreover, transubstantiation seem to go far beyond the simple distinction between appearance and reality. It would be one thing if the body and blood of Christ simply appeared to be bread and wine. But I don’t think that is what is claimed with “transubstantiation.”

The claim that “substance” in the doctrine of transubstantiation is a common-sense concept, somehow independent of Aristotle’s purportedly esoteric and arcane philosophizing, is also a red herring. Aristotle picked up just such common-sense concepts as “what-it-is-to-be-X” and tried to explain rather complex philosophical problems with them. Thus, to take a “common-sense” concept like substance–even if one could maintain that it were somehow purified of Aristotelian provenance—and have it do paradoxical conceptual gymnastics in order to explain transubstantiation seems not to be not so anti-Aristotelian in spirit after all.

But really, what’s at stake in having arguments about transubstantiation be either Aristotelian or independent of Aristotle? Are people really worried only about Aristotle? My guess is that “Aristotle”  here stands for “Greek philosophy.” So while one can make a limited argument about Aristotle per se, this not only ignores Aristotle’s hidden presence in much Neoplatonic thought, it also denies that substance itself is a human concept with a Greek philosophical heritage. That the bread and wine are somehow really the body and blood of Christ is an ancient Christian belief—but using the concept of “substance” to talk about this necessarily involves Greek philosophy. (Even really is a problematic term here, stemming as it does from the philosophical term res.)

The Christian belief that the Eucharist is not simply bread and wine but the actual and effective presence of Jesus is, I believe, something that can be affirmed independently of Greek philosophy. But to claim that transubstantiation itself is conceptually independent of Greek philosophy seems both false and misguided, as if somehow the term transubstantiation were what is sacred and not Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

Br. Dennis Beach, OSB, is a monk of St. John’s Abbey since 1981. His doctorate in philosophy is from Penn State. His research and teaching interests are Continental Philosophy & Phenomenology, especially Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger & Levinas; Ancient Greek philosophy; and Liberation Theology. He is currently studying for the priesthood.



  1. I’m not a philosopher, but Br. Dennis’ explanation is great. It is after all the “Risen Christ” present Whom we receive and hopefully worthily. My “unphilosophical” mind which likes the word “transubstantiation” still prefers simple explanations to a Divine Mystery that really can’t be explained completely in human language, just like the Most Holy Trinity. I’m between “transubstantiations” at the moment and can’t develop my thought adequately, but it seems to me that we need to recover a deep appreciation and devotion to the “accidents” that remain, the Bread and the Wine, that are metaphors in symbol for Whom it is we actually receive, Jesus who is the Bread of Life, Jesus who is the Wine that brings joy to the heart. So I might be going out on a limb that others will saw off, but Jesus in belief actually becomes Bread and Wine in the Most Holy Eucharist. These symbols thus explain not only Who we receive, but what our Eucharistic Lord accomplishes by His grace in those who receive. This brings a clearer understanding too to the concept of “dining” or a “meal” with others which unifies those who are at one eternal table in the Lord Jesus as well as strengthens and nourishes them for the pilgrimage to the heavenly banquet. What would we call that in philosophical terms Br. Dennis?

    1. This would fit what I recall Fr. Roch Kereszty O Cist saying at a Society of Catholic Liturgy discussion, something like, “It’s not that it’s not bread after the transformation – it’s more bread than any other bread, it is the ultimate bread, it is bread brought to its highest level.” awr

  2. Since my comment is the one one that incited the response, I suppose I should say something. I’ll try to keep it brief.

    1. I don’t mean to appear disingenuous, but I’m not sure what is meant by “substance metaphysics.” Aristotle uses ousia in a variety of ways. In the Categories it is a fairly simple term for what something, as opposed to the various modifications that don’t change it identity (like location, quality, quantity etc.). In the Physics we get a quite different account in terms of form and matter. I would argue that, if one looks at the way that “transubstantiation” is used in Conciliar documents, it is really the former that is relevant, not the latter. And it is the former that strikes me as a fairly common sense position, not something peculiar to Aristotle, or even Greek philosophy. A colleague who has studied Indian philosophy tells me that an analogous distinction can be found there.

    2. I realize that transubstantiation reverses the usual relationship of substance and accident. This is why it is a mystery of faith. But the distinction is still useful if one wants to clarify what one is claiming happens in the Eucharist: a change of identity without a change of physical properties. I don’t think the term “transubstantiation,” as used in Conciliar documents, affirms more than that.

    3. What is at stake? My own experience is that those who deny “transubstantiation” sometimes what to dismiss 1000 years of Eucharistic…

    1. (cont.) theology as a dead end and start over de novo, usually in terms of a phenomenology of meaning. As Schillebeeckx argued, however, these account fall short in the ontological affirmation that the faith of the Church calls for with regard to the Eucharist. Something like the claim made by the term “transubstantiation” seems required of Catholics, though clearly this might be expressed in other terms (e.g. “identity” and “physical properties,” as above). My point is not to fetishize the term, but to affirm that it is still a useful one and can be explained to people who are wholly innocent of Aristotle’s metaphysics.

  3. This conversation is now impinging on a constantly-arising argument in parishes, where those of a more traditional hue maintain that what we have there is no longer bread and wine (and we should not refer to it as such) but the Body of Christ and the Precious Blood (and those are the terms we should use). I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried to explain to an interlocutor that if it isn’t bread and wine any longer it can’t be the body and blood of Christ.

    In the ‘good old days’, if consecrated wine was spilt on a carpet, the section of carpet affected had to be cut out and taken away to be burnt. These days, the theologians remind us that the signs of Jesus’s presence are bread that we can eat and wine that we can drink in fulfilment of his command. (And therefore a stain on a carpet is not a sign of the Real Presence.)

    1. I do think we have to be careful not to offend people’s devotional practices which include words like Precious Body and Blood, extreme care in not allowing the consecrated elements of Bread and Wine to be desecrated intentionally or unintentionally. As a seminarian who witnessed a Jesuit’s first Mass in a local parish in Baltimore in 1978 where he used french bread with a crusty crust which then he broke as people came to Holy Communion forcing it into the hands of those who clearly preferred to receive on the tongue and with crumbs scattered everywhere, and then not worried about who trampled them on the red carpet of the sanctuary afterward, I would say that this does not enhance our faith, piety or devotion and in fact may well have destroyed the budding faith of many for those who believe the Bread and Wine becomes the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord and of those who believe the Lord becomes the Bread and Wine of Life and for those who just simply believe they are receiving our Lord, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, True God and True Man. Our exterior words and actions should speak of our internal belief and adoration of Whom it is we receive which in doing so does not make the Holy Trinity a part of us, but rather the Holy Trinity makes us a part of Him, we’re digested into what we receive not the other way around. But don’t worry the Digesting Acid that is God does not harm, dissolve or destroy us, but saves us unto life ever lasting, whole and complete.

      1. Fr. Allan,

        You stated:

        “I do think we have to be careful not to offend people’s devotional practices.”
        I have to disagree here. The CHURCH has devotional practices that are binding on ALL the faithful,even if some people are offended.
        How do you react to SC’s statement:
        “26. Liturgical services are NOT private functions, but are celebrations of the whole Church which is the “sacrament of unity” ,namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.”
        And whether or not a communicant wants to receive the sacrament on the tounge or in the hand does not diminish the sanctity of the sacrament. It is not up to the presider to dictate to the congregation which method of reception must be used. Only the diocesan bishop, the USCCB and the Vatican has this authority.

    2. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried to explain to an interlocutor that if it isn’t bread and wine any longer it can’t be the body and blood of Christ.

      Certainly once the species loses the physical properties of bread and wine Christ is no longer present. But it is precisely the distinction that the doctrine of transubstantiation makes that is needed here, so that one can distinguish between the identity that is present (no longer bread and wine, but Christ) and the physical properties apprehended by the senses (the signs of bread and wine). So I guess I have a bit more sympathy for those parishioners who want to be careful not to refer to the consecrated elements simply as “bread” and “wine.” There are of course occasions when scripture and liturgy does this, and these can be used to get folks to relax when they are too uptight about these things, but on the whole I see no problem with people trying to be careful to speak in a way that reflects Catholic convictions about the Eucharist.

    3. Yes, and the bread and wine, once it has been transformed into the body and blood of Christ(the transubstantiation) should ONLY be referred to as the Body and Blood of Christ. There should be NO DEBATE about this, as it is a doctrine of the Church and a theological truth! Do the Eucharistic ministers at those parishes where it is referred to as “bread” or the “wine” say “bread from heaven” or “wine from the fruit of the vine?” Of course they don’t.

      1. Uh, but your proposal would mean we’d have to prohibit Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon), which uses “bread of life” after the institution narrative (sometimes called the ‘consecration’), and we’d also have to prohibit Latin chant communion antiphons sung for 1300 years which speak of “bread,” – and the old hymn “Panis Angelicus” would also have to go. We’d also have to put 1 Corinthians on the Index of Prohibited Books. My point: scripture and tradition have long since been doing what you don’t approve of.

  4. In response to F C Bauerschmidt, to turn it around, can you see how those parishioners might be wary of those who insist on referring to bread and wine precisely so as not to reflect Catholic convictions about the Eucharist?

    1. The point of the post is that background such as you cite, to the extent that it’s drawing on Greek-Western philosohy, IS Aristotelian. And as your link states, they weren’t yet at the term “transubstantiation.”

      1. Fr. Ruff, it would be heartily anachronistic to call Radbertus’ ideas Aristotelian, introduced as they were in the Aristotelian hiatus in Europe. This is monkish thinking, not scholastic!

      2. Kathy, read the post. Its point is that it is not at all anachronistic to call this Aristotelian, for the claim of an alleged hiatus, though widely believed, is inaccurate. Read this line in the post, please: “Aristotle is tacitly present in any account of “substance” after the 4th century BCE.”

      3. Though, as I noted, one would need to be far more specific about this “tacit” presence, since Aristotle says many things about ousia, not all of which have a tacit presenc ein Neoplatonism.

  5. I have no problem referring the Eucharist as “bread” and “wine”, so long as I do so in a Scriptural context (as St. Paul feels free, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to do) or qualify the terms with some adjective, like “eucharistic”, “consecrated”, “sacred”, “holy”, etc. But when we have the option, I think we should opt for “higher” language.

    We know it looks and tastes and smells like bread and wine… our senses don’t need further convincing (jokes aside about the quality of bread used for the Host). It is our faith that needs convincing.

    I’m not sure what Paul means by “if it isn’t bread and wine any longer it can’t be the body and blood of Christ.” I would certainly agree that if it does not appear to be bread and wine — that is, if no longer has the accidents of bread and wine — it’s no longer the Eucharist. Thus, a dried stain on the carpet is no longer a sign of the Real Presence. But the freshly spilled consecrated wine on the carpet is surely still the Precious Blood of our Lord and a sign of His Real Presence, no?

    If it wasn’t bread or wine, it’s certainly not now the Body and Blood, and if it no longer appears to be bread and wine, it is no longer the Body and Blood. But the Eucharist is the Eucharist whether or not we’re eating it.

    1. Jeffrey, I’m guessing that Paul is referring to the idea that the elements have to be maintained in their appearance and integrity in order to be the Eucharist.

    2. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #21:
      The body and blood are embodied in the bread and wine.
      If the bread and wine are destroyed, there is no longer an embodiment of the body and blood.
      If this is true in your Eucharistic theology, then i must ask,-
      Is the body blood, soul and divinity embodied in the bread alone? And of course likewise for the wine, is the body, blood soul and divinity embodied in the wine alone?
      If you answer in the affirmative, then we have a very large and untenable philosophical paradox.
      Best Dan Falcone

  6. I find would find it difficult to reconcile Paul Inwood’s comment “if it isn’t bread and wine any longer it can’t be the body and blood of Christ” with Catholic definitions of the sacrament of the Eucharist, if he means anything other than “it looks like bread and wine.”

    However I am reminded of the wisdom of Paul VI’s Encyclical “Mysterium Fidei”:

    “And so we must approach this mystery in particular with humility and reverence, not relying on human reasoning, which ought to hold its peace, but rather adhering firmly to divine Revelation. ”

    “the constant teaching that the Catholic Church has passed on to her catechumens, the understanding of the Christian people, the doctrine defined by the Council of Trent, the very words that Christ used when He instituted the Most Holy Eucharist, all require us to profess that “the Eucharist is the flesh of Our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father in His loving kindness raised again.” (47) To these words of St. Ignatius, we may well add those which Theodore of Mopsuestia, who is a faithful witness to the faith of the Church on this point, addressed to the people: “The Lord did not say: This is symbol of my body, and this is a symbol of my blood, but rather: This is my body and my blood. He teaches us not to look to the nature of what lies before us and is perceived by the senses, because the giving of thanks and the words spoken over it have changed it into flesh and blood.”

    1. @Fr. Donald Richardson – comment #24:
      Dear Father,
      Christ did not say “this is symbol…” and he did not say “this is my body under the species of bread…” either.
      Trans-substantiation is not synomous with the real presence. “T.” asks one to not only believe in the real presence but it goes much further than this fundamental Eucharistic theology and asks us to believe that the bread and wine are not a ‘real presence’. Philosophy, by Catholic teaching is supposed to be the handmaiden of Theology, T. as a dogma, is not only philosophically untenable but it degrades the sacred theological mysterium of the implying T. has sacred currency in our account of Christology based on Scripture, and tradition.
      Dan Falcone

  7. Nominalism has permeated much theological thinking today. It’s problem is that it makes metaphysics if not impossible at least so limited and arbitrary that any discussion about Catholic theology and its liturgy becomes quite lame. How the consecrated bread has become the Body of Christ is a mystery; transubstantiation has been one very good way for us to make some sense of this mystery. But in Nominalism, the concept of substance as opposed to accident is meaningless and which, by the way, also makes the relation of creation to the creator and His Divine very difficult to explain. There may be other ways of speaking about Universals than through Arisotelian terms, but it must be just as good if not better:

    “And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which He offered under the species of bread to be truly His own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, 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.”
    Council of Trent, Session 13, CHAPTER IV.

  8. Fr. Ruff, I’ve read the post, thank you. I disagree with it. The reasoning is circular. Both Deacon Fritz B. and I have suggested historical-theological arguments for the inadequacy of the post as presented.

    1. You don’t get to disagree with his post,as it is theologically sound. And monks study much theology, particularly in their novitiate year and also when studying for the priesthood. And yes, the reasoning is circular, and that is the nature of the study of philosophy(particularly in the study of mysticism and existentialism) Historical arguments don’t work here, because they may be theologically inaccurate,as historian’s explanations may not have a theological and philosophical basis to them.

      1. Mr. English,

        I’m pretty sure Ms. Pluth can indeed disagree with the post. She perhaps finds it unconvincing. Maybe she’s wrong, but she is entitled to disagree. Ordering the intellect about here and there, doesn’t often work out very well. In fact, it tends to lead in too-short order to either intellectual dishonesty or intolerable cognitive dissonance.

  9. This is an interesting discussion. Thanks Anthony and Dennis for bringing the topics up. It seems to me that if we’re concerned about the importation of philosophical concepts into theological mystery, we have many large issues at stake — the Trinity, for example, seems to me an even more inescapable problem. After all, theologians spent centuries debating what Greek philosophical words could describe the “threeness” and the “oneness” revealed by the incarnation, and we know that most of the Syriac-speaking Christians could not accept the consensus established in the Greek and Latin churches.

    More deeply, I’m not sure there is any human language about God entirely purged of philosophical concepts. Philosophical concepts are the fruit of reflective thought on human experience of the world, aren’t they? And doesn’t this mean that when God reveals Godself, human beings will express the truth of that revelation in their philosophical concepts?

    I think it’s important to keep in mind the potential and limitations of the concepts we have, but I think it’s impossible to purge theology of all philosopical concepts. Because of this, we should be trying to see the Gospel in different ways, not because transubstantiation is not true, but because philosophical language is a reflection of truth, not truth itself.

  10. McCabe’s basic point (in the excellent article cited above and elsewhere) is that transubstantiation is not an aristotelian explanation of the Eucharist, but a statement that an aristotelian explanation is impossible; transubstantiation is nonsense to an aristotelian. It demonstrates that, faced with the Eucharist (as the Trinity, the incarnation, the cross, etc), all language breaks down (including Aristotle’s).

    What this non-explanation tries to convey is that what used to be bread (and therefore not to be adored, save idolatrously) is now rightly adored as Christ. And that Christ who is present chooses to be so as food and drink–making the food and drink not random and discard-able packaging for an invisible mystery (O bread of heaven, beneath this veil thou dost my very God conceal) but deeply resonant of salvation (Christ is our passover).

  11. Lynn Thomas :
    Mr. English,
    I’m pretty sure Ms. Pluth can indeed disagree with the post. She perhaps finds it unconvincing. Maybe she’s wrong, but she is entitled to disagree. Ordering the intellect about here and there, doesn’t often work out very well. In fact, it tends to lead in too-short order to either intellectual dishonesty or intolerable cognitive dissonance.

    But, settled doctrine,Ms. Thomas, is settled doctrine. And it does entail an ordered intellect. And no, it does not lead to, as you state “intellectual dishonesty” as this has been debated for centuries and the Church has taken a position and She is NOT going to change her stand on things that are settled doctrine because of public opinion. And, there may be cognitive dissonance, but we as faithful followers need to rely on faith to explain things. Things don’t necessarily need to be “proven” scientifically in order to be true as is the trend in today’s world.

  12. Quite fascinating discussion. At #21 Ted Krasnicki notes, “[…] in Nominalism, the concept of substance as opposed to accident is meaningless and which, by the way, also makes the relation of creation to the creator and His Divine very difficult to explain.

    Nominalization of the Eucharist often precedes an Aristotelian understanding of the Sacrament and an acceptance of the Sacrament as a mystery. It’s counterproductive/uncharitable to chastize those who refer to the Eucharist only as accidental “bread and wine” or, as Fr. McDonald notes (#7), by its substantial qualities alone. Perhaps it is better to instruct through the liturgy rather than the blackboard (with all due respect to Abp. Sheen :-))

    The administration of Holy Communion in the Extraordinary Form demonstrates the mystery of the Sacrament well. The priest’s blessing of the communicant with the Host and the statement Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam clearly illustrates the fundamentals of transubstantiation. The communicant is shown the accidental qualities of the Host as the priest performs the blessing. The blessing statement unambiguously affirms the substance. This combined liturgical action affirms the two crucial aspects of Aquinan Eucharistic theology.

    The example from the EF is just that: one particularly vivid instance of liturgy as perpetual instruction. Yet Communion time in any rite instructs the faithful.

  13. This whole philosophical discussion reminds me of mathematics.

    Now I like mathematics. Even took a course in distance geometry one summer because I like geometry and the professor had a world reputation. Some of my best friends have been mathematicians. One because he liked systematic theology. Another because he was a great amateur literary and film critic when not demonstrating a mathematical proof at lunch

    But I prefer the theological disciplines of spirituality, liturgy and biblical studies for the same reason I got a doctorate in psychology and sociology. I like data, the real world.

    Of course mathematics is involved in gathering and analyzing data. My statistics professor talked about all the statistic models, and took us through all the proofs (but without the enthusiasm of my lunch companion). I am very content to put all the data into the computer and have it spill out the answer. Occasionally I might use a statistic test inappropriately. But I analyze the data in so many different ways that my conclusions rarely hang on a particular statistical test.

    Systematic theologians and mathematicians are welcome to pursue their interests as long as they are civil to one another and those of us who are more enamored with other interests.

    As for undergraduate seminary students, they would be far better off studying psychology, sociology and the real world. They need philosophy THEN about as much as mathematics.

  14. 🙁 for someone who likes using philosophy to discuss ethical issues and see its usefulness, it’s a little sad to see philosophy disdained, because I personally think it’s more real than mathematics, and explains sociology or psychology when done properly. (that’s if I’m understanding your comment correctly Jack #31)
    I like this discussion as well because the philosophical language we use is important, as is any language. Language (verbal and non-verbal) gives our lives meaning and the ability to share with each other. The Eucharistic gift as a symbolic presence of God necessarily runs into the difficulty of being described as language, but also is language, as it speaks of God’s reality.
    Transubstantiation is seen much in this same light because as I read the comments, the word has different meanings for different people; because it is a difficult word to define for many people, myself included I don’t know how to explain what I say when I try to articulate transubstantiation. There are many things which this might signify but I do not know all of them, because the same words can mean different things for different people.
    In light of this, I am wondering about how adoration works in transubstantiation. If one exposes the Eucharist in a monstrance, and then displays it for worship, how do we a) know the boundary between sacraments and magic and b) outside of the ritual language of Mass how is Eucharist still efficacious in the adoration ritual? I’d love thoughts 🙂

  15. The best explanation, as far as it goes, of transubstantiation that I know of is given by Thomas Aquinas. But I would point here to a deep problem in this explanation, the solution of which I would submit here as a question.

    Everyone agrees that after the conversion of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ, the accidents of the bread do not become accidents of this body. Rather the accidents remain in existence without a supporting subject by the sole power of God.

    The result of this is that there is no real relation between the body of Christ and the bundle accidents which is the host. While Aquinas says that the body of Christ is present “under” the accidents of the bread (and wine), the terminus “under” has no real meaning here. For there is nothing “under” these accidents, which exist without any substantial subject at all.

    What then does the “presence” of the body of Christ “in” or “under” the sacramental species mean at all? If the body of Christ is not the supporting subject of the accidents, then the host and the body of Christ are simply two separate realities. But if that is true, then the body of Christ can be present without the host and vice versa, and transubstantiation doesn’t seem necessary at all to effect the substantial presence of Christ.

    Anyone an idea how to solve this problem?

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