Pray Tell is running a series of quotations from Martin Luther this month leading up to the 500th anniversary date of October 31, 2017. After the post this week “Martin Luther on Communion under Both Forms,” a reader wrote in with the following concerns. My response follows.
I am puzzled by this post, as well as the others in this series.
I too pray for the day that Lutheran Christians become reunited with us Catholics. I recognize that for such a reunion to ever occur, Lutherans must be willing to repudiate Martin Luther’s errors, while Catholics must in turn be willing to embrace those insights of Luther’s which are good in and of themselves and not contrary to the Faith.
That said, it seems shocking to me to give consideration to Martin Luther’s views on the Eucharist, especially as a means of acknowledging the 500th anniversary of his break with the Church. Luther’s actions, whether one sympathizes with his situation at the time or not, directly led to millions of Christians over the last half-millennium losing out on Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is the very source and summit of Christianity. It is impossible to put into words the tragedy of Christianity gutted of this Most Precious Gift.
Dear Pray Tell reader,
Thank you for writing in. I commend you for your passionate commitment to the Catholic faith and to the Eucharist. I also commend you for your sensitivity and your respectful manner of posing your question. I hope my words help you understand where I’m coming from, and maybe inspire you to look at your troubling questions from another angle.
First, to be clear: I believe in the Real Presence, including everything the Catholic Church believes about this mystery. I emphasize this at the outset to make clear that my following comments to you about mystery, paradox, and ecumenical openness are meant not as a lessening of eucharistic faith, but rather a deepening of it.
It cannot be emphasized enough: The Real Presence is a mystery. Neither I nor you nor anyone can comprehend it rationally – though human reason is a great gift of God that we use to try to get closer to God’s unfathomable gifts. I have had to change my thinking on the Eucharist many times, and I expect I will continue to do so. More than once I thought my mind understood the mystery, and then I realized that my understanding was mistaken.
Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th-century explainer of “transubstantiation” (which was a new philosophical term of his era), strove mightily to show that this is a mystery. Before him, as a result of complicated prior disputes involving Radbertus and Ratramnus which I won’t go into here, theologians and church leaders had backed themselves into a corner in their efforts to defend the Real Presence. They felt obligated to defend the presence of the physical Body of Christ in the sacrament. Thomas Aquinas rejected this view. He spoke of transubstantiation in way which was, compared to the dominant understanding, more spiritual, mysterious, paradoxical, and reconnected to the larger mystery of Christ building up the Church.
- Thomas asked whether the human eye sees the Body of Christ in the sacrament at Mass. No, he said – only the mind does, because it takes faith to see it. It is not visibly present to the eye, though the sign (what looks like bread) is.
- Thomas asked whether the Body of Christ is moved when the priest moves the Host. No, he said – Christ is not present as in a place and cannot be contained in a place. The Risen Lord is, so to speak, “everywhere.” This sounds like a paradox the human mind cannot comprehend: the bread is entirely transformed into the Body of Christ, but the Body of Christ is not in the place where the bread is.
- Thomas did not think that the point of the Real Presence is that the bread is changed (though it is changed). The real point – what he called the “res tantum” – is rather the unity of the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. To see the Mass as primarily the great miracle of transubstantiation is, according to Thomas, mistaken. For Christ to be present in the sacrament is not an end in itself. Rather, Christ gave us the sacrament, and his presence in the sacrament, to change us – to build us up as a community into his Body.
We Catholics would do well to be more humble and more honest: there is not one correct, unchanging doctrine of Real Presence which we have held for 2,000 years without interruption. We needed the course correction of a Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, we will no doubt always need some correction or deepening, because our minds struggle to fathom this mystery and can never comprehend or explain it perfectly. We need to hear voices of Luther and other reformers, and they might help us Catholics understand better some aspect of what we believe about this mystery.
We Catholics should also be honest about this: some of the most devout Catholics today who most strongly defend the Real Presence are sometimes mistaken about it. As if it’s more Catholic to defend the Real Presence as an end in itself, as if it’s the high point of the Mass and of the Catholic faith, as if it’s a physical presence of Christ in a place, as if the validly ordained priest has power over God to bring him down to the altar by his words.
And while we’re being honest: Christ commanded “Take this, all of you, and drink of it,” but the Catholic Church only held to this until the 13th century or so, and then deprived lay people of the chalice. We have something to learn from Protestants, Anglicans, and the Orthodox on this point, and we should be glad that Vatican II made Communion under both forms again possible.
And what about sense of community, being the Body of Christ? It’s a key aspect of the Eucharist, and one that Protestants have grasped and oftentimes lived out very well. Catholics can learn from this.
You write of “the 500th anniversary of his [Luther’s] break with the Church.” I think I know what you mean, but this makes it sound like the Catholic Church is a static, perfect, unchanging fortress which Luther simply abandoned and put himself outside of. It would be more accurate historically to say that the one church in the West was split, so that after the Reformation there was a (now smaller) Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant Churches. They left us, but we also left them. Remember – the Second Vatican Council taught that our separated brothers and sisters are in real but imperfect union with the one Church of Christ, that the true Church “subsists in” (not simply “is”) the Roman Catholic Church, and there was fault on both sides when it came to a split between the reformers and the Catholic hierarchy.
You write of “millions of Christians over the last half-millennium losing out on Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.” It’s great if you’re confident that Christ acts through the validly ordained Catholic priest, and it’s touching that you care about Protestants and see their loss of the Real Presence as a “tragedy.” But no less a theologian than Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) said that Real Presence is about more than valid ordination, and we Catholics should not deny “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord in a Lutheran Lord’s Supper.”
Have millions of Protestants missed out on the Real Presence for 500 years? I wouldn’t put it this way. First of all, Luther believed in the Real Presence in the sense of transformation of bread and wine, and he fought mightily against other reformers who disagreed with him. But even for those Protestants who rejected transformation of bread and wine, it’s important that we Catholics look at them as charitably, generously, and accurately as possible.
(We should also admit that our widespread quasi-magical misunderstanding of Real Presence drove some Protestants to reject all bread-transformation language, but that’s another discussion.)
Even if, in the strictest and narrowest Catholic understanding, a given Protestant church does not have valid ordination and a valid sacrament of the eucharist, we Catholics shouldn’t say that there is no presence of Christ there! The Risen Lord is present everywhere. Surely he is present in the Protestant community that believes in him, experiences his presence in the meal, deepens its faith that he died and rose for them, and seeks to be united as the Body of Christ through the meal. All of that is a very powerful Real Presence, even if it’s not a valid sacrament in a strict Catholic understanding. And it may be more powerful than a given Catholic congregation that has a valid sacrament but is perhaps lacking in some of those things that are the whole point of the Real Presence.
I’m very aware that you and I are not discussing all this in a vacuum. It’s a challenging time to be a Christian and a Catholic, when so many are rejecting Christianity and no longer attend church. And if one does attend Mass, it can be troubling sometimes to see irreverence, lack of prayerfulness, and sloppy and unworthy liturgical celebrations. There is such widespread lack of catechesis, so little understanding of even the basics of the faith among church-going Catholics. All of this bothers me greatly.
But I am convinced that the best response to this confusion is not the false security of narrow, pre-Vatican II understandings of our faith, but rather, embrace of the utter mystery of God which makes us more open, more loving, more ecumenical, more self-questioning, more willing to learn from anyone and everyone.
This is not weakness, but strength.
That is not loss of faith, but deepening of it.
This is not rejecting the Real Presence, but attempting (however haltingly, however inadequately) to believe in the whole point of Real Presence.
That’s why Pray Tell is quoting Martin Luther throughout this month.
Fr. Anthony, OSB