Why Luther? A Letter to a Puzzled Pray Tell Reader

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

(Featured image: The Council of Trent. Image in post: Luther at the Diet of Worms.)


  1. So happy that to see this explanation. Simple enough that even a person who has no background in theology can understand it. Appreciate seeing the distinction between Protestants and Anglicans.

  2. This Lutheran thanks you for your clarity and charity. IF it helps, I have spent the past 30 years of Ordained Ministry working to convince Lutherans that Roman Catholics are not the enemy, and in my “Irreverent Reverend” way of saying things, we are so much closer to Rome than we are to other Protestants. I consider Lutherans and Anglicans to be non-Protestant because we are actually more Catholic than Rome sometimes.

    Your irenic spirit, Father Anthony, parallels my own, though my little tribe of Lutherans is not especially known for irenicism toward anyone, much less other Christians.

    When I studied in Rome I lived the tragedy of the splintered Church, when I studied in Rome I saw the necessity for the reform that Luther and others tried to introduce to the Church. Fr Dr Robert Burns, OP was one of my professors and I remember him telling me that the Church needed the reforms attempted, not just in the 16th Century, but in every century. If all of the Popes were as awesome as the last 4 I believe all of this stuff would have been worked out by a Council, in which all of the Churches and Ecclesial Communities would have participated and the schisms of the 1054 and 1517 would have been averted.

    Perhaps it is not too late….

  3. Brilliant contribution that clarifies the essential content and intention of “real presence” and Aquinas’ larger, subtler, richer view which is not adequately represented in the Tridentine canons and anathemas.

  4. There is a certain irony that some hard-shell Lutheran theologians have held to a version of real presence that is close to the”physicalist” view that Aquinas rejected, making the sine qua non of orthodox belief a willingness to affirm that in consuming the Eucharist the body of Christ is torn and crushed by the teeth of the faithful. I read a volume of Lutheran dogmatics one in which the author (a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I believe) opined that Aquinas’s views on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper was dangerously close to those of Calvin. So the world of protestant sacramental theology is much more varied (and weirder) than a lot of Catholics realize.

  5. A generous, brilliant, beautifully written response, Anthony, as the others have said. I’m using this in class!

  6. I would echo all the positive comments on this. One of the texts I find most awesome – in the proper sense of trying to convey our human stupefaction at the mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration and the sacred species – is the Sequence ‘Lauda Sion’ for Corpus Christi.

    One more thing. I was Church of England until age 18. One of my jobs at the local church was to serve the Incumbent at Holy Communion sometimes on Saturdays. He celebrated the Rite (BCP 1662 more or less) with care and dedication, clearly as if it was the most important thing he was to do that day. I first started thinking about ordination there and then. And I have been a priest for over 40 years now. So don’t tell me that such was not an occasion of grace !


    1. Canon Griffith’s comments on the BCP service made me think of this section in Addleshaw:

      ‘One of the most typical, but least known, panegyrics on the Prayer Book is to be found in a charge delivered to the clergy of the diocese of Canterbury by Sir Leoline Jenkins in the reign of Charles II, ‘I forbear to tell you …’, he says, ‘how excellent the composition is, how devout and humble the confessions, how grave and divine the absolutions, how pathetic and comprehensive the prayers and supplications, how sweet and exalted the hymns and thanksgivings, how charitable and compassionate the intercessions for all sorts of men; in a word, how excellent the matter, the method, and the decorum of the whole liturgy is. So that neither Rome nor Moscovy, Osburgh nor Amsterdam, have anything in their public services that can enter into comparison with it.’ ‘

  7. Thank you, Fr Anthony.
    It is too easy to imagine that God is controlled and hemmed in by our theology, that he does not act through the worship of other churches. Who was it said the God supplies what humans are lacking?

  8. I commend the letter writer for their eloquence courage in defending their faith. I have full faith that, as the Lord has told us we can not have life within us unless we eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, and that through His institution of the Eucharist at the last supper, it is His body and His blood, that we partake of.
    The erudite theologians, contributors and comments of this website can dance on the head of the pin of real presence “mystery” all they like. For those of us in the pews, we understand all we need to know.
    Are there other ways to get to Heaven- sure, is it possible that any form of Eucharist is valid-perhaps, because one cannot know the mind of God and His mercy. For me I’ll take the instruction that Jesus Christ gave us as my guide, try to live a faithful life, pray for those who don’t know God and not worry about mysteries, where faith is sufficient.

    1. So, you missed the whole point of the post then?

      The well-intentioned writer misunderstands the Catholic faith – surely you’re not commending that?!

      “We understand all we need to know”: so, no need for theology, and 2,000 years of ‘fides et ratio’ can be flushed down the sink? JP2 would be horrified.

      Don’t go the route of anti-intellectual fundamentalism, Chip. It will not serve you well.


  9. I had a great teacher of sacramental theology in seminary who carefully and faithfully expounded on the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. At first I was scandalized when I heard that the Body and Blood of Christ are really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist sacramentally but not physically. Didn’t “Sister” tell me that I would injure the flesh of Christ were I to chew the host rather than let it melt on my tongue? And what was I to make of the assertion that while Christ is truly present as true food and true drink, it is not presence as in a particular place? Wasn’t that truly Christ up there in the monstrance during Benediction? The answer is “yes” as long as I realize that his presence cannot be restricted to “here” or “there”. This sacrament points to the Triune God whose presence transcends time and space.
    Shouldn’t Catholics instinctively know that partaking of his flesh that is true food and his blood which is true drink doesn’t make us cannibals? Sacramental fundamentalists, however, seem undeterred by the important nuances advocated by one of the most eloquent Doctors of the Church. Instead they blog about “Eucharistic Miracles”, rail against taking communion in the hand, argue against the frequent distribution of communion under both forms, and insist that proper reverence for the real presence requires that we kneel for communion.
    Thank you, Fr. Anthony, for your well reasoned letter reflecting the true faith handed on to us from the apostles.

    1. Well, elsewhere on St Blog’s today, one might even find a post commending the idea of fasting from receiving Holy Communion so that we may better understand that the reception thereof is properly subordinated to worship and adoration. There was some logical three-card monty getting to that recommendation, but it’s the kind of thing that happens when folks want to present a entire program of argument, as it were.

  10. This was a lovely post to read, Father Anthony. I look forward to sharing it with others. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.