At their online meeting this week the U.S. Catholic bishops voted 168-55 to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the Eucharist, “On the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”
The New York Times coverage of the issue reflects how the bishops’ action is viewed in the public square: “Targeting Biden, Catholic Bishops Advance Controversial Communion Plan.” The Times wrote that “the decision was aimed at the nation’s second Catholic president and exposed bitter divisions in American Catholicism.”
In a recent letter to the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Ladaria, the Vatican’s doctrine chief, had called for dialogue among the bishops before drafting a statement, and he emphasized the importance of unity among the bishops. But the 168-55 vote shows that the bishops will proceed with the drafting of a statement, though they are divided.
The divisions are around political issues such as abortion and euthanasia, and what politicians’ political stands mean for their admission to, or exclusion from, Communion. Those are important questions and they call for some deep thinking. But rather than addressing them here, I will take up some prior questions of liturgical and sacramental theology which will inevitably come up in the drafting of a statement on the Eucharist.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the bishops’ doctrine committee said that the document would “address the fundamental truths” including the Real Presence and its sacrificial character. This is to be welcomed – if it is based on the principles undergirding the reformed liturgy, and if the understanding of Real Presence and sacrifice is derived from the nature of the reformed liturgy. This is a welcome teaching moment.
The liturgy as reformed after the Second Vatican Council deepened the Catholic understanding of sacrifice and Real Presence. These mysteries are not in the first instance abstract doctrines to be defended over against heretics. (We got some of that at Trent). Real Presence and sacrifice are not starting points for thinking about Eucharist, nor are they end points. The starting point is the rite, the celebration of the mysteries, by the entire community as a communal sharing in Christ’s sacrificial self-offering of his Body and Blood for the life of the world. The starting point is the Eucharistic Prayer and the communal sharing in Holy Communion, which is the high point of the Mass according to the GIRM.
The end point is that worshipers are transformed to be the Body of Christ, to offer themselves to one another, to live sacrificial lives for the sake of the world, to be Christ’s presence in the world, to witness to the coming Kingdom which is already present in transformed lives of Christian disciples.
Only with this starting point and end point do Catholic teaching on the Real Presence and eucharist as sacrifice come into their own. Such teachings flesh out, at a second-order level of intellectual reflection, how to think correctly (and not say anything false) about transformation of bread and wine and about the relationship between Christ’s action on Calvary and in the Mass.
If one were to start instead with abstract doctrine, and to see the liturgy as merely a production machine to effect a liturgical sacrifice and the transformation of bread and wine, the form of the liturgy wouldn’t matter that much. But the Second Vatican Council saw a need to reform the liturgy so that it would better express the nature of the true Church (SC 2) and more readily draw participants into the mysteries celebrated. The form matters.
The liturgy is more sacrificial when the community participates actively, when the peace is exchanged before Communion, when Communion is offered under both forms, when the congregation sings during the reception of Communion. These better enable worshippers to share in Christ’s sacrifice by their communal piety, so that the liturgy embodies worshipers’ intention to give their lives in self-offering.
The Real Presence is more real for worshipers when their active participation in the liturgy forms them into the Body of Christ. There’s a reason why Thomas Aquinas valued the res tantum, the unity of the church, more highly than the res et sacramentum, the transformed elements. Though Thomas did not have our reformed liturgy as his starting point, and hence our use of him in things liturgical and sacramental must always be critical and discerning, in this case he is very helpful. He teaches us to think less about the whatness of transformed elements and more about why the elements are transformed and why Jesus wishes to be present to us.
In the light of the Second Vatican Council and the reformed liturgy, reverence is not primarily about external respect for transformed elements, though there is a place for signs of respect toward them. Reverence is primarily about more active participation in the liturgy, more lively attentiveness to one another, more ability to see Christ in one another. True reverence is liturgical, which is to say, it is communal.
At the bishops’ meeting this week, Cardinal Di Nardo stated that our primary experience of the Eucharist is Sunday Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Exactly right. Let’s hope that when the U.S. bishops speak about the Eucharist, they speak above all about the worthy celebration of the Sunday liturgy. That would be a great grace for the U.S. Catholic Church.