The Bishops’ Document on Eucharist: A Teaching Moment 

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.





  1. All of this is sensible but has, to my mind, one flaw. It would take a lot of text and few would read it all. It seems to me the first point to make is that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. I say this as it seems that many do not accept it.
    The fewer words the better.
    A second point might be made that one should not take Communion as routine at every Mass. There might be benefit from listing the conditions.
    The danger is that a long explanation detracts from the first point. So if the whole document is limited to 150 words (plus links in footnotes to existing explanatory texts such as CCC) there is less risk of distraction from the main message. 100 words only would be better. This is not aimed at Praytell readers who would enjoy and benefit from the full 10,000 words that could well be written. The aim is that the dimmest journalist can understand and so that the most hostile cannot twist the meaning.

    1. The Pew survey is useless and should not be cited. The people that devised the survey do not have an adequate grasp of Catholic theology. They seem to think that transubstantiation is church teaching, full stop. But *Real Presence* is, and according to Trent, transubstantiation is a “most apt” explanation of Catholic teaching. It is not itself Catholic teaching.

      The survey implies that either it is a symbol or it is real, and the interpreters wrongly think that that affirming symbol is denying Real Presence. It could be, but it isn’t necessarily.

      I would never assume that people who give the right answer to useless surveys like this actually understand and affirm Church teaching. In my experience with undergrads, for example, I routinely find that those who think they believe in the Real Presence think it is a physical and localized presence. It isn’t. They believe they can see the Body of Christ with their eyes and are puzzled to learn that Thomas Aquinas said you can’t.

      I repeat, surveys like Pew about real presence are *useless*.

      1. Maybe part of the problem is St. Paul VI as he wrote the following in Mysterium Fidei:

        ” Who would ever tolerate that the dogmatic formulas used by the ecumenical councils for the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation be judged as no longer appropriate for men of our times, and let others be rashly substituted for them? In the same way, it cannot be tolerated that any individual should on his own authority take something away from the formulas which were used by the Council of Trent to propose the Eucharistic Mystery for our belief. These formulas—like the others that the Church used to propose the dogmas of faith—express concepts that are not tied to a certain specific form of human culture, or to a certain level of scientific progress, or to one or another theological school. Instead they set forth what the human mind grasps of reality through necessary and universal experience and what it expresses in apt and exact words, whether it be in ordinary or more refined language. For this reason, these formulas are adapted to all men of all times and all places.”

        and then later on in Credo of the People of God:

        “This mysterious change is very appropriately called by the Church transubstantiation. Every theological explanation which seeks some understanding of this mystery must, in order to be in accord with Catholic faith, maintain that in the reality itself, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the Consecration, so that it is the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus that from then on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine, as the Lord willed it, in order to give Himself to us as food and to associate us with the unity of His Mystical Body.”

        It certainly sounds like transubstantiation is church teaching full stop from the words of Paul VI.

      2. No. Paul VI echoes Trent in saying that the change “is very appropriately called” transubstantiation. He doesn’t say that transubstantiation is dogma or revealed faith, but that it is an appropriate term. That’s the whole point.
        We’re not denying transubstantiation or denying what Trent said. We’re putting it in a larger context and connecting it to the magisterium’s more relevant teaching in having approved the Missal of 1969 and all the attendant documents.

      3. I’ve been thinking about your comment about your undergrads. If I’m not mistaken, according to Aquinas we never see anything as a substance with our physical eyes. This is because grasping the substantial form of something always requires the activity of the agent intellect on the images produced by the senses. For example, Aquinas would say that a dog never sees a tree as a substance since a dog only has physical sense organs and not an intellect. (It can see the tree but not the tree-ness of the tree) It might be worth first discussing with your students the difference between seeing that something is and understanding what something is.

        Btw, Aquinas would have used the Dominican rite which the Dominican order never entirely abandoned since even after they adopted the reformed Roman rite, they retained the right to use their own Dominican liturgy at their discretion.

      4. The Pew Survey is useless. Then and now. Our people know a Mystery when they encounter one. Thank you, Anthony.

      5. Father: I was thinking of a short explanation. These are the 195 words used by the Penny Catechism and could be shortened by avoiding repetition of words.
        There is no mention of transubstantiation

        The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, together with his Soul and Divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine.
        The bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of God, to whom nothing is impossible or difficult.
        The bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ when the words of consecration ordained by Jesus Christ are pronounced by the priest in Holy Mass.
        Christ has given himself to us in the Holy Eucharist to be the life and food of our souls. ‘He that eateth me, the same shall also live by me’: ‘He that eateth this bread shall live for ever’.
        In order to receive the Blessed Sacrament worthily it is required that we are in a state of grace and keep the prescribed fast: water does not break this fast.
        To be in a state of grace is to be free from mortal sin and pleasing to God.
        It is a great sin to receive Holy Communion in mortal sin; ‘for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgement to himself’.

      6. Well I suppose it’s all that, but gosh, I sure wouldn’t start there or use such language to set the parameters. I find it significant that Vatican II didn’t use the term ‘transubstantiation,’ and as far as I know the Council didn’t repeat Trent on “Body and Blood, soul and divinity.” They had a different starting point, a different vocabulary, and different worldview. They were deepening the Church’s understanding of Eucharist, not diminishing it.

      7. Seriously, Paul VI calls transubstantiation a dogma. I can’t believe you’re doubling down on this.

      8. If you look at everything said by the magisterium since Trent, it is clear the Real Presence is dogma but the explanation of that dogma “transubstantiation” is not. The statement of Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei is an outlier and appears actually to be a mistake or at least an infelicitous phrase. You get that sort of thing within magisterial teaching. Just look at the changes in capital punishment from the popes in the last 40 years.

        Be that as it may, I’m not sure what you’re after here, Alex. I honestly don’t see how your argumentative protestations help any of us understand and live out more deeply the mystery of the Eucharist. What’s the point?


      9. My statement was a response to your complaint above that many people:

        “seem to think that transubstantiation is church teaching, full stop. But *Real Presence* is, and according to Trent, transubstantiation is a “most apt” explanation of Catholic teaching. It is not itself Catholic teaching.”

        My point is that this might be in part because recent papal teaching on this matter seems to encourage this idea.

        I also think that this presents a serious challenge to finding new ways to talk about Eucharist. (I also disagree that there is any analogy between this issue and development of doctrine on capital punishment, again Paul VI’s statements seem to rule out the possibility of such development. I also disagree about his statement being an outlier but I doubt that you’d be interested in hearing my case that this is so)

      10. Thank you Father for your response. Yes, the modern way would be to use different words but may I offer a friendly challenge to devise another explanation with as much meaning and as few words?
        The bishops may have presented themselves with a bigger task than they realized.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful and very clear summary, Anthony, and for restating these priorities of sacramental theology as they apply to the Eucharist.

  3. “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…”

    My understanding is that this is being drafted precisely as a political issue. It will certainly be used as a hammer in political discourse, and the Bishops know it. Frankly I think that’s the whole point, not an attempt to go over once more the meaning of the Eucharist.

    1. From this side of the pond that seems blindingly obvious. They have settled on a very narrow definition of what constitutes a pro-life issue and seem to have ignored a raft of other issues that limit and shorten the lives of some, particularly the lives of the poorest. And the choices they have made look to have been made along party political lines. Clearly using the Eucharist for partisan purposes.
      Some might see that as sacrilege.
      But I am happy to stand corrected.

      1. Alan Johnson, there is no need to correct you. Sadly, you are spot on, and the Vatican sees it clearly also, which is reportedly why Francis is being silent.

        I hope you are right Anthony, but i think my hope is as groundless as 1600 changing when he entered office. If people show you who they are, believe them.

        The traditionalists are rejoicing; the Vatican II reformers are shaking their heads. November will tell.

      2. Catholics need to understand that bishops are politicians and have been since 374 when St Ambrose, a Roman provincial governor and not yet baptized, became Bishop of Milan by popular acclamation.

      3. I don’t think it’s necessarily sacrilege to recognise a political dimension to the Eucharist, but if the bishops are going to do that, they should do it consistently and treat being a serving politician as grave public sin equivalent to remarrying after divorce.

  4. Apropos of this fine piece, am I the only one who notices the regular association made in Catholic publications (America and the Church Life Journal most recently) of the words “Eucharist,” “Holy Communion,” and “Liturgical” to a monstrance containing a consecrated Host? The distortion this creates in the minds of people who are led to think that worship of the Sacrament outside of Mass is the primary referent of these words cannot help but devalue the primary referent of participation in the liturgical action itself. I expect such inanity on EWTN but not in publications that, hopefully, ought to know better.

    1. Ha!
      I heard our bishop preaching that people should come to Mass so they could worship Christ in the tabernacle.
      To use UK slang, I was gob-smacked.

      1. I can ‘worship Christ in the tabernacle’ whenever the church is open. No need to come to Mass for that.

  5. I forgot to mentoon that I have reading and re-reading the original post here.
    It is beautiful.
    Thank you.

  6. I am convinced there’s an underlying issue here involving actions associated with worship. We know that adoration and worship are synonyms, which means that when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we are worshiping God through our bodily postures and hand gestures; our active listening to the Word proclaimed; our prayers sung and spoken; our offering of ourselves along with gifts of bread and wine; our active participation in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving; and our Holy Communion with Christ and the members of the church. Yet all too many people these days speak of adoration as if it only relates to looking upon the Sacramental Body and Blood of Christ with great reverence as the priest holds the elements before them. As if Christ is not available to be praised prior to the consecration. This understanding of worship leads to an unwarranted emphasis on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament either in the tabernacle or in a monstrance. Some even see the Mass as primarily offered so that we can have a “consecrated host” to adore whenever we have the chance to do so. I would very much welcome a teaching document from the bishops on the Eucharist if it addresses issues like this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if its opening words would be something like “The term Eucharist is primarily a verb” and then goes on to delineate all the actions associated with it.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful post. I think it is emblematic of the fresh and compelling witness which the bishops have an opportunity to present.

    I fear they will miss the opportunity. Consider that it is to be drafted by the committee on doctrine. Nothing against doctrine or the committee, but I don’t expect them to approach the topics at hand from a liturgical starting nor end point.

    To be sure, fruitful dialogue between the doctrinal and liturgical sides of the house could precede the actual drafting. But I haven’t seen many signs that consultation and listening are on their agenda. All of the interesting ideas and dialogue on this topic are happening in places like this.

  8. These things need to be said, Father Anthony, and I don’t think you wasted a word doing so. If enough people say them, maybe this fall the bishops will be shamed into producing the statement their church needs—not the statement they plainly want (one that will save their threatened, but supposedly still existent, credibility from that troublesome president).
    I need enlightenment on a matter of word choice. I have trouble with the use of “transform” to denote what is done to the elements of the Eucharist when they are consecrated. A transformation, my dictionaries imply, is a large change in something’s appearance or attributes, but not a change in the thing’s substance. Transformation is the opposite of transubstantiation.
    Avoiding such metaphysical potholes isn’t hard. Just say “change” instead of “transform.”

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