Real Presence and Idolatry

By Brett Salkeld

Earlier this summer, Catholics as well as Protestants using the Revised Common Lectionary heard the Bread of Life discourse from John 6 over several weeks. This is the third in a series of posts, “Real Presence and…” , the first post being “Real Presence and Polarization” and the second post, “Real Presence and Ecumenism.” The final post will take up Real Presence and mission.

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A key concern for the Protestant Reformers in their rejection of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was that it seemed to legitimate, even encourage, idolatry. The worship offered by Catholics to the Eucharistic Lord, present in the host and chalice, looked, to Protestant eyes, like pagan idol worship. Even today, Jack Chick’s infamous anti-Catholic cartoon tracts make much of such “cracker worship.” The Reformation was not, I suggest, the first time this issue had arisen in Christian history. The iconoclastic controversy in the east several hundred years earlier had dealt with the same basic problem. While there are important differences between them, both these controversies center on the question of the relationship between the immaterial divine and the material created order.

God is not material, and to represent God as such, as was common among ancient Israel’s neighbours, for instance, is to risk worshipping the creature rather than the creator. And so, Israel worked very hard to distinguish between the kind of worship offered in the temple in Jerusalem, which did not house idols, and that offered in pagan temples, which did.  Following in this tradition, and taking one element of it to its logical conclusion, Islam forbids any physical representation of the divine. The Old Testament, however, is less dogmatic on this point. While direct representation of Yahweh is forbidden, there are many examples of physical artifacts that point to Yahweh’s presence and action, for instance, the bronze serpent, the tabernacle, and, above all, the temple itself.

These objects are always ambiguous – the serpent was so ambiguous it eventually became an actual idol and needed to be destroyed – they point to God, but they are not God. Indeed, from the Christian perspective, they do more than point to God; they point to the incarnation itself. In Jesus, God “tabernacled” or “pitched his tent” among us. Jesus is the true temple, the one that can be raised three days after it is torn down, the “place” where we can worship in spirit and in truth. Even the serpent, lifted up and gazed upon in the desert, prefigures Christ’s crucifixion.

And, by pointing to the incarnation, they point to the resolution of the basic problem. If God is divine, spirit, immaterial, how can we humans, strange mix of matter and spirit that we are, have communion with God? We cannot leave our material being behind, though various Gnostic movements throughout Christian history have tried. Rather, God joins us in our material existence. It was this incarnational principle that resolved the iconoclastic controversy. Christians could depict God because God had depicted Godself in Christ.

Of course, important distinctions remained necessary. Even as he points beyond himself to the Father, Jesus is himself fully God and therefore worthy of worship without qualification. Icons both point to God and depict God, but they are not God. They function like windows, transparent to the truth on the “other side” of them. We should not mistake a window for a landscape.

When it comes to the Eucharist, the distinctions are perhaps even more subtle. On the one hand, we say that, because the substance of the bread and wine really have become Christ’s body and blood, worship of the Eucharist is not merely legitimate, but obligatory. If the Eucharist really is Jesus, the appropriate response is worship. On the other hand, we recognize that the accidents of bread and wine which remain after the consecration are not Jesus. They are, rather, more like the windows through which we can see God’s presence among us. What is worshipped in the Eucharist is not the physical elements of bread and wine.

This is well and good in theory. But Protestants may indeed be skeptical that these distinctions always hold in practice. Certainly, many devout Catholics often profess things about the Eucharistic elements that are far from the teaching of the Church. And if anyone actually is worshipping the physical elements themselves, that would technically constitute idolatry.

The recent and ongoing pandemic furnishes us with an illuminating example of such confusion. It is not uncommon, in some circles, to hear the complaint that bishops who follow public health orders and introduce certain cautions into the sharing of the Eucharist at Mass lack faith in Christ’s Real Eucharistic Presence. If the bread and wine really do become Jesus, it is asserted, it would be impossible for disease to spread through their distribution; faith in Real Presence, we are told, obviates any need for caution. But this is not the teaching of the Church.

In his definitive treatment of transubstantiation, St. Thomas Aquinas actually dealt with this question quite explicitly. According to St. Thomas, anything that bread and wine can do – nourish, refresh, inebriate – before the consecration, their accidents can still do after the consecration. Thomas calls these their actions. Moreover, anything that can be done to bread and wine – to be eaten and digested, to rot – can be done to their accidents after the consecration. These are their passions. If unconsecrated bread and wine – to say nothing of fingers, tongues, or chalices – might be a vector for the spread of disease, there is nothing in Catholic teaching to suggest that consecration mitigates this reality.

Around the same time that the doctrine of transubstantiation was developed to articulate the Church’s faith in Christ’s Eucharistic presence, a variety of pious practices surrounding the Eucharist emerged as well, culminating in the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Not everyone was going to read Aquinas’s Summa, but nearly everyone was going to sing (or at least hear) the office he wrote for the feast. Things like Eucharistic benediction, adoration, and processions have served to instill faith in Christ’s Real Presence in generations of Catholics.

Such things may look like idolatry to Protestants. But it is hard to deny that, when no one acts towards the Eucharistic elements as if Christ were present, belief in that presence soon wanes. This is verified in both Protestant and Catholic experience.  On the other hand, such practices can easily involve misunderstandings and superstitions that are contrary to the teaching of the Church. Dangers lie on both sides. If we Catholics are going to err on the side of fostering the pious practices that buttress faith in the Real Presence, we should at least be alert to potential misunderstandings that come along with them. We do not need to fully agree with the Protestant critique to find in it a salutary warning.

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Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and a long-time member of the Canadian Roman Catholic – Evangelical Dialogue. Transubstantiation: Theology, History and Christian Unity is his most recent book. His podcast, Thinking Faith!, is available wherever you get your podcasts. He is currently working on a book for Catholic teachers.

Featured image: Brazen Serpent Monument, Mount Nebo, Jordan


  1. Giving thanks to God for the gift of his son’s saving sacrifice is the central and essential act of worship. From this we can move towards a deeper appreciation for the teaching of Vatican II that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. But is it not misleading to infer that the word Eucharist in this principle refers explicitly to the consecrated bread and wine. Does it not refer, first and foremost, to the four fold perduring and real presence of Christ in the assembly of worshippers; in his living word proclaimed; in the presiding bishop or priest; and, par excellence, in the most holy sacrament of the altar? Why do some insist that authentic catholic worship (aka adoration) be directed primarily toward the consecrated host held high by a priest at Mass or in a monstrance during benediction? Is Christ not truly present throughout the Mass so that we don’t have to wait to worship/adore him until after the institution narrative? The rubrics clearly make it appear that this is so. Praying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle so that Christ can feed the infirm and the homebound is unquestionably a laudable practice. But to suggest that the Christ who promised to remain with us until the end of the age is absent or less accessible elsewhere is quite another. We are called to worship/adore God present to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Praise. We can measure the effectiveness of our offering by caring for widows and orphans and by serving Christ in those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick and imprisoned. It is all of this–and more–that makes the Eucharist the true source and summit of Christian life.

    1. Well said, Fr. Jack Feehily.

      I find it striking that some who are deeply committed to Eucharistic adoration are, with equal fervor, scathing about the Sign of Peace, about being asked to greet their neighbors at Mass.

      CS Lewis had his faults as a theological writer, but now and then he got it exactly right; this is from The Weight of Glory, a sermon preached and then published in the early 1940s:

      Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

    2. While Christ is present in the assembly of worshippers, in his living word proclaimed, and in the presiding bishop or priest; the consecrated elements of the Eucharist are the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This is a distinction that needs to be remembered.

      1. Well, that’s not how Paul VI saw it. Mysterium Fidei 1963, paras 35-39, makes it clear that this distinction is a false one.

        Christ is really present in many different modes. Paul VI, talking of the consecrated elements, clarifies that

        This presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence.

        (para 39)

        He might have added that this is the only form of the real presence that can actually be consumed.

      2. The full quotation from Mysterium fidei, 39:

        This presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man. And so it would be wrong for anyone to try to explain this manner of presence by dreaming up a so-called “pneumatic” nature of the glorious body of Christ that would be present everywhere; or for anyone to limit it to symbolism, as if this most sacred Sacrament were to consist in nothing more than an efficacious sign “of the spiritual presence of Christ and of His intimate union with the faithful, the members of His Mystical Body.”

        In paragraphs 44-55 Pope Paul VI reaffirms the teaching of the Council of Trent on Transubstantiation. Paragraph 55:

        Moreover, the Catholic Church has held firm to this belief in the presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist not only in her teaching but in her life as well, since she has at all times paid this great Sacrament the worship known as “latria,” which may be given to God alone. As St. Augustine says: “It was in His flesh that Christ walked among us and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation; but no one eats of this flesh without having first adored it . . . and not only do we not sin in thus adoring it, but we would be sinning if we did not do so.”

        Pope Paul VI understood and taught the distinction.

      3. Paul VI goes on to add that the presence in the consecrated elements is the real presence par excellence “because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man,” and explains that:

        “once the substance or nature of the bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species—beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in His physical “reality,” corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.”

        As such, only this kind of presence is the object of latria which is the reverence that is due to God alone.

      4. I’d say that reverence is due where the believer is moved to see it. And failing that, where the believer is challenged to recognize it. Jesus did not parse his words as we read in Matthew 25:31ff. If one is convinced of the vitality of reverence due in the Eucharist, perhaps that is a personal matter better considered settled. And time to work on the next task: finding other places the Lord is inviting us for reverent behavior. Nobody is going to mistake the divine intent and worship the needy human being. But given the lack of charity in the Church and society, it seems that too many Christians bumble the divine intent when it comes to other persons.

  2. “He might have added that this is the only form of the real presence that can actually be consumed.”

    One hopes that would go without saying…(smile emoticon) Although…Ezekiel did swallow a scroll….

  3. “as if this most sacred Sacrament were to consist in nothing more than an efficacious sign “of the spiritual presence of Christ and of His intimate union with the faithful, the members of His Mystical Body.”

    Nothing more than an efficacious sign? But, the Sacrament is a real symbol that is capable of bringing about the reality which it signifies. This is what an efficacious symbol does. Like all realities (prescinding from the fact that the Sacrament is unique among all realities) it’s capable of being a cause that generates effects in the actual world–unlike, say, a symbol in poetry, that can’t bring it’s symbolized reality into existence. Poets don’t turn love into red red roses in your neighbor’s garden. The Sacrament DOES change the nature of our being.

    The Sacrament is the real Body and Blood of Christ, raised to the level of being capable of effecting forgiveness of sins and all the rest, potentially among everyone .However, as Paul V1 writes, “It is not present in the manner in which bodies are (present) in a place.” Rather it is present in the manner in which the risen Word is present.

    I don’t see that conceiving of the Sacrament as an effective embodying of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine as new realities of Christ’s form is a watering down; “nothing more” than an efficacious sign. Perhaps Paul V1 had a more literary notion of ‘signs’ in mind.

    1. I think that you are missing the point that Pope Paul VI was trying to make. It was not a belittling of the significance of an efficacious sign, but about the nature of what was being effected; that is was not merely “the spiritual presence of Christ and of His intimate union with the faithful, the members of His Mystical Body” but the substantial presence of Christ through which “Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.”

      Nor is Christ merely present in the bread and wine; the bread and wine change in substance and become the his Body and Blood. Christ is not just present in the Blessed Sacrament; the Blessed Sacrament is Christ.

  4. The paradox of the Real Presence is that if you set out to *defend* it, even if everything in your defense is true, or free of error, the danger is very real that you’ve not fully grasped the point of the Real Presence, or have not been grasped by the Love that is the Real Presence.


    1. True, the Blessed Sacrament is not just a doctrine that must be believed but a Person who must be loved and worshipped. This love of Christ must always lead us to the love of our neighbors for the sake of the love of God, in deed as well as in word.

      1. The Person really present in the Eucharist is not the historical Jesus but the risen Christ of whom we are all the members. And so love of Christ and love of neighbor are not two separate realities. My problem is with how we have separated the ”
        blessed Sacrament” as if Jesus were objectively present there to be adored while we do nothing for our neighbor.

  5. Perhaps this also comes down to how we conceive of the Person of Christ. Is He another person like the ones about me? Yes, He’s to be found in those near by. Certainly He means for us to relate to him personally, intimately, as we relate to those near us. He is distinct from all others too. He is deeply near to me (or anyone) but is distinct from me as well.

    He’s not a person in the usual sense. Perhaps He’s meant to be understood as a person ‘by analogy’, as they say. Beyond that, we can’t really understand.

      1. I only (clumsily) meant that, the three Persons aren’t persons in the usual, human sense. But we have a tendency to slip into picturing them that way.

        (and now I’ll slowly back away and slip off unnoticed I hope…).

      2. Understood. I was addressing the tendency to slip you pointed out, not your comment as such! I should have written, slipping into univocity of being at the next exit ramp….

    1. “Poets don’t turn love into red red roses in your neighbor’s garden. The Sacrament DOES change the nature of our being.“

      I’m not sure I agree.

      If a symbol is that which it symbolises – then a kiss is not (or at least, can be) both a symbol of love but also actually love itself – so that this act of love, both expresses and embodies love itself.

      A poem written by the poet to another loved one, is capable of expressing their love but is also the very love which it demonstrates. The question then is whether we can appropriate the poet’s love for our own ends.

      However, Christ said “love one another as I have loved you – so it seems we can (or even from a Christian perspective MUST!

  6. That’s very well said, Andrew. I agree with you. Thanks!

    Maybe I could put my statement better: When God speaks, things come to be in terms of material and spiritual realities. When poets speak, they evoke already existing realities.

  7. In terms of what ordinary Catholics gathered for Mass actually believe and experience when they celebrate and receive the Eucharist, it likely has little or nothing to do with the Aristotelian philosophy or Thomistic theology which informed what Paul VI wrote. To say that after the consecration nothing remains of the bread and wine except for the species under which Christ is substantially present: Body & Blood, Soul & Divinity is admirable and orthodox “God-Speak” but soars over the heads of nearly all of the people who have come to worship God and receive Holy Communion. If we’re going to appeal to Thomas to more fully inform people shouldn’t it be the words of his hymn: What our senses fail to fathom we must grasp with faith’s consent? Because Jesus was really present to his disciples when he told them to take and eat, take and drink, do this in memory of me, his presence must be as real when in memory of him we take and eat, take and drink. Surely he did not institute this perpetual memorial so we could spend untold amounts of time on trying to explain what he meant and how he was present. He becomes present to transform and consecrate his body, the church, so that we can become a more convincing and credible sign of his promise to remain with us to the end of the age.

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