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LITURGY Q & A: On Transubstantiation

Fr. Edward McNamara Responds to Questions on Transubstantion, and the Use of “Substance” and “Accidents”

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: I have a question about transubstantiation. I’m trying to understand more fully our Church’s teaching that after the consecration the substance of the bread and wine cease to exist, but the accidents remain. If I understand it correctly, after the consecration the substance of the host becomes Jesus, but the accidents of bread (the taste/feel/smell) remain? I would have thought that the gluten in the host is a substance of the bread, but since it remains present after the consecration, does that mean it’s an accident of the bread? Similarly, I would have thought that the alcohol in the wine is a substance, but since it remains present after the consecration, it must be an accident of the wine? — C.M., Beaverton, Ontario

A: Our reader is not the first to struggle with the concepts of substance and accident, especially as referred to the Eucharist. Many other Christians, including the occasional bishop and theologian, have difficulties in grasping the concepts.

This difficulty stems in part because the concepts seem to derive from Aristotelian metaphysics. Those of us who have been formed in Thomistic Aristotelian philosophy know that this rigorous search for understanding the truth of being can be a taxing affair.

And yet, in spite of the similarity of terms, it is necessary to affirm that, in referring to the Eucharist, the Church does not use the terms substance and accident in their philosophical contexts but in the common and ordinary sense in which they were first used many centuries ago. The dogma of transubstantiation does not embrace any philosophical theory in particular.

The earliest uses of the term “substance” in referring to the Eucharist precede by several centuries the introduction of Aristotelian thought into theology in the 13th century. The earliest use of the term is from the fifth or sixth centuries. The words transubstantiate and transubstantiation are found in the 11th and 12th centuries in theological debate. Among the earliest use of these terms in the magisterium was the profession of faith regarding the Real Presence imposed by the Pope in 1078 on a theologian called Berengarius who held erroneous beliefs:

“I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance.”

Here the fundamental doctrine regarding the Eucharistic change is clearly articulated, although later theological developments would make the language more precise. The important point with regard to our question on substance is that the word is not taken in the technical Aristotelian sense but refers simply to the reality of the bread and wine being no longer present and being wholly substituted by the reality of Christ in his entirety.

The use of the word “accident” was introduced later by Scholastic theologians. One of the first uses of the term accident in the magisterium was during the Council of Constance. Among many other issues, this Council condemned in 1415 the doctrine of John Wyclif. Of the 45 condemned theses, the Eucharistic propositions were:

“1. The material substance of bread, and similarly the material substance of wine, remain in the sacrament of the altar.

“2. The accidents of bread do not remain without their subject in the said sacrament.

“3. Christ is not identically and really present in the said sacrament in his own bodily persona.”

The Council used the word “accidents” basically because Wyclif, in line with the Scholastic theology of the time, commonly used this term. It did not constitute an official adoption by the Church of Aristotelian philosophy. This does not mean that the term accident cannot be legitimately used in Eucharistic theology. Rather, it means that it is not used in the technical sense of Aristotelian metaphysics.

Indeed, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) did not use the word accident but “species” (appearances) when referring to the Eucharistic change. Substance is the basic reality of bread as opposed to the appearances. Trent’s doctrine is presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 1376:

“The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: ‘Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.'”

Therefore, Trent defines that the bread and wine ceases to be bread and wine although what we directly perceive, the appearances, remain the same so that there is no perceptible change.

When speaking of the, species (appearances), or accidents, the Church does not refer just to what is visible but to all that could in any way be experienced as external aspects of bread and wine such as touch, taste, size and smell. It also embraces the effects that bread and wine have on the body. Thus a priest who happens to use too much altar wine early in the morning is likely to feel a bit lightheaded, and the celiac could become ill by receiving the host.

In addressing our reader’s question we can say that we have seen that it is unnecessary to enter into a long discussion regarding what constitutes the substance and what the accidents of bread and wine, as these are philosophical questions. However, because the Church affirms that everything that goes into making bread and wine what they are is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, therefore, at least from the point of view of Eucharistic theology, the alcohol content of wine and the gluten in bread form part of the appearances or accidents.

This is a distinct, albeit related, question from that of what constitutes valid matter for the sacrament. We have discussed this topic on several occasions with respect to low gluten hosts and the qualities for altar wine and mustum (for example, on September 14 and 28, 2004; June 7, 2005; June 13 and 27, 2006; January 27, 2009).

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

About Fr. Edward McNamara

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