It’s Still A Hard Saying

Goya - The Last Communion of St Joseph Calasanz
Goya – The Last Communion of St Joseph Calasanz

In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hearers react to his teaching on the Eucharist with the following words: “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” (John 6:60) Remember that those murmurers were among his own disciples, not just members of the crowd. Eventually, they depart: “After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him.” (John 6:66)

What would the results have been had the Pew Research Center been there to conduct an exit poll? “Did you leave because you understood Jesus literally, or was he only speaking of symbolically eating his flesh and drinking his blood?” Perhaps a few were “not sure what he meant,” and that was enough.

Recently, in a much-discussed study, Pew Research has found that a minority of U.S. Catholics believe the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. All told, about 1 in 4 respondents either knowingly accepts or knowingly rejects the doctrine. This leaves us with the following take-away from Pew, that it’s a 50-50 shot whether or not your average Catholic can correctly report the Church’s teaching.

Notably, belief in the Real Presence directly correlates to one’s frequency of Mass attendance, and disbelief directly correlates to infrequency. (Other surveys have reached similar results.) Nor does the survey reflect well on evangelical efforts in general, since only about a third of U.S. respondents generally knew of the correct Church teaching.

Consequently, analysis of the survey has rightly angered Bishop Robert Barron and prompted an outcry for better catechesis. Professor Chad Pecknold proffered a contrasting view, arguing that the “unwritten catechesis” through contemporary liturgies that provide “a deracinated, spiritualistic, and emotivistic treatment of the Eucharist” are to blame. Still others attempted to put a brave face on the results. An “Explainer” from America Magazine argued that the results are neither new nor may they be very accurate.

On the one hand, they say, similar results were obtained long ago by a 1994 survey. On the other hand, they claim, the Pew’s wording of the question might have been confusing. They point to the 4 in 10 people who are “unknowing unbelievers,” that is, those who incorrectly believe that the Church teaches that the Eucharist is only symbolic, and thus believe it. The authors at America offer: “Far from “rejecting” belief in the Real Presence, many of these Catholics would likely affirm it, if their understanding of church teaching were clarified or if the question were more exact.”

This is indeed a salutary hope. However, their concluding observations are not in keeping with that hope:

The reality may be that for most Catholics approaching the Eucharist, a theologically accurate description of what “actually just happened” on the altar is less important than faith in the sacrament, a sense of sharing in the community, an experience of thanksgiving, . . . or a prayerful experience of communion with the divine. The theology of the Eucharist is a bit like what the Catholic Church’s greatest thinkers have said every time someone has tried to define the doctrine of the Trinity: It is a mystery.

The last word is then given to a theologian who notes that “the Eucharist can never be neatly summed up.” This ending is a bit befuddling. Surely it was meant merely as a factual description of our current situation. Yet, just as surely, it therefore belies the silver lining the rest of the article attempts to locate.

So, we should ask why it ought not be the case that “for most Catholics approaching the Eucharist, a theologically accurate description” of the Eucharist is less important than (1) faith in the sacrament, (2) a sense of sharing in the community, (3) an experience of thanksgiving, or (4) a prayerful experience with the divine.

Take the last three of these four points of comparison, which all revolve around the individual’s own “sense” or “experience” of being at Mass. Consider the following event from the life of John Adams, at a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. Adams writes to his wife Abigail that he was profoundly moved by the experience, even as he pitied “the poor wretches” in attendance “fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood.” Yet he approves of the music as sweet and exquisite, of the homily as good, moral, and short. He ends by noting:

Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.

My point is this: Adams either nearly or did meet the conditions described in those last three points of comparison. He attested to a prayerful experience with the divine. He at least understood the belonging experienced by the faithful there, and was moved by their sharing in the ceremony, the Eucharistic banquet. He merely disagreed with and even disdained it. He was someone on the outside, not one of the “poor wretches,” a merely curious passer-by. Yet something of what was present there did not escape his notice.

Yet if he was able to obtain such feeling from an afternoon Mass when led there by curiosity alone, is it not obvious that a Catholic, who would not disdain being a part, should find much more? (That Adams would have attended the old rite of the Mass is not a difficulty here. It would merely return us to Pecknold’s point, above.) If Adams could be so moved by the Eucharist for purely external reasons, as one outside communion with the Church, should Catholics not have more reason than he to have a fuller “experience” at Mass?

The answer is, clearly, “Yes!” This relates to the first of the four points of comparison, the claim that, somehow and in point of fact, a theologically accurate description of the Eucharist may be for most Catholics today less important than faith in the sacrament. Indeed, the reason why Catholics ought to have more than fellow feeling as a cause to attend Mass is precisely the opposite of this claim. How can theological accuracy and faith be opposed? Our theological reason is precisely our faith in the sacrament.

The authors at America Magazine point to several purported difficulties here. On the one hand, if clearer language is used on surveys of Catholic doctrine regarding the Eucharist, then one obtain better results: “The surveys that found higher agreement used the terms ‘really becomes’ or ‘really present,’ whereas Pew used ‘actually becomes.’” (Even then, accurate understanding and belief in that teaching are still at only about fifty percent.)

Yet they proceed to point out that one runs the risk of being, as it were, too clear:

The Catholic Church traditionally expressed its understanding of the Eucharist using the terms of Thomistic theology, itself derived from the philosophical ideas of Plato and Aristotle. In this framework, every created thing has both a “substance” (its true reality) and “accidents,” those characteristics that we actually perceive, such as its physical appearance. . . . This distinction between substance and accidents, however, is a feature of technical language about metaphysics, not everyday description. . . . When the words “really” and “actually” are used, as they were in these surveys, without drawing attention to technical metaphysical distinctions, contemporary people probably jump to something like “empirically” as their meaning. But the difference between “really” and “empirically” is exactly what the doctrine of transubstantiation draws our attention to.

This is rather a muddle. First, the teaching of the Church utilizes a “technical metaphysical” vocabulary to explain transubstantiation. This distinction between substances and accidents, we are told, is “not a feature” of everyday vocabulary and experience. Yet, at the same time, without being reminded of this arcane technical vocabulary, the contemporary folk are bound to make mistakes when being surveyed by Pew Research. We are told that their (rather sophisticated) mistake may be to conflate “really” with “empirically.” That is, the technical philosophical language is somehow both necessary but curiously unhelpful for our understanding of the doctrine of the Eucharist. It is necessary, because the Church uses it; it is curiously unhelpful because, although removed from everyday experience, everyday folk who know about it somehow cannot connect it to a contrast between “actually present” and “symbolically present.”

Some time ago, Stephen Barr proposed an alternative view: that the Aristotelian technical vocabulary was not necessary, even if helpful, for our understanding Eucharistic teachings.

The Church has made it clear that one does not have to accept all of Aristotelian philosophy to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation. The substance of the doctrine (so to speak) is easily explained without the Aristotelian terminology. . . . If one looks at the consecrated elements and asks “What are these?”, the correct answer (according to the doctrine of transubstantiation) is “These are the Body and Blood of Christ.” If one asks, “What do these appear to be under any empirical test?”, the answer is “bread and wine.” Basically, that is all there is to it. The dogmatic definition used Aristotelian terminology to express this, but it can be expressed without that terminology.

However, the truth lies somewhere between the view presented in America and that offered by Barr. So, on the one hand, it is of course true that “substance” and “accident” are technical terms in classical metaphysics. However, it is not true that what these words mean are technical and removed from everyday experience.

We commonly distinguish between who someone is and what they do, or between some material object and the features it can lose or gain while still remaining what it is. An older sibling knows that his younger sibling is still the same person after changing clothes or growing up for a year or after learning to talk. These are all our common-sense understandings of substances and their accidents. The names may be technical, but their origins quotidian. (So, I can note as an aside the technical gripe that primarily describing accidents in what is “sensible” or “empirical” is a pedagogical error common to both sides; we surely sense substances, and that is a quotidian experience.)

So, Barr is clearly right in this, that we can understand the teaching on the Eucharist without being trained in Aristotelian metaphysics. However, on the other hand, the dogmatic definition itself cannot be adequately expressed without that terminology. Here is where the authors of America’s “Explainer” are correct. That is, the minimal knowledge necessary to understand and believe in the Real Presence is not the more maximal, sufficient knowledge required to defend and understand it theologically.

In his decree Quam Singulari, enjoining children’s reception of Holy Communion from the age of reason, Pope St. Pius X teaches:

From all this it is clear that the age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion. Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required, for an elementary knowledge suffices—that is, some knowledge (aliqua cognitio). Similarly full use of reason is not required, for a certain beginning of the use of reason, that is, some use of reason (aliqualis usus rationis) suffices.

Thus, it is not true and ought not be accepted that “a theologically accurate description” of the Eucharist is “less important than faith in the sacrament.” Rather, such minimal theological accuracy is the natural precondition for faith in the sacrament. To know the difference between the Eucharist and ordinary bread is to believe that what is present on the altar after the words of consecration is Christ himself. However, a fully adequate theology of the Eucharist is not required to receive.

Who will be able to tell this difference in a child’s knowledge? Quam Singulari’s answer is straightforward: the parents of the child, their primary educators in the faith. Yet this returns us to the difficulties raised by the Pew survey. Poor catechesis—whether of the explicit or implicit sort—now constitutes, from all appearances, a generational cycle of spiritual darkness and ignorance. This is surely a hard thing, but we need not accept it.

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