On the Transubstantiation … and Other Things

At the Call To Action conference a few weeks ago, there was a point at which Garry Wills threw a question out from the main stage that felt like an old-school litmus test of who among us was still “really” Catholic. The question was:

Who here believes, truly believes, that the bread and wine become body and blood at the Eucharist–and that the bread and wine, as substances, go away?

Surprisingly few hands went up. Mine was among them. Sort of. I wanted to ask, Can you restate the question?

The transubstantiation is a lot to chew on–pun intended–and I’m not sure I’ll ever totally come to terms with it. But here’s the thing: I do truly believe that the bread and the wine become Jesus’ body and blood when the Eucharist is performed within a community that also holds this interpretation sacred. That means that I believe it happens when I go to Mass at recognized Catholic churches, and when I go to Masses performed by Womenpriests or others ordained in a Catholic tradition. But I don’t believe the transubstantiation happens any ol’ time communion takes place at a church. For churches that believe the Eucharist is purely symbolic, I feel certain that it is–in those churches.

I don’t think one of these is better than the other, but my spirituality hungers for both. My spirituality hungers for the symbolic act of sharing a meal together, as Jesus did with his friends, the way I take communion at the UCC church I belong to. But when I find myself homesick for the Catholic Church, it’s this mystical experience of the Eucharist that I crave; and my senses are alive to it in a way now that they never were when I attended Catholic services every week. I do believe, and it matters to me. But it doesn’t matter to everyone, even many of my fellow Catholics, and I’m okay with that, too. Because I think we miss the point if we force the Eucharist to be one thing or another.

The reason I didn’t feel totally comfortable answering the question above in the affirmative was because of its tail end. Yes, I believe that the bread and the wine truly become Jesus’ body and blood. No, I do not believe that the bread and the wine, as substances, disappear at the moment of transubstantiation. Why can’t they both be present at the same time?

Transubstantiation is, at its heart, transformation. And whenever something transforms, something of what it once was remains. There’s still a caterpillar inside every butterfly. There are still eggs and flour and sugar inside a cake, even after it’s become something that is greater than its individual ingredients. There is still a Catholic inside me even though I now belong to a non-Catholic Church.

Part of the richness in the Catholic Church is that it lets us hold onto this mystery. It says it’s okay that some things are just beyond our understanding. The Trinity. The transubstantiation. Life after death.

But where it falls short is in not allowing us to embrace these dualities within ourselves. I know there are many who would not consider me Catholic anymore. But there’s still something Catholic going on if I can’t give up the transubstantiation. I put off joining my new church for almost two years because I was so afraid it would mean that I had to stop being Catholic. Then I really sat down and studied the new member materials the church had sent. And I saw that we could become “associate members” of the church–which meant we were joining while also holding allegiance with another faith tradition/church simultaneously. The church version of dual citizenship.

I joined because I knew a church that could acknowledge multiple dimensions of my spirituality was one that I wanted to be a part of. That’s not to say I don’t still struggle with the pull between different aspects of my faith life — I do. I practice in a primarily UCC way while Catholicism still infuses most of my private spirituality. But in those moments, I remind myself that my soul is big enough for both. The Eucharist is big enough for both body and blood and bread and wine, at the same time. And God is big enough for it all, the pieces that make sense and the pieces that don’t, and so much more besides.

15 thoughts on “On the Transubstantiation … and Other Things

  1. Pingback: On the Transubstantiation | LL Word

  2. I’m glad someone has written about Wills entirely inane questions at the conference plenary. Sitting among some 20/30s, there were more hands among our group than not professing Real Presence. Wills’ book, “Why Priests?” is that of one who is angry and jaded — and his demeanor when discussing all things Catholic these days is hostile. His questions (which also included one on what was formerly called Extreme Unction, but isn’t really a thing/relevant as he phrased it anymore…) were simply meant to denigrate people’s faith.

    Wills muddled his theology in those two questions– asking about doctrines he couldn’t explain, switching up to transubstantiation and the sacraments, using language appropriate to both/neither. It was a mess. But where brokenness exists, grace abounds — and you’ve managed to offer a good reflection from Wills’ poor one, Lacey. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment, Bob. It helps me futher articulate why Wills’ questions rubbed me the wrong way. You’re right — there was a sense of hostility in them, as well as a reductionist spirit. The questions were phrased in such a way, with a tone to match, that the implication was that you were stupid if you believed those things — never a good approach to take when it comes to discussing faith. (Regarding extreme unction: I think there are many people who don’t believe someone will go to hell if they don’t receive it (Wills implication about the teaching), but I also think there are many who take great comfort in it as they prepare to depart this world — and at a time such as that, shouldn’t one be allowed whatever will most soothe their hearts and souls?)

      I was not familiar with Wills’ work before conference, but I’ve never really been down with the “abolish the priesthood” movement (although, of course, it has some valid points), so I probably won’t read anything further.

      • Generally, over time, I’ve liked Wills. I have been influenced by his books “Papal Sin,” “Why I Am a Catholic,” and “What Jesus Meant.” So at conference, I looked forward to seeing him. But in Milwaukee he did not seem as sophisticated as he does in his best books. The rhetorical questions he hurled out disappointed me. These simply are not the sorts of questions one answers by a show of hands. (See Monica.) Though I did raise my hand on the Real Presence, after I picked my jaw up off the floor and started breathing again.

        I have not yet read the book “Why Priests?” But just considering that question: for me this is not about whether we have always had cultic officers who are understood to perform magic shows. Strictly speaking, Wills is correct to argue that we have not, and some Catholics genuinely need that point made to them. Instead, this is at root a question of whether we need full-time professionals who coordinate community and liturgy and sacrament and pastoral care, in the same way that we need full-time professionals who do surgery and dentistry and archaeology and teaching. It’s also a question of whether such professionals should understand themselves as called to this role by God. To me, the answer here is yes, we need priests. From what I have heard, Wills does not appreciate such nuances in his book, as I would want to expect from a man who used to be a Jesuit scholastic.

      • Thanks for your comment, Justin. I appreciate the more “well-rounded” approach to Wills’ work, as well as the ideological questions about the priesthood. My answer is also “yes.” :)

  3. That question rubbed me the wrong way, too: my answer is not a yes/no response that can be articulated with a hand raise. Transubstantiation never made sense to me until I studied some Greek philosophy. The concepts of substance and essence in Greek philosophy are the underpinnings of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but we don’t teach that anymore, so it comes off sounding like a cheap magic trick. The important part of the Eucharist is the experience of God-with-us. Whether it’s is still bread and wine is, in my opinion, rather irrelevant to the mystical experience; it’s just metaphysical quibbling. A professor in an intro philosophy class of mine offered this example. Take a wooden chair. It is, quite clearly, a chair – but is it also still a tree? While the class had nothing to do with Catholic teaching, that was the moment I first felt that I got transubstantiation. It’s still an apt analogy for my feelings on the Eurcharist: some philosophers say yes, some say no, but for the weary person who just needs to rest, it really doesn’t matter.

    • Thanks for this great reflection on the transubstantiation. You’re so incredibly right — this is a nuanced issue that cannot be resolved with a yes, no, or handraise. An understanding of it also comes to us in many different ways, through multiple disciplines. I’ve never worked too hard to understand it myself — it’s one of those things I’m just willing to accept. But I’m glad there are people in the world who will actively wrestle with it; our faith is better for it. But I couldn’t agree more that the important part of the Eucharist is being in communion with God, and by extension, with each other, and that happens in many different ways, regardless of what your belief on the real presence is.

  4. Love this conversation, for many (many!) reasons. The wisdom and maturity of those engaged in these types of conversations is what BEING church is all about. I agree, living in the “in-betweens” is paradox and grace, both/and, complicated yet strangely simple – all wrapped together and weaving itself in and out of our lives. Thank you for this.

      • Lacey, I have read and reread your post and the comments many times today. You said well what I have been trying unsuccessfully to say for quite a while. Don’t be too tough on Wills. I think he has insights from hard times. I don’t have much of a problem with his book “Why Priests”. He raises some interesting contexts and concerns. The priesthood I knew in the Army is in many ways different from what I experience in civilian life where folks won’t let us get off the pedestal. They want clericalism more than many of us do. I can see where Wills is coming from. It is good to see the questioning from your reponders, too.

        A good book is by Hans Kung, “Can the Church Be Saved”.


  5. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 11/15/13 | Catholic Majority

  6. I think Jim makes a good point down here: Wills, who is 79, was formed by one, very rigid vision of church and priesthood before Vatican II; lived through a great reform and renewal of that vision; and then watched John Paul II and Benedict XVI relentlessly roll back much of the renewal (at least on a formal, institutional level) while engaging in Orwellian “this is what Vatican II REALLY meant” doublespeak. While I wish Wills were saying certain things differently, he speaks from a very particular (and very disappointing) long-arc-of-history experience that we haven’t had.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s