Many Catholics, perhaps especially among the clergy, continue to be dismayed by the 1994 New York Times survey, according to which over half the Catholics who attend Mass weekly said that they believed that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are strictly the symbolic presence of Christ. (For a recent report on the survey, see America, 3/4.) Several commentators have questioned just what this response means, but it is often taken to show a significant weakening of traditional Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Just as often, the definitive challenge to this seeming loss of faith is not an appeal to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which canonized the term transubstantiation, nor to the Council of Trent, which further defined eucharistic presence, nor even to the Lord’s Supper letter of Pope John Paul II (1980), but to Flannery O’Connor’s supposedly irrefutable reply to Mary McCarthy, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
Flannery O’Connor herself relates the incident that occasioned her answer to McCarthy in a 1955 letter to an Atlanta friend. In the letter she tells of a dinner party to which she had been invited with McCarthy and at which she seems to have felt set up when the conversation turned to the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend.
When Mary McCarthy, after explaining her childish misunderstanding of the Eucharist, said that she now thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one, O’Connor uttered her oft-quoted comment, If it’s a symbol, to hell with it. That, she says, was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
This surely is a striking example of O’Connor’s religious faith. But I wish she had inquired more patiently into why McCarthy found the symbol a pretty good one. To have taken that line of inquiry might have involved some very subtle distinctions, but might also have been more helpful in meeting contemporary Catholic questions than is the take-it-or-leave-it of Well, if it’s a symbol to hell with it.
Over three decades ago, the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan cautioned us against misreading as a crisis of faith what is in fact a crisis of culture. Such a crisis might be the context in which so many faithful Catholics describe the Eucharist as a symbol, and it might even help understand Mary McCarthy’s groping affirmation that it is a pretty good one.
Resistance to speaking of Christ’s eucharistic presence as symbolic has a long history and is linked with a characteristically Western understanding of real presence. The terms of any subsequent debate about this realism were definitively set for the Western church in the 11th century condemnations of Berengar of Tours. In reacting against what he took to be extreme realism, including such eucharistic miracles as bleeding hosts and even more direct statements like The Body of Christ is crushed by the teeth of the faithful, Berengar argued that the body and blood of Christ were present in a sign (in signo). He did not say only in a sign, but that seemed to his adversaries to be implied in what he did say.
Berengar’s position was repeatedly condemned, and he was required to recant. Even in his lifetime, the realism of the original condemnation was somewhat softened, but a direction was set for Western eucharistic theology that has held strong until very recently: the focus of eucharistic theology shifted from the whole action of the Eucharistwhat we would call the liturgyto the eucharistic host.
Theologians were in fact cautious about how they would maintain the realism of the eucharistic presence. St. Thomas, for example, while taking a stand against Berengar’s in signo, goes a long way toward meeting Berengar’s concerns. It is not the body of Christ that is carried by the priest or crushed by the teeth of the faithful but the sustained accidents of bread. Christ is not on the altar as in a place nor does he come to the altar by local motion. Indeed, the conversion of transubstantiation is only analogous to any change we know. Whatever else happens in eucharistic miracles, it is not the body of Christ that is seen in or under the host, but either a subjective vision or some other miracle (S.T. III, q.76, a.8).
However cautious theologians were in their language, the full effects of Berengar’s condemnations and subsequent disputes were felt even more in popular devotion than in theology. More and more, the reserved sacrament, which in the patristic period (and still today, I believe, in the Orthodox churches) had been kept principally to provide Communion for the sick, became the focus of eucharistic devotion.
Practices such as visits to the Blessed Sacrament, exposition and adoration of the reserved host, gestures like genuflection after the moment of consecration (which now became the key moment of the whole eucharistic prayer) and ultimately the feast of Corpus Christi with its processions became the common Western Catholic ways of affirming the real presence.
This history is well known to those who have studied the development of eucharistic theology. What is not often so well recognized, however, is that both Berengar and his orthodox opponents were caught up in Lonergan’s crisis of culture as much as in what was taken to be a crisis of faith.
Over 50 years ago, Henri de Lubac, S.J., read both Berengar and his Scholastic opponents as examples of a cultural secularization of intelligence that began in the 11th century. He summarized this shift in theology as from symbol to dialectic. (St. Thomas, in his discussion of eucharistic presence, cites Aristotle more than Augustine in the relevant questions of the Summaas he had to in what by then had become an Aristotelian culture.) Summarizing the theology of the ninth to the 11th centuries, Edward Kilmartin, S.J., wrote in his magisterial history, The Eucharist in the West: In the theological position achieved in this period, a position which continues to influence Catholic theology to this day, the overcoming of the fatal opposition between symbolism and extreme realism was not achieved.
Recent theology, both Protestant and Catholic, has attempted to overcome this opposition and to restore the bond between symbol and reality that was lost when symbols became just symbols. Paul Tillich, for example, emphasized the distinction of the conventional sign from the symbol, which participates in the reality it symbolizes. Karl Rahner’s often cited theology of symbol (Theological Investigations, IV) opened the way to a consideration of symbolic reality. In eucharistic theology, talk of transignification as fulfilling the intentions of transubstantiation is also a move to restore the symbolic character of the Eucharist. Finally, even the Second Vatican Council’s insistence on the multiple real presences of Christin the word, in the gathered community, in the minister and in the consecrated bread and winebroadens the meaning of real and real presence beyond what Kilmartin has called the thingly presence that has dominated the the modern average Catholic theology of the Eucharist.
Little of this history and little of this theology have filtered down to the faithful, nor has it affected much eucharistic preaching. But perhaps the laity’s description of the eucharistic presence as strictly symbolic represents an instinctive search for a better understanding of sacramentality and a recognition that all our knowledge of God and God’s mysteries are in the end symbolic. We are, for sure, in a culture that is increasingly respectful of symbols. Religiously, the word symbol says, at the very least, mysterious; it does not, or need not, say unreal.
But a crisis of culture is still a crisis. In such a crisis, as Lonergan has also said, there is bound to be tension and even opposition between those on the solid right and those on the scattered left. We see this today in controversies over the rightful place of the tabernacle, over the priority to be given to eucharistic adoration, over external signs of reverenceeven between those for and against EWTN’s way of expressing real eucharistic faith. I admit that my sympathies are with the scattered left, but not without some hesitation. As one distinguished liturgist has said, the folk-liturgy of Benediction has served for centuries and for millions as a hymn of praise in a way that a mumbled Gloria in the new liturgy never does. There is a risk too that without good pastoral instruction and without appreciation of the full context of liturgical prayer, including the invocation of the Holy Spirit, symbol could slide into just a symbol.
It is perhaps such a sliding into a theological halfway house that the clergy see in the responses to the New York Times survey. But I believe Catholics are too steeped in eucharistic realism to settle for that sort of halfway theology. I worry much more about an ex-Catholic friend who told me that one day she found herself looking at the Eucharist and decided it was just bread. I do not say she is typical of contemporary Catholics, but I do believe that her thinking of the Eucharist as something to be looked ateven adoringlywas a bad effect of a theology that had lost its context in the moment of Jesus’ symbolic self-giving at the Supper and the early church’s memory of that covenanted moment.
I hope my friend will someday recover the context that the church itself is now recovering. If she does, she will no longer think of the Eucharist as something to be looked at, but as something to be celebrated and shared in a community of faith, formed by the word of God, that still knows Jesus as mysteriously present.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Mary McCarthy had some memory of that larger context when she implied that the symbol was a pretty good onenot exactly a ringing affirmation of faith, but perhaps an important memory of a Catholic girlhood. At least I wish Flannery O’Connor had heard it that way, or even explained why she could not say more outside of a story. Because, despite the forcefulness of O’Connor’s answer, Christ really is present in bread-he-has-made-symbol. That’s why we sing, When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.