Since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Christ has been said to be present in the Eucharist by way of a substantial conversion, or transubstantiation, of bread and wine into his body and blood. The doctrinal tradition, particularly as reflected in Thomas Aquinas, applied concepts such as substance and accidents, cause and effect, derived from scholastic metaphysics. This language has become increasingly obscure in cultures no longer familiar with medieval metaphysics. A discussion regarding how to talk about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist reemerged at the time of the Second Vatican Council.
In the 20th century, some asked whether metaphysical explanations of Eucharistic change and sacramental causality segregated the presence of Christ in the Eucharist from the liturgical life of the church and religious experience. In Eucharist as Meaning, Joseph C. Mudd states, “[c]ategories like ‘symbol’ and ‘sacrament’ were recast in ways that responded to the subjective and performative dimension of religious experience.”
Mudd briefly refers to various approaches, including Edward Schillebeeckx’s proposal of “transignification,” Karl Rahner’s theology of the symbol and the growing influence of Louis-Marie Chauvet’s theology of symbolic mediation. Each is said to be worthy of study, but Mudd turns to Bernard Lonergan, “because his philosophical and theological investigations hold untapped resources for illuminating the meaning of Catholic Eucharistic doctrines.” Lonergan is said to have jettisoned the logically rigorous metaphysics characteristic of a classical culture concerned with the universal and necessary. In the present cultural era, theology must first attend to method and only subsequently to metaphysics.
Embracing J. Michael Stebbins’s article on Eucharistic presence as mystery and meaning, Mudd seeks to recapture the valid insight on which the language of transubstantiation rests, “within the context of a metaphysics grounded in a verifiable account of human knowing.” Stebbins pointed to the derived metaphysics presented by Lonergan in Insight. It avoids the onto-theological problematic that Chauvet, echoing Heidegger, rightly criticizes.
Mudd’s first chapter explores Chauvet’s method and its application to doctrines dealing with Eucharistic presence and sacrifice. The motive is to contrast them with, and thus clarify, Lonergan’s perspectives. Chauvet’s critique of metaphysics argues that it confuses the real with discourse about the real, thus reducing sacraments to the metaphysical categories of cause and effect. What happens in the sacraments “is not of the physical, moral, or metaphysical but of the symbolic order.” Chauvet thus advocates a starting point which overcomes the metaphysical view, characterized by instrumentality and causality, and moves into the symbolic, characterized by the mediation through language and symbol.
Chauvet interprets the Eucharistic presence of Christ as ad-esse, or “being for.” Unlike the scholastics, who treated bread and wine only as ontological substrates for the emergence of the body and blood of Christ, he insists that to authentically proclaim the bread as the body of Christ, one must emphasize all the more that it is indeed still bread, essential bread, the bread of life “par excellence.” The mystery of the Eucharistic body cannot be expressed in a symbolic framework unless it carries with it the symbolic richness of bread as a social reality, a symbol of sharing. Chauvet moves beyond a metaphysics that reduces grace to a commodity and supports the material permanence of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. His symbolic framework is open to an awareness of “real absence” in the Eucharist. It enables “a theology of the sacramental that integrates Scripture, sacrament, and ethics in a work of mourning the absence of God who asks that the church give God a body in history.”
Mudd insists that Chauvet never really breaks out of the cause and effect schema and is trapped by his disjunction of the symbolic and the metaphysical. Chauvet is said to interdict all questions that demand “is it so?” Citing a critical analysis of Chauvet’s work by the Irish Jesuit Raymond Moloney, Mudd concurs that Chauvet’s Heideggerian criticisms of metaphysics find their mark only in the decadent scholastic emphasis on certitude practiced by Ockhamist and post-Enlightenment neoscholasticism. There is another kind of metaphysics, “closer to that built into the nature of the mind,” as elaborated by Lonergan.
Lonergan distinguishes the worlds of common sense, theory and interiority. Chauvet focused on the first and third. With Moloney, Mudd maintains that “metaphysics and symbolism are not two competing explanations but two different levels of discourse.” Metaphysics is capable of illuminating the intelligibility of the symbolic.
For Lonergan, the real world, in which humans live, is a world mediated by meaning, motivated by values, and known through language. He resists polarizing the metaphysical and symbolic orders. The real is not the already-out-there-now because in the world of meaning the real is known in a judgment regarding the truth of particular meanings or values. Metaphysics is something in a mind. It is progressive, subjecting the operations of consciousness to critical analysis. Lonergan sought a new synthesis which would be in continuity with Aquinas, if it stood with modern science, scholarship and philosophy, as Thomism stood to Aristotelianism.
Mudd admits that rediscovering the meanings of doctrines involves a tremendous amount of historical work. But his analysis begins from Berengar and Aquinas, and does not confront the underlying issues (naïve realism and how Jesus’ body at the right hand of the Father could be present in the Eucharist) that gave rise to their positions. Mudd recognizes a need both for the aesthetic categories of “symbol” and “embodiment” advanced by Chauvet and for the clarification of meaning attainable through a critical-realist metaphysics in systematic theology. He finds support for his focus on Eucharist as meaning in Aquinas’s response to the question, What does the mouse eat? The Eucharistic bread is sacramental, endowed with a certain meaning, but the mouse, unable to understand meaning, does not eat sacramentally, only “accidentally.” For Mudd, “the words of consecration are Christ’s acts of meaning [which] means that in this case transignification is transubstantiation….Christ is giving a new meaning to this bread and by his word effects a new reality.” Mudd likewise emphasizes that the divine presence mediated in the sacraments is not an already-out-there-now-real but the presence of the agent in act.
Real presence is a sacramental presence in and through signs: the matter of bread and wine. In saying Amen to the Eucharistic minister’s proclamation “The Body of Christ,” one is not affirming a molecular change in the bread and wine. As Lonergan emphasized, in the world of meaning the real is known in a judgment regarding the truth of particular meanings or values. The intellectual understanding of faith maintains that the materiality of the Eucharistic bread and wine conveys a new reality, the living, resurrected self of Jesus.
A critical sacramental realism that recaptures key distinctions in Aquinas and transposes them into our new context must consider the meaning of body and bodily resurrection. With Karl Rahner, we say that the body is the symbol, or self-expression, of the self/person/soul. As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, “the body gets its identity not from matter but from the person, the soul. The physiology becomes truly ‘body’ through the heart of the personality. Bodiliness is something other than a summation of corpuscles.” And, as Ratzinger declares, “the real heart of faith in the resurrection does not consist at all in the idea of the restoration of the body.” Rather, “the real content of the hope symbolically proclaimed in the Bible” is “an immortality of the person.” Beyond death, the resurrected person/soul has an abiding relatedness to the body and integrates bodiliness within its own reality.
The likely Aramaic words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “This is my biśrî” and “This is my demi / bidmî” (Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20) meant not just body and blood but also self and life. In the materiality of Eucharistic bread and wine, Jesus, as the Word, becomes a human person, makes present and gives his living self, in his risen bodiliness—all that he was and became as embodied and alive in his earthly ministry, his dying on the cross and his resurrection. As Aquinas declared, “the dimensive quantity (or matter) of the bread and wine are miraculously bestowed with being the subject of subsequent forms” (ST 3, q. 77, a. 5, resp.).
In saying “Take and eat….Take and drink,” Jesus made clear that he was not intending to make the bread and wine a stand-in for his earthly body and blood—so that we could primarily adore his presence. Rather, as Paul tells us, the bread that we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread, (1 Cor 10:16-17).” By eating and drinking the material elements that now make present Jesus’ living-self, the assembly (ekklēsia) of his disciples gathered around the table becomes his living body, sent out to live his “Way,” in the world: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and those in prison.