Transubstantiation (in Latin, transsubstantiatio, in Greek μετουσίωσις metousiosis) is, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, the change of substance by which the bread and the wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Jesus the Christ.
The Catholic Church teaches that the substance, or essence, of the Eucharistic offering (either bread alone, or bread and wine) is changed into both the body and blood of Christ.
All that is accessible to the senses (the outward appearances – species in Latin) remains unchanged.:1413 What remains unaltered is also referred to as the “accidents” of the bread and wine,but the term “accidents” is not used in the official definition of the doctrine by the Council of Trent. The manner in which the change occurs, the Catholic Church teaches, is a mystery: “The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ.”:1333 The precise terminology to be used to refer to the nature Eucharist, and its theological implications, has a contentious history especially in the Protestant Reformation.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, the doctrine has been discussed under the term of metousiosis, coined as a direct loan-translation of transsubstantiatio in the 17th century. In Eastern Orthodoxy in general, the Mystery (Sacrament) of the Eucharist is more commonly discussed using alternative terms such as “trans-elementation” (μεταστοιχείωσις metastoicheiosis), “re-ordination” (μεταρρύθμισις metarrhythmisis), or simply “change” (μεταβολή).
The belief that the Eucharist conveyed to the believer the body and blood of Christ appears to have been widespread from an early date, and the elements were commonly referred to as the body and the blood by early Christian writers. The early Christians who use these terms also speak of it as the flesh and blood of Christ, the same flesh and blood which suffered and died on the cross.
The short document known as the Teaching of the Apostles or Didache, which may be the earliest Christian document outside of the New Testament to speak of the Eucharist, says, “Let no one eat or drink of the Eucharist with you except those who have been baptized in the Name of the Lord,” for it was in reference to this that the Lord said, “Do not give that which is holy to dogs.” Matthew 7:6
A letter by Saint Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans, written in AD 106 says: “I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ.”
Writing to the Christians of Smyrna, in about AD 106, Saint Ignatius warned them to “stand aloof from such heretics”, because, among other reasons, “they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”
In about 150, Justin Martyr, referring to the Eucharist, wrote: “Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
Justin Martyr wrote, in Dialogue with Trypho, ch 70: “Now it is evident, that in this prophecy to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks.”
In about 200 AD, Tertullian wrote (Against Marcion IV. 40): “Taking bread and distributing it to his disciples he made it his own body by saying, ‘This is my body,’ that is a ‘figure of my body.’ On the other hand, there would not have been a figure unless there was a true body.”
The Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 380) says: “Let the bishop give the oblation, saying, The body of Christ; and let him that receiveth say, Amen. And let the deacon take the cup; and when he gives it, say, The blood of Christ, the cup of life; and let him that drinketh say, Amen.”
Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) wrote:
- Perhaps you will say, “I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?” … Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed. … For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? … Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus Himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which was crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body. The Lord Jesus Himself proclaims: “This Is My Body.” Before the blessing of the heavenly words another nature is spoken of, after the consecration the Body is signified. He Himself speaks of His Blood. Before the consecration it has another name, after it is called Blood. And you say, Amen, that is, It is true. Let the heart within confess what the mouth utters, let the soul feel what the voice speaks.”
Other fourth-century Christian writers say that in the Eucharist there occurs a “change”, “transelementation”,“transformation”, “transposing”,“alteration” of the bread into the body of Christ.
In AD 400, Augustine quotes Cyprian (AD 200): “For as Christ says ‘I am the true vine,’ it follows that the blood of Christ is wine, not water; and the cup cannot appear to contain His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened, if the wine be absent; for by the wine is the blood of Christ typified, …”
The Last Supper (upper image) and preparatory washing of feet (lower image) in a 1220 manuscript in the Badische Landesbibliothek
The doctrine of transubstantiation is the result of a theological dispute started in the 11th century, when Berengar of Tours denied that any material change in the elements was needed to explain the Eucharistic Presence, thereby provoking a considerable stir.Berengar’s position was never diametrically opposed to that of his critics, and he was probably never excommunicated, but the controversies that he aroused (see Stercoranism) forced people to clarify the doctrine of the Eucharist. The earliest known use of the term “transubstantiation” to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist was by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours, in the 11th century. By the end of the 12th century the term was in widespread use.
The Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 spoke of the bread and wine as “transubstantiated” into the body and blood of Christ: “His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood”. It was only later, in the 13th century, that Aristotelian metaphysics was accepted and a philosophical elaboration in line with that metaphysics was developed, which found classic formulation in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.”
Reformation and Counter-Reformation
The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (Raphael 1509-1510) depicts theologians debating Transubstantiation, including four Doctors of the Church, with Pope Gregory I and Jerome seated to the left of the altar and Augustine and Ambrose to the right, Pope Julius II, Pope Sixtus IV, Savonarola and Dante Alighieri.
During the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of transubstantiation was heavily criticised as an Aristotelian “pseudophilosophy“ imported into Christian teaching and jettisoned in favor of Martin Luther‘s doctrine of sacramental union, or in favor, per Huldrych Zwingli, of the Eucharist as memorial.
Title page of Martin Luther‘s De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae
In the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of transubstantiation became a matter of much controversy. Martin Luther held that “It is not the doctrine of transubstantiation which is to be believed, but simply that Christ really is present at the Eucharist”. In his “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (published on 6 October 1520) Luther wrote:
- Therefore, it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand “bread” to mean “the form, or accidents of bread,” and “wine” to mean “the form, or accidents of wine.” Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning.
- Moreover, the Church had the true faith for more than twelve hundred years, during which time the holy Fathers never once mentioned this transubstantiation — certainly, a monstrous word for a monstrous idea — until the pseudo-philosophy of Aristotle became rampant in the Church these last three hundred years. During these centuries many other things have been wrongly defined, for example, that the Divine essence neither is begotten nor begets, that the soul is the substantial form of the human body, and the like assertions, which are made without reason or sense, as the Cardinal of Cambray himself admits.
In his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper he wrote:
- Why then should we not much more say in the Supper, “This is my body”, even though bread and body are two distinct substances, and the word “this” indicates the bread? Here, too, out of two kinds of objects a union has taken place, which I shall call a “sacramental union”, because Christ’s body and the bread are given to us as a sacrament. This is not a natural or personal union, as is the case with God and Christ. It is also perhaps a different union from that which the dove has with the Holy Spirit, and the flame with the angel, but it is also assuredly a sacramental union.
What Luther thus called a “sacramental union” is often erroneously called consubstantiation by non-Lutherans. In “On the Babylonian Captivity”, Luther upheld belief in the Real Presence of Jesus and, in his 1523 treatise The Adoration of the Sacrament, defended adoration of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
Huldrych Zwingli taught that the sacrament is purely symbolic and memorial in character, arguing that this was the meaning of Jesus’ instruction: “Do this in remembrance of me”.
The 39 articles of 1563, the Church of England declared: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions”; and made Mass illegal.
Council of Trent
In 1551, the Council of Trent confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation as Catholic dogma, stating 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.” In its 13th session ending 11 October 1551, the Council defined transubstantiation as “that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation”. This council officially approved use of the term “transubstantiation” to express the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject of the conversion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, with the aim of safeguarding Christ’s presence as a literal truth, while emphasizing the fact that there is no change in the empirical appearances of the bread and wine. It did not however impose the Aristotelian theory of substance and accidents: it spoke only of the species (the appearances), not the philosophical term “accidents”, and the word “substance” was in ecclesiastical use for many centuries before Aristotelian philosophy was adopted in the West,as shown for instance by its use in the Nicene Creed which speaks of Christ having the same “οὐσία” (Greek) or “substantia” (Latin) as the Father.
Further information: Eucharistic theology and Real presence
Roman Catholic Church
Further information: Substance theory
The distinction between “substance” and “accidents” – the latter term is not used in the Catholic Church’s official definition of the doctrine but has been used in the writings of theologians – arose from Aristotelian philosophy, but in Roman Catholic eucharistic theology is independent of that philosophy, since the distinction is a real one, as shown by the distinction between a person and that person’s accidental appearances.“Substance” here means what something is in itself, its essence. A hat’s shape is not the hat itself, nor is its colour, size, softness to the touch, nor anything else about it perceptible to the senses. The hat itself (the “substance”) has the shape, the color, the size, the softness and the other appearances, but is distinct from them. While the appearances, which are also referred to, though not in the Church’s official teaching, by the philosophical term ‘accidents‘, are perceptible to the senses, the substance is not.
When, at his Last Supper, Jesus said: “This is my body”, what he held in his hands still had all the appearances of bread: the “species” remained unchanged. However, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that, when Jesus made that declaration,:1376 the underlying reality (the “substance”) of the bread was changed into that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to scientific investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. The Catholic Church holds that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at the consecration of the Eucharist:1377when the words are spoken in persona Christi “This is my body … this is my blood.” In Orthodox confessions, the change is said to start during the Dominical or Lord’s Words or Institution Narrative and be completed during the Epiklesis. Orthodox from the period of Dominican-Orthodox controversies (witnessed by Nicholas Cabasilas) until the Council of Florence and the “libellus (booklet)” of Mark of Ephesus, held for a double moment of consecration at the words “This is my body/blood” and the epiclesis. Despite the fact that this was a normative interpretation of the De sacraments and De mysteries of St. Ambrose, as early as Paschasius Radbertus (Ps.-Augustine), John Torquemada opposed the Orthodox position at the Council of Florence. This is all the more ironic since he cited Paschasius Radbertus (as if Augustine) in his Sermo alter in the Acta Latina in order to refute emperor John VIII (who was relying on Mark of Ephesus “libellus”). The end result was that, though authors from Radbertus until St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio held for the consecratory potential of the epiclesis, Torquemada represented the Dominican position as universal and non-controversial among the Latins. In fact, Torquemada’s overconfidence was the result of having studied the works of Pope Benedict XII in his debates against Mark of Ephesus in Ferrara in 1437. Therein, Benedict condemned an alleged Armenian theory (never verified among any of the dozen or so Armenian commentaries from the period) that denied all consecratory value to the words of institution and confined the consecration ONLY to the epiclesis (not the Byzantine position). Lastly, the Armenians were alleged to hold that the eucharistic change was not substantial and only imperfect and typological, and therefore not transubstantiation. The arguments, that Benedict XII’s letter to the missionaries (c. 1340) addressed, relied on Aquinas’ premises, which was no surprise given Benedict and Pope Clement VI thomistic preferences. However, these arguments were confused for the Byzantine position from Cabasilas to Florence and are still grossly misunderstood among modern and contemporary scholars when attempting to speak of Catholic-Orthodox differences.
Teaching that Christ is risen from the dead and is alive, the Catholic Church holds that when the bread is changed into his body, not only his body is present, but Christ as a whole is present (i.e. body and blood, soul and divinity.) The same holds for the wine changed into his blood. This teaching goes beyond the doctrine of transubstantiation, which directly concerns only the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
In accordance with the dogmatic teaching that Christ is really, truly and substantially present under the remaining appearances of bread and wine, and continues to be present as long as those appearances remain, the Catholic Church preserves the consecrated elements, generally in a church tabernacle, for administering Holy Communion to the sick and dying, and also for the secondary, but still highly prized, purpose of adoring Christ present in the Eucharist.
The Roman Catholic Church declares that the doctrine of transubstantiation is concerned with what is changed, and not how the change occurs; it teaches that the appearances (the “species”) that remain are real, not an illusion, and that Christ is “really, truly, and substantially present” in the Eucharist.:1374 To touch the smallest particle of the host or the smallest droplet from the chalice is to touch Jesus Christ himself, as when one person touches another on the back of the hand with only a fingertip and in so doing touches not merely a few skin cells but touches the whole person: “Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ.”
In the arguments which characterised the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century, the Council of Trent declared subject to the ecclesiastical penalty of anathema anyone who:
- “denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue” and anyone who “saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation, let him be anathema.”
As already stated, the Roman Catholic Church asserts that the “species” that remain are real. In the sacrament these are the signs of the reality that they efficaciously signify, not symbols. And by definition sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Catholic Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”
In The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: The Eucharist and Its Effects (2000-2012), James H. Dobbins, citing the work This Tremendous Lover (1989), by Dom Eugene Boylan, expresses the paradox of Holy Communion:
- “Ordinary food is consumed and becomes that which consumes it. In the Eucharist, we consume God and become that which we consume.”
According to Catholic teaching, the whole of Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, is in the sacrament, under each of the appearances of bread and wine and in each part of the appearances of bread and wine (since the substance of bread or wine is in each part of ordinary bread or wine, and the substance of Christ is in each part of the consecrated and transubstantiated elements of the host and the cup of the sacrament), but he is not in the sacrament as in a place and is not moved when the sacrament is moved. He is perceptible neither by the sense nor by the imagination, but only by the intellectual eye.
St. Thomas Aquinas gave poetic expression to this perception in the devotional hymn Adoro te devote:
- Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
- Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
- See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
- Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
- Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
- How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed.
- What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
- Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
- —English translation of Adoro Te Devote
Main article: Metousiosis
As the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament took place in the Western Church after the Great Schism, the Eastern Churches remained largely unaffected by it. The debate on the nature of “transubstantiation” in Greek Orthodoxy begins in the 17th century, with Cyril Lucaris, whose The Eastern Confession of the Orthodox Faith was published in Latin in 1629. The Greek term metousiosis (μετουσίωσις) is first used as the translation of Latin transubstantiatio in the Greek edition of the work, published in 1633.
The Eastern Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches, along with the Assyrian Church of the East, agree that in a valid Divine Liturgy bread and wine truly and actually become the body and blood of Christ. In Orthodox confessions, the change is said to start during the Liturgy of Preparation and be completed during the Epiklesis. However, there are official church documents that speak of a “change” (in Greek μεταβολή) or “metousiosis” (μετουσίωσις) of the bread and wine. “Μετ-ουσί-ωσις” (met-ousi-osis) is the Greek word used to represent the Latin word “trans-substanti-atio“, as Greek “μετα-μόρφ-ωσις” (meta-morph-osis) corresponds to Latin “trans-figur-atio“. Examples of official documents of the Eastern Orthodox Church that use the term “μετουσίωσις” or “transubstantiation” are the Longer Catechism of The Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church (question 340) and the declaration by the Eastern Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem of 1672:
- “In the celebration of [the Eucharist] we believe the Lord Jesus Christ to be present. He is not present typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, as in the other Mysteries, nor by a bare presence, as some of the Fathers have said concerning Baptism, or by impanation, so that the Divinity of the Word is united to the set forth bread of the Eucharist hypostatically, as the followers of Luther most ignorantly and wretchedly suppose. But [he is present] truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body Itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin, was baptized in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sits at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood Itself of the Lord, Which as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.
It should be noted, that the way in which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ has never been dogmatically defined by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. However, St Theodore the Studite writes in his treatise On the Holy Icons: “for we confess that the faithful receive the very body and blood of Christ, according to the voice of God himself.” This was a refutation of the iconoclasts, who insisted that the eucharist was the only true icon of Christ. Thus, it can be argued that by being part of the dogmatic “horos” against the iconoclast heresy, the teaching on the “real presence” of Christ in the eucharist is indeed a dogma of the Eastern Orthodox Church.