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McCabe on Eucharist

McCabe on Eucharist



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Published by: akimel on Jun 06, 2008
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PRIESTS & PEOPLE—JUNE 1994 (vol 8 no6) 217–221 © 1994 The Tablet PublishingCompany. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Eucharistic Change
HERBERT McCABE OPLet us begin with some misconceptionsabout what the Catholic tradition sayshappens when bread and wine are consecrated.The Council of Trent did not decree thatCatholics should believe in transubstantiation:it just calls it a most appropriate
way of talking about the Eucharist, presumably leaving open whether there mightnot be other, perhaps even more appropriateways of talking. You could say that theCouncil sanctioned and recommended thistheology whereas, for example, the AnglicanThirty-Nine Articles are rather less liberal:they forbid it its ‘repugnant to the plain wordsof scripture’. It is likely, however, that theauthors of that document did not quiteunderstand the meaning of that doctrine andfairly certain that a whole lot of Catholics donot either.Perhaps we could start with a caricature of the doctrine which I think would be taken for the real thing by a great many Christians,whether they accept or reject it. The caricaturegoes like this: at the consecration, the breadand wine change into a different kind of substance, flesh and blood, in fact the flesh and blood of Christ; but this is disguised from us by the fact that to all appearances the breadand wine are unchanged. This is so that we caneat the flesh and drink the blood of Christwithout being disgusted by the cannibalisminvolved. The miracle here is a kindlydeception which protects us from seeing whatwe are really doing. If we could only peep behind the residual appearances we woulddiscover human flesh and human blood. (Thereis a famous medieval legend about a priest being confirmed in his faith in the reality of theeucharistic change when he saw the host bleed...and so on.) Now this is not the doctrine of transubstantiation, at least as understood by StThomas Aquinas. First of all, for him, thechange is of a completely different kind fromthe change of bread and wine into another kindof stuff (which he would call a ‘substantial’change); and secondly the appearance of breadand wine do not become the misleadingappearances, the disguise, for the new stuff, soas to make it palatable. They become the signswhich reveal to us the new reality. In allsacraments God shows us what he does anddoes what he shows us. In six of thesacraments he makes present and shows us bysigns the power of Christ to save us; in thecentral sacrament of the Eucharist he makes present Christ himself and shows him to us bysigns which indicate what he is, the unity of his faithful in charity. ‘For he is our peace whohas made us one.’
St Thomas talks of transubstantiation inlanguage borrowed from Aristotle: he speaksof substance and accidents. If you tellsomebody
sort of thing something is (ahorse, an electron, etc.) you are telling him of its substance. If you are giving him further information (where it is, how high it is, howintelligent it is etc.) you are telling him its
McCabe / Eucharistic Change / ThS 543 Sacramental Theology / Collection of Readings, 1
accidental characteristics. It is important to anAristotelian that a thing may lose someaccidental characteristic (it may move, shrink,grow more stupid etc.) without ceasing to bethe same identical thing; whereas if it shouldlose its substance, its essential character, it perishes, ceases to be this thing and turns intosomething else (as when the horse dies, it is nolonger a horse but has changed into a corpse).This seems a fairly common-sense account atleast of the organic world in which it is usuallyfairly easy to agree on what sorts of thingsthere are (horses, onions, human beings) andnot too difficult to observe them beginning toexist (being born or whatever) and ceasing toexist (dying). It differs considerably from our modern physicist’s way of talking but it seems bizarre to claim that it is unintelligible to us.Amongst the accidental characteristics of things around us are their appearances: size,colour, taste etc., by which usually werecognise them for what they are. Unlike StThomas, Trent speaks not of accidents but of appearances
, saying that to allappearances the consecrated elements are still bread and wine and no investigation of ourscould tell us anything different, but we know by faith that what they are is no longer breadand wine but the sacramental presence of the body and blood of Christ.
It is important to recognise that, in usingAristotelean language, St Thomas is not givingan ‘Aristotelean’ explanation of the Eucharist.He uses it because it was the common philosophical currency of the time; but he usesit to give an account of something that simplycould not happen according to Aristotle.Transubstantiation, like creation or incarnation, does not make sense within thelimits of the Aristotelean world-view. StThomas uses Aristotle’s language, but it breaks down in speaking of the Eucharist. Itdoes not break down because there is somemore accurate language in which the wholething can be explained. It breaks down becauseit is language. We are dealing here withsomething that transcends our concepts andcan only be spoken of by stretching languageto breaking point: we are dealing here withmystery.Those who wish to replace talk of transubstantiation by talk of transignificationare quite reasonably claiming that in our culture we are more familiar with talk of meanings than of substances, and meaningseems the obvious category in which to speak of sacramental signs and liturgy; for one thingwe are less likely to imagine that the Massturns on a specially mysterious chemical process.There is much in this so long as it does notsound like ‘Really it is only a change of meaning’ (for the meaning in question has aspecial profundity about it) and so long as it isnot taken to be saying that the bread and wine,while remaining what they were, are ‘deemed’(by the Church, or even by the individual believer) to be the focus of the presence of Christ to us in his bodily humanity (For thissounds too much like ‘deeming’ a piece of stage furniture to be the Castle of Dunsinane).On the other hand to say that it is God whodoes the deeming would take us straight back to something like transubstantiation, for if Goddeems something to happen it must happen,and come about in the created world (for nothing can happen in the eternal immutableGodhead). Moreover not even God could deem
McCabe / Eucharistic Change / ThS 543 Sacramental Theology / Collection of Readings, 2
something both to be and not be bread andwine — except in different senses; and thattakes us back to where we were before wetalked of ‘deeming’.A guiding principle in our thinking aboutthis matter must surely be that anything whichseems to take the scandal or mystery out of the Eucharist must be wrong, whether it becouched in terms of substance or of meaning.
Signs and appearances
If we are to understand what the notion of transubstantiation is saying, or trying to say,we need to reflect on the difference betweenthe way appearances tell us something and theway in which signs tell us something. It is onlyin a metaphorical sense that, in English, we cansay, for example, ‘The smell of bitter almondstells you that it is cyanide’; but, of course,smelling of bitter almonds is not part of tellingyou anything. It is simply a physical realityand it is you who tell yourself it is due tocyanide because you have read enoughdetective stories to know this.It is not literally true that ‘appearances aredeceptive’; they are just there; it is peoplewho may use them to deceive you, or you maydeceive yourself by jumping to conclusions.On the other hand signs, conventional signs,like words, for example or flags, are part of language and as such they are part of telling.(We even have a special name for deceiving bythe use of conventional signs: we call it lying.)When Bruce Kent, let us say, wears a CND badge he is saying something, and somethingthat is true, a statement that might betranslated as ‘I believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament’. In the unlikely event of MichaelHeseltine wearing one he would presumably beeither joking or lying.There is, then, a lot of difference betweenthe appearance which simply shows you athing and signs which are part of telling yousomething about it. I labour this point becauseit is an important part of St Thomas’s teachingon the Eucharist that the accidents of breadand wine cease to be the appearances of breadand wine, but this is not because they becomethe misleading appearances of something else.They cease to function as appearances at all,they have become signs, sacramental signsthrough which what is signified is made real.Before the consecration the appearanceswere there because the bread was there, theywere just the appearances of the bread. After the consecration it is the other way round, the body of Christ is sacramentally there becausewhat were the appearances of bread (and arenow sacramental signs), are there. So withunconsecrated bread the accidents can remain(and vary) so long as the bread still exists: howvery bizarre if they were to stay on (like theCheshire cat’s grin) when what they areaccidents of is not there. But after theconsecration the body of Christ issacramentally present just so long as the signsare there. The important consequence of this isthat these signs are not the appearances of Christ’s body: they are no longer theappearances of anything. The colour and shapeof the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body, the location of the host, its being on the altar does not mean that Christ’s body is located on the altar; the fact that thehost is moved about, say in procession, doesnot mean that Christ’s body is being movedabout. When we do things to the host, such aseating it, we are not doing anything to Christ’s
McCabe / Eucharistic Change / ThS 543 Sacramental Theology / Collection of Readings, 3

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