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Half of US Catholics think the Eucharist is only symbolic. How did this happen?

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A great divide has opened between those who believe in a revealed religion, and those who believe it is all a symbol

A news item last week reminded me of a story about the writer Flannery O’Connor. In one of her letters collected in The Habit of Being she described how she was present at a swanky literary gathering in New York where the author Mary McCarthy was a fellow guest. O’Connor was intimidated by the literati and said scarcely a word all evening.

Then she describes the scene:

“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That 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.”

A recent Pew survey reports that 50 per cent of US Catholics share O’Connor’s faith. The other half are on Mary McCarthy’s side. Fifty per cent believe the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The other half think it is symbolic.

How did we come to the point where a full 50 per cent of Catholics get this most basic of Catholic beliefs wrong? A typical suspect is poor catechesis. Yes, yes, I know: for the last 50 years we have been subjected to raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens catechesis, but is that a cause or a symptom?

Others want to dig deeper. “It’s the fault of Vatican II,” they cry, just before they whisper about Protestant conspiracy theories, John XXIII being a Freemason and the arch-villain Archbishop Bugnini. Others blame liberal nuns in trouser suits, “Father Fabulous” with his Day-Glo vestments, churches that look like a spaceships and music that seems to be a blend of Joan Baez, the Carpenters and campfire songs.

All of these are symptoms of the disease. The roots of the problem are a thousand years old. Debates over the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament first blew up in the 11th century when the French theologian Berengar of Tours denied that there could be a material change at the consecration. The controversy ended with the definition of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

That definition was affirmed at the Council of Trent in its Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist: “In the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the appearances of those perceptible realities.” Trent’s clear definition was a response to the Protestant revolutionaries. Luther proposed “consubstantiation” and the Anglicans “receptionism”, while Calvin and Zwingli argued for a merely symbolic presence of Christ at the celebration of the Eucharist.

Yes, but where did their ideas come from? The reformers’ theology was influenced by the nominalism of William of Ockham (1285-1347), which challenged the existence of metaphysical realities in favour of the perceived reality of the material world. In short: it’s only a symbol.

The recent survey reveals more than a doctrinal squabble between Catholics. The disagreement about the Eucharist is indicative of a Grand Canyon in the Christian Church. The canyon is between two utterly opposed understandings of the Christian religion.

The modern materialist believes that Christianity is a human invention that is the product of a certain historical period and culture. As such, it not only may change, but it must change according to the time and culture in which it finds itself. In other words, Christianity is a relative religion. Not only is the Eucharist symbolic, but the whole wild and glorious Christian faith is no more than a symbol.

The second view is that of the historic supernaturalist. For him, the Christian faith is not relative; it is revealed. As St Paul wrote in Galatians, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son born of a woman.” For the historic supernaturalist the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ took place where it did and when it did as part of God’s eternal plan. The Eucharist and the entire Christian faith is therefore not symbolic but supernatural. It is revealed by God, and the essence of it cannot be adapted to the vagaries of history and culture.

We should not be naïve. This canyon runs deep through the whole of contemporary Christianity. The great divide today is no longer between Protestant and Catholic, but between those who believe in a revealed religion and those who believe it is all a symbol.

We should also not underestimate the damage the modern materialist point of view does to the Church. The bottom line must be: if it is all no more than a symbol, what’s the point? Why bother? Or to echo Flannery O’Connor, “To hell with it.”

While the disagreement about the Eucharist is a symptom of the great divide, it is also one of the ways to bridge the gap.

The way I explain the doctrine of transubstantiation begins with the definition of the word. Transubstantiation means “substance across”. I then explain that the Christians of the Middle Ages thought of the word “substance” as meaning the precise opposite of our definition. By “substantial” we mean physical, and solid as perceived by our bodily senses. The medieval philosopher, on the other hand, meant by “substance” the invisible aspect of a thing that did not change and was therefore eternal.

In our downstairs bathroom we have a collection of family photographs. There I am as a child of two in my father’s arms. Next to it is a family photo when I am five, another when I am 12, then my high school portrait, my college years and then yesterday’s me … an old bald man. The physical form has changed, but in each photograph you can see it’s me. That invisible, unchanging person is my substance.

It is this “substance” of the bread and wine that changes. The reality of the bread and wine – the “bread-ness” and “wine-ness” of the stuff – becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. This philosophical explanation is the best one we have of what remains a mystery.

A proper understanding of the Eucharist therefore leads to a proper understanding of the whole faith. If I can understand how the bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ, I might also begin to see God’s mighty hand in all his works. When I start to see how this world is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God”, then I may begin to grasp the sacramental mystery of the Church itself.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is a former minister of the Church of England. He now serves as pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Connect with his blog, browse his books and get in touch with him at dwightlongenecker.com