Sed Contra: Precise language “preserves mystery”

James Keane and Sam Sawyer, S. J., in an essay for America magazine criticize the sensational headlines about the recent Pew Research study that found a vast majority of American Catholics (almost 70%) asserting that the Eucharist is just a “symbol” of the body and blood of Jesus. They acknowledge that this statistic is troubling for many people, and they even begin their article with Flannery O’Connor’s oft-quoted statement that if the Eucharist really is only a symbol, then “to hell with it.”

But their main point seems to be to set the minds of very concerned leaders like Bishop Robert Barron and outraged O’Connor-minded folk at ease. The wording of the Pew Research study question itself, they claim, may be partly to blame for the troubling Catholic response: “When language more familiar to Catholics is used and the surveys are clearer about what is being denied by the ‘symbol’ answer, belief in the Eucharist is nearly double what Pew found.”

Moreover, they suggest that the Thomistic language employed by the Church herself regarding the Eucharist is rather difficult:

In that sense, at the consecration the “substance” of the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, while the “accidents” remain those of bread and wine—which is why we experience them physically as being unchanged. This distinction between substance and accidents, however, is a feature of technical language about metaphysics, not everyday description. And even as technical language, “substance” and “accidents” are no longer in widespread use among philosophers and theologians outside of Thomistic circles (except, perhaps, in reference to the Eucharist).

(“Explainer: Why the Eucharist is confusing to many Catholics (and survey researchers)”)

To emphasize this point about the Church’s apparently confusing language, the authors explain that theologians Schillebeeckx and Rahner in the last century tried to come up with other terms (“transignification” and “transfinalization”, respectively) to describe what happens during the consecration while still “affirming the church’s teaching on the real presence”. The authors admit that “these approaches found little traction when up against the weight of centuries of Thomistic language used to describe the Eucharist”–a rather odd description to begin with–but odder still if you realize that in fact the uses of those newer terms were not just unable to find “traction” but were actually determined to be “false and disturbing opinions” by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

That is to say, language matters. And making mistakes in language, especially language about the Eucharist, is a serious matter.

The authors conclude the article with the consoling thought that for most Catholics, “a theologically accurate description of what ‘actually just happened’ on the altar is less important than faith in the sacrament, a sense of sharing in the community, an experience of thanksgiving.”

To which I would say, “sed contra”:

Absent a theologically accurate description, what kind of “faith in the sacrament” are we really talking about here?

Keane and Sawyer seem to want to calm those wringing their hands over the results of the Pew survey. The way the question about the real presence was asked and the way the Church has articulated the teaching itself are problematic for Catholics today, they explain. The point seems to be that most Catholics aren’t heretics, they’re just confused.

But the underlying assumption there seems to be either: 1) ordinary Catholics can’t be expected to understand Thomistic language or 2) ordinary Catholics are so unaware of the centrality of the Eucharist to their faith that (arguably) ambiguous language in a poll is going to completely throw off their responses.

If either (or both) of these scenarios are true, I think we have a good reason for consternation.

But if, as I suspect, neither of them are true–that is, ordinary Catholics CAN understand Thomistic language about the Eucharist and they SHOULD be able to respond accurately to questions from secular sources about central tenets of the faith–then, well, we still need to be concerned and we actually need to do something. We need to reclaim the Thomistic language that helps preserve the mystery of the Eucharist from error, and we need to evangelize and catechize. That is, we need to share the Gospel.

We also may need to seriously consider the reasons why so many Catholics report not believing that the bread and wine really change into the body and blood of Christ. Lex orandi, lex credendi…

The essay’s concluding reminder that the Church’s “greatest thinkers” have always resorted to the phrase “it is a mystery” when people have tried to define doctrines like the Trinity is also problematic. The silent implication here seems to be, “Why bother trying to explain something you can’t explain?” Or even, “It is prideful to try employ human language to pin down what is happening during the mass.”

Of course, they aren’t wrong. The Eucharist is a profound mystery, and human language cannot fully describe any of the mysteries of God. Thomas Aquinas himself famously called all of his work “straw” after his mystical experience of Christ. (For more on that fascinating story, do read Josef Pieper’s The Silence of St. Thomas.)

Nevertheless, the Church has had an odd habit throughout the centuries of trying to do just that: of using human language to describe the divine mysteries when the need arises. And the form this need usually takes is heresy.

The reason the Church approved St. Thomas’ “technical” language of “substance” and “species”/ “appearances” in her official teaching on transubstantiation during the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and reaffirmed that language as being “fitting,” “proper” and “most apt” during the Council of Trent (1551) is that misunderstandings and heresies had run rampant and she needed to clarify the truth for the faithful. A similar response was required for the much earlier distinction between the divine and human “natures” and one divine “person” in Jesus Christ (Nicea in 325) or, a little later, the distinction between one “nature” and three “persons” in the Trinity (Constantinople I in 381). The former definition was made to combat Arianism, the latter to combat Arianism again, Apollinarism, and other heresies.

I point out this history (of which I am sure the authors are aware) in order to emphasize how important precise language has always been to Church teaching.

The Church is taking her cue, of course, from the Lord Himself, who likes communicating in human language. He spent centuries communicating with the Jewish people and with Moses in particular “as a friend speaks to a friend.” The result is the Torah and the entire Old Testament. Later, He became a human being in Jesus Christ and used his human intellect and human tongue to share all sorts of parables, stories and exhortations.

In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor says, “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom” (emphasis added). In an essay published in Mysteries and Manners, she takes up this theme again:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind.

I think this is exactly what the language of transubstantiation does. It does not exhaust the mystery; it preserves it.

Although most Catholics are not called to be theologians, we are, by virtue of baptism, “priests, prophets, and kings,” called to share in the sacrifice, proclamation, and mission of Jesus Christ. As such, we need to keep the mysterious words of the Gospel, and the language we need to share it with others, “on our minds, on our lips and in our hearts.”

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