This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Transubstantiation according to St. Thomas Aquinas

Transubstantiation describes the manner in which the bread and wine, or the ‘gifts’ of the Mass, become the true body and true blood of Christ. The doctrine of the Real Presence tells us what the Eucharist is: transubstantiation explains how that comes to be.

To be frank, we would rather avoid such an exact philosophical explanation for the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Yet, as we have seen, the Church takes on those tasks that we ourselves find distasteful, ‘getting her hands dirty’ for our sake. She does this because she cannot ignore controversy and error, for it is the responsibility of the Church to refute heresies. Much of the ‘unnecessary’ theologizing that the Catholic Church accomplishes is accomplished in order to refute errors. She does not proclaim simply for the sake of proclaiming, but rather out of necessity, regardless of what the Reformers claimed.

Thus, we admit that the doctrine of transubstantiation is one for which we ourselves have never felt any need, and which (again, for ourselves at least) serves as a contemplative impediment due to its being bogged down in Aristotelian terminology, which has always seemed cumbersome and inelegant. This is not to deny the legitimacy of the doctrine, only to suggest that the vehicle of exposition is not to our liking, and we will add that obviously another framework is, theoretically, possible, since Catholic doctrine is in no way the exclusive property of the Aristotelians, even if it may seem otherwise since Aquinas. Such alternative philosophical framework could provide an adequate defense of the truth which transubstantiation is meant to protect. But that what we have is what we have received from St. Thomas: precise, powerful, and exhausting. We must be thankful for it, since it has served its purpose. It is this theory of transubstantiation, in the words of Aquinas, that we will reproduce in part below, from question 75 of part III of his Summa Theologica, on “The change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ” in eight articles:

From Article 1: Whether the body of Christ be in this sacrament in very truth, or merely as in a figure or sign?

Hilary says (De Trin. viii): “There is no room for doubt regarding the truth of Christ’s body and blood; for now by our Lord’s own declaring and by our faith His flesh is truly food, and His blood is truly drink.” And Ambrose says (De Sacram. vi): “As the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s true Son so is it Christ’s true flesh which we take, and His true blood which we drink.”

I answer that, The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority. Hence, on Luke 22:19: “This is My body which shall be delivered up for you,” Cyril says: “Doubt not whether this be true; but take rather the Saviour’s words with faith; for since He is the Truth, He lieth not.”

Now this is suitable, first for the perfection of the New Law. For, the sacrifices of the Old Law contained only in figure that true sacrifice of Christ’s Passion, according to Hebrews 10:1: “For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things.” And therefore it was necessary that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, namely, that it should contain Christ Himself crucified, not merely in signification or figure, but also in very truth. And therefore this sacrament which contains Christ Himself, as Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. iii), is perfective of all the other sacraments, in which Christ’s virtue is participated.

From Article 2: Whether in this sacrament the substance of the bread and wine remains after the consecration?

Ambrose says (De Sacram. iv): “Although the figure of the bread and wine be seen, still, after the Consecration, they are to be believed to be nothing else than the body and blood of Christ.”

I answer that, Some have held that the substance of the bread and wine remains in this sacrament after the consecration. But this opinion cannot stand: first of all, because by such an opinion the truth of this sacrament is destroyed, to which it belongs that Christ’s true body exists in this sacrament; which indeed was not there before the consecration. Now a thing cannot be in any place, where it was not previously, except by change of place, or by the conversion of another thing into itself; just as fire begins anew to be in some house, either because it is carried thither, or because it is generated there. Now it is evident that Christ’s body does not begin to be present in this sacrament by local motion. First of all, because it would follow that it would cease to be in heaven: for what is moved locally does not come anew to some place unless it quit the former one. Secondly, because every body moved locally passes through all intermediary spaces, which cannot be said here. Thirdly, because it is not possible for one movement of the same body moved locally to be terminated in different places at the one time, whereas the body of Christ under this sacrament begins at the one time to be in several places. And consequently it remains that Christ’s body cannot begin to be anew in this sacrament except by change of the substance of bread into itself. But what is changed into another thing, no longer remains after such change. Hence the conclusion is that, saving the truth of this sacrament, the substance of the bread cannot remain after the consecration.

Secondly, because this position is contrary to the form of this sacrament, in which it is said: “This is My body,” which would not be true if the substance of the bread were to remain there; for the substance of bread never is the body of Christ. Rather should one say in that case: “Here is My body.”

Thirdly, because it would be opposed to the veneration of this sacrament, if any substance were there, which could not be adored with adoration of latria.

Fourthly, because it is contrary to the rite of the Church, according to which it is not lawful to take the body of Christ after bodily food, while it is nevertheless lawful to take one consecrated host after another. Hence this opinion is to be avoided as heretical.

From Article 3: Whether the substance of the bread or wine is annihilated after the consecration of this sacrament, or dissolved into their original matter?

Because the substance of the bread and wine does not remain in this sacrament, some, deeming that it is impossible for the substance of the bread and wine to be changed into Christ’s flesh and blood, have maintained that by the consecration, the substance of the bread and wine is either dissolved into the original matter, or that it is annihilated.

Now the original matter into which mixed bodies can be dissolved is the four elements. For dissolution cannot be made into primary matter, so that a subject can exist without a form, since matter cannot exist without a form. But since after the consecration nothing remains under the sacramental species except the body and the blood of Christ, it will be necessary to say that the elements into which the substance of the bread and wine is dissolved, depart from thence by local motion, which would be perceived by the senses. In like manner also the substance of the bread or wine remains until the last instant of the consecration; but in the last instant of the consecration there is already present there the substance of the body or blood of Christ, just as the form is already present in the last instant of generation. Hence no instant can be assigned in which the original matter can be there. For it cannot be said that the substance of the bread or wine is dissolved gradually into the original matter, or that it successively quits the species, for if this began to be done in the last instant of its consecration, then at the one time under part of the host there would be the body of Christ together with the substance of bread, which is contrary to what has been said above (Article 2). But if this begin to come to pass before the consecration, there will then be a time in which under one part of the host there will be neither the substance of bread nor the body of Christ, which is not fitting. They seem indeed to have taken this into careful consideration, wherefore they formulated their proposition with an alternative viz. that (the substance) may be annihilated. But even this cannot stand, because no way can be assigned whereby Christ’s true body can begin to be in this sacrament, except by the change of the substance of bread into it, which change is excluded the moment we admit either annihilation of the substance of the bread, or dissolution into the original matter. Likewise no cause can be assigned for such dissolution or annihilation, since the effect of the sacrament is signified by the form: “This is My body.” Hence it is clear that the aforesaid opinion is false.

Reply to Objection 1. The substance of the bread or wine, after the consecration, remains neither under the sacramental species, nor elsewhere; yet it does not follow that it is annihilated; for it is changed into the body of Christ; just as if the air, from which fire is generated, be not there or elsewhere, it does not follow that it is annihilated.

Reply to Objection 2. The form, which is the term “wherefrom,” is not changed into another form; but one form succeeds another in the subject; and therefore the first form remains only in the potentiality of matter. But here the substance of the bread is changed into the body of Christ, as stated above. Hence the conclusion does not follow.

Reply to Objection 3. Although after the consecration this proposition is false: “The substance of the bread is something,” still that into which the substance of the bread is changed, is something, and consequently the substance of the bread is not annihilated.

From Article 4: Whether bread can be converted into the body of Christ?

[Note that it is here where we see the actual term ‘transubstantiation’ which signifies a distinction between this type of change and what we could otherwise call either transmutation or transformation.]

Eusebius Emesenus says: “To thee it ought neither to be a novelty nor an impossibility that earthly and mortal things be changed into the substance of Christ.”

I answer that, As stated above (Article 2), since Christ’s true body is in this sacrament, and since it does not begin to be there by local motion, nor is it contained therein as in a place, as is evident from what was stated above (Article 1, Reply to Objection 2), it must be said then that it begins to be there by conversion of the substance of bread into itself.

Yet this change is not like natural changes, but is entirely supernatural, and effected by God’s power alone. Hence Ambrose says [(De Sacram. iv): “See how Christ’s word changes nature’s laws, as He wills: a man is not wont to be born save of man and woman: see therefore that against the established law and order a man is born of a Virgin”: and] [The passage in the brackets is not in the Leonine edition] (De Myster. iv): “It is clear that a Virgin begot beyond the order of nature: and what we make is the body from the Virgin. Why, then, do you look for nature’s order in Christ’s body, since the Lord Jesus was Himself brought forth of a Virgin beyond nature?” Chrysostom likewise (Hom. xlvii), commenting on John 6:64: “The words which I have spoken to you,” namely, of this sacrament, “are spirit and life,” says: i.e. “spiritual, having nothing carnal, nor natural consequence; but they are rent from all such necessity which exists upon earth, and from the laws here established.”

For it is evident that every agent acts according as it is in act. But every created agent is limited in its act, as being of a determinate genus and species: and consequently the action of every created agent bears upon some determinate act. Now the determination of every thing in actual existence comes from its form. Consequently, no natural or created agent can act except by changing the form in something; and on this account every change made according to nature’s laws is a formal change. But God is infinite act, as stated in I:7:1; III:26:2; hence His action extends to the whole nature of being. Therefore He can work not only formal conversion, so that diverse forms succeed each other in the same subject; but also the change of all being, so that, to wit, the whole substance of one thing be changed into the whole substance of another. And this is done by Divine power in this sacrament; for the whole substance of the bread is changed into the whole substance of Christ’s body, and the whole substance of the wine into the whole substance of Christ’s blood. Hence this is not a formal, but a substantial conversion; nor is it a kind of natural movement: but, with a name of its own, it can be called “transubstantiation.”

For the sake of clarity we will also include a few of the ‘replies to objections’ that close this article because the help us understand the distinction between transformation (formal change) and transubstantiation (substantial change). The objections will not be included, but we can simply observe, as Aquinas states, that they are only valid if the change in question is one of form, such as that form must inhere in some matter or subject.

Reply to Objection 1. This objection holds good in respect of formal change, because it belongs to a form to be in matter or in a subject; but it does not hold good in respect of the change of the entire substance. Hence, since this substantial change implies a certain order of substances, one of which is changed into the other, it is in both substances as in a subject, just as order and number.

Reply to Objection 2. This argument also is true of formal conversion or change, because, as stated above (Reply to Objection 1), a form must be in some matter or subject. But this is not so in a change of the entire substance; for in this case no subject is possible.

From Article 5. Whether the accidents of the bread and wine remain in this sacrament after the change?

Augustine says in his book on the Sentences of Prosper (Lanfranc, De Corp. et Sang. Dom. xiii): “Under the species which we behold, of bread and wine, we honor invisible things, i.e. flesh and blood.”

I answer that, It is evident to sense that all the accidents of the bread and wine remain after the consecration. And this is reasonably done by Divine providence. First of all, because it is not customary, but horrible, for men to eat human flesh, and to drink blood. And therefore Christ’s flesh and blood are set before us to be partaken of under the species of those things which are the more commonly used by men, namely, bread and wine. Secondly, lest this sacrament might be derided by unbelievers, if we were to eat our Lord under His own species. Thirdly, that while we receive our Lord’s body and blood invisibly, this may redound to the merit of faith.

From Article 6: Whether the substantial form of the bread remains in this sacrament after the consecration?

The substantial form of bread is of the substance of bread. But the substance of the bread is changed into the body of Christ, as stated above (Article 2,Article 3,Article 4). Therefore the substantial form of the bread does not remain.

I answer that, Some have contended that after the consecration not only do the accidents of the bread remain, but also its substantial form. But this cannot be. First of all, because if the substantial form of the bread were to remain, nothing of the bread would be changed into the body of Christ, excepting the matter; and so it would follow that it would be changed, not into the whole body of Christ, but into its matter, which is repugnant to the form of the sacrament, wherein it is said: “This is My body.”

Secondly, because if the substantial form of the bread were to remain, it would remain either in matter, or separated from matter. The first cannot be, for if it were to remain in the matter of the bread, then the whole substance of the bread would remain, which is against what was said above (Article 2). Nor could it remain in any other matter, because the proper form exists only in its proper matter. But if it were to remain separate from matter, it would then be an actually intelligible form, and also an intelligence; for all forms separated from matter are such.

Thirdly, it would be unbefitting this sacrament: because the accidents of the bread remain in this sacrament, in order that the body of Christ may be seen under them, and not under its proper species, as stated above (Article 5).

And therefore it must be said that the substantial form of the bread does not remain.

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