When the rot set in…

Gasparo Cardinal Contarini

Gasparo Cardinal Contarini

I have recently visited my good friend, Lutheran Pastor Fraser Pearce. There I encountered a book he recently picked up at a second hand book store, “Cardinal Contarini at Regensburg”, by Peter Matheson (Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1972). It is a superb story, told upon the foundation of a great deal of scholarly research, about the part played by Gasparo Cardinal Contarini at the Catholic Lutheran dialogue meeting in Regensberg in 1541 (the Lutheran delegation was led by Melanchthon, Bucer also present, and Eck too).

The Regensburg Colloquy is a most interesting topic, but at the moment, I just want to make a small comment about a something Matheson says the beginning of Chapter 10 on page 122. There we read:

The turning point of the Regensburg colloquy was the failure to reach agreement on the nature of the church; the death blow was given by the controversy over transubstantiation. This was really most surprising. Why should the boundary between the confessions have been born at this particular point? Was this not a relatively new dogma, promulgated as recently as 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, and one pertaining to the scholastic theory rather than to the substance of the Faith? It seems decidedly out of character that Contarini should dig in his feet on this particular issue, especially when he knew that the success or failure of the colloquy depended on his attitude. It seems ironic that the ecumenical endeavours of the 16th century should have foundered on a teaching which today seems to be dropping slowly but steadily below the Catholic horizon.

Now isn’t that extremely interesting? The Regensburg Colloquy took place mere years before the Council of Trent, at which the doctrine of transubstantiation was defined “as most fitting”. On the other hand, Matheson was writing his book mere years after the Second Vatican Council, after which it is generally agreed “the rot set in”. Is it not astounding that by 1972, Matheson, who seems (by all accounts) an innocent bystander and observer of facts, makes the passing observation that the doctrine of transubstation “today seems to be dropping slowly but steadily below the Catholic horizon.”

What can this signify, other than that by 1972, in the 7 years since the end of the Vatican Council, the “rot” had well and truly set into the Catholic Church. This was the era when Bendiction and Eucharistic Adoration was being rejected all over the world. This was the era when all sorts of new theories about how the Eucharist “re-presented” Christ came into vogue. This was the era of “breaking bread together on our knees” (or not, as the case may have been). How surprised Matheson would have been to discover that 35 years later, the doctrine of transubstatiation is well and truly on the rebound, with Eucharistic Adoration playing a significant role in the New Evangelisation, having been encouraged by our two great popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Ask any young person who attended World Youth Day in either Cologne or Sydney what the highlight was, and they will tell you: Eucharistic Adoration with the Holy Father. They may not be able to tell you exactly what transubstantiation is, but they will be able to tell you that “That’s Jesus up there”.

So. Matheson was mystified as to why Cardinal Contarini should be so contrary with regard to the doctrine of transubstantiation in his dialouge with the protestant leaders. We today find this so self-evident that to require explanation seems superfluous.

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27 Responses to When the rot set in…

  1. Peregrinus says:

    An innocent query: is Matheson correct to say that “the death blow was given by the controversy over transubstantiation”? Does he in fact mean “the controversy over the Real Presence”? The overall thrust of his comments would seem to make a lot more sense if we assume either that he has confused the two (though from other points he makes I think that’s unlikely), or that he is simply incorrect to say that the controversy was about transsubstantiation.

    • Schütz says:

      My guess is that the controversy was about the actual doctrine of Transubstantiation, not the Real presence, as Lutherans have always taught the latter but not the former. (see my comments below). I haven’t read the whole chapter yet, and will report back.

      • Gareth says:


        I do not pretend to be an expert on the teaching of Lutheranism, but regarding the statement that the Lutheran Church have the same teaching as the Catholic Church on the ‘real presence’, from my own understanding I would answer ‘yes’ but also add a footnote that ‘in a different way to the Catholic Church’

        I have done some googling and found a website that explains this better:

        Lutheran eucharistic theology is quite close to Catholic faith in some respects. The 1978 Lutheran-Roman Catholic Final Report on the Eucharist states: “Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians together confess the real and true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist.

        There are differences, however, in theological statements on the mode and therefore duration of the real presence.”

        The Report continues: “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that ‘Christ whole and entire’ becomes present through the transformation of the whole substance of the bread and the wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ while the empirically accessible appearances of bread and wine (accidentia) continue to exist unchanged. This ‘wonderful and singular change is most aptly called “transubstantiation” by the Catholic Church.’ ”

        Lutherans, the same document points out, “have given expression to the reality of the eucharistic presence by speaking of a presence of Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under bread and wine — but not of transubstantiation.”

        Nevertheless, “The Lutheran tradition affirms the Catholic tradition that the consecrated elements do not simply remain bread and wine but rather by the power of the creative word are given as the body and blood of Christ. In this sense Lutherans also could occasionally speak, as does the Greek tradition, of a ‘change.’

        Do you think this is a fair assesment and good thing to keep in mind considering that Catholics worship Our Lord in the Eucharist in many different practices and modes (some of which you already mentioned) from any other church, or supposedly are meant to.

        • Weedon says:

          In my view it is a fair assessment; by “in, with, and under” the Lutherans were seeking really to affirm nothing other than Pope Gelasius asserted when he wrote:

          Certainly the sacraments of the body and blood of Christ are a divine thing, through which we are made partakers of the divine nature; and yet the substance or nature of bread and wine does not cease to be.

          • Kiran says:

            But surely, if he said that, he was using “substance or nature” very loosely. Because how can one thing be two things at the same time under the same mode?

            • Weedon says:

              I think the “how” he was magnificently leaving in the Hands of Him who knows best Who knows all. He was speaking in accordance with the language of the Scriptures, where the consecrated bread is still called bread, even as it is also called and most certainly IS, Christ’s Body or the “koinonia” of Christ’s Body.

            • Weedon says:

              P.S. Theodoret ran along the same lines:

              For even after the consecration the mystic symbols are not deprived of their own nature; they remain in their former substance figure and form; they are visible and tangible as they were before. But they are regarded as what they are become, and believed so to be, and are worshipped as being what they are believed to be. – Theodoret, Dialogues II

            • Kiran says:

              Yes. Fair enough, but I think that is a very “ordinary language” use (which should not be excluded from theology). On the other hand, Aquinas’ point of view still holds, I think, as a more precise statement of the same. In the same sense perhaps that one could say “Qui Manducat …” and affirm that we do not actually chew on the flesh of Christ when we chew on the Consecrated Host, but we do consume the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

  2. Kiran says:

    On the other hand, Our Mutual Friend, Pastor Pearce, made the extraordinarily interesting and very relevant point (as I understood him) that Lutherans, for all intents and purposes, accept transubstantiation. His actual point, as I remember it, was that what is involved in the acceptance of transubstantiation is not Aristotle, but the Real Presence, and that Lutherans do not dispute (which to quote him – and agree – is the make-or-break issue) that people who consume the Eucharist in a state of sin still consume Christ.

    • Peregrinus says:

      Well, we very rapidly get into “it all depends on what you mean by” territory. In the red corner, you have Fraser Pearce suggesting (if it be the case) that who accepts the Real Presence in effect accepts Transsubstantiation – and I doubt that he’s alone there. In the blue corner, an array of Orthodox or Anglican theologians affirming the Real Presence but either rejecting Transsubstantiation or affirming that one may reject it and still affirm the Real Presence. I can’t but suspect that which corner one occupies depends to some extent on whether one’s desire to affirm one’s catholocity outweighs one’s desire to reject Romanism, or vice versa. And we’ve no idea which corner Matheson occupies.

      Is it any wonder that it all came to the Thirty Years’ War?

      • Kiran says:

        Perry, I think the question is a different one. I am in the green corner, suggesting that to accept transubstantiation is not to accept (though I myself happen so to do) Aristotle.

        I certainly do not think (though I am willing to be told I am wrong) accepting Transubstantiation in the Thomistic sense in any way conflicts with anything in Orthodox Theology. Obviously, if one overemphasizes certain elements, you run into issues, but Thomas’ Eucharistic theology is broader than “When I finish uttering the “m” of meum, and at no time before or after, bread ceases to be, and Jesus is here”, and Western Eucharistic theology is broader than Thomas (though I for one believe that Thomas is friendlier to Orthodox understandings than most other Western alternatives), and Catholic Eucharistic theology is even broader than Western Eucharistic theology. It is Catholic theology, I think, that is committed to transubstantiation. Thus, whatever transubstantiation is, it cannot be just a “western” or a “Thomistic” or an “Aristotelian” thing. And I think that is the crucial point. :-)

        Keep in mind too that this is me reporting what I took away from a conversation that took place a couple of months ago.

    • Schütz says:

      Kiran (and Fraser) is correct in one sense. Lutherans do not reject the fact of the real presence – they uphold what they would call a “sacramental union” of the visible element of bread and wine with the invisible but very real presence of the body and blood of Christ. To all intents and purposes, their teaching on the Real Presence is identical to ours.

      Lutherans would uphold, for instance, the doctrine that both the faithful and the unfaithful communicant still receive the body of Christ. They would also (classically, at least) uphold the teaching that he who chews the host “munches on the body of Christ”.

      What they reject is Aristotelian philosophical category of transubstantiation for describing this mystery. For the same reason, they cannot be accused of teaching “consubstantiation” – a term that does not appear in any of their doctrinal statements – although in practice, this is often what many of them actually believe.

      By the way, Perry, this post wasn’t about what Matheson believed with regard to the Real Presence. It was about what he believed in regard to the direction the Catholic Church was taking on the matter in 1972. In that he was (as I have pointed out) an innocent bystander.

  3. Kiran says:

    By the way, what do the Finns have to say on this whole matter of Lutherans and the Real Presence?

    • Lance Eccles says:

      A few years ago the Finnish government put out a doctrine on what Finnish Lutherans are supposed to believe. This said, from what I recall of was reported to me, that Christ is actually present in the bread and wine, even though it is a mystery how this can be.

  4. Tony Bartel says:

    I thought the rot set in in 1054 :-)

  5. Weedon says:

    Just as a side note to this interesting conversation, I find it quite interesting that two of Thomas’ hymns are in the latest LCMS hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, so that we have Lutherans cheerfully singing:

    Word made flesh, the bread He taketh,
    By His Word His flesh to be;
    Wine His sacred blood He maketh
    Though the senses fail to see;
    Faith alone the true heart waketh
    To behold the mystery. (Now My Tongue, LSB 630:4)


    Thee we adore, O hidden Savior, Thee,
    Who in Thy Sacrament art pleased to be;
    Both flesh and spirit in Thy presence fail,
    Yet here Thy presence we devoutly hail. (Thee We Adore, LSB 640:1)

    As David has said; when it comes to Transubstantiation, Lutherans reject an Aristotelian philosophical explanation, not the truth that our Lord makes the bread to be His body or the wine His most precious blood.

  6. Joshua says:

    Given those LCMS hymns of such provenance, between consecration and communion, do Lutherans worship and adore Our Lord present in His Sacrament, as they believe?

    I understand that, with perhaps very rare exceptions, Lutherans do not reserve any of the consecrated species, so this period in the liturgy would be the only one when this question would arise.

    It is a question of the right use of the sacrament, is it not? Of course, Augustine has it that not only is it no sin to adore Christ present in the Eucharist, it would be sinful not to so adore Him.

    • Schütz says:

      Luther, following Augustine, said the same thing – and used it to explain why one should kneel to receive the sacrament (the direct opposite of the “Black Rubric” in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). But worship of the Eucharist was only proper during after the consecration until the “sacramental action” had finished, ie. until the sacred species had been consumed or the service ended. Luther personally probably held to the doctrine of the perduration of the Real Presence, but officially Lutherans have tended to shy away from this affirmation.

    • Weedon says:

      Dear Joshua,

      Yes, we adore Christ present in His Eucharist. Probably the most popular hymn we sing during distribution is: “O Lord we praise Thee, bless Thee, and adore Thee, in thanksgiving bow before Thee…” It is also a widespread custom in the Missouri Synod to receive the most holy Sacrament upon our knees.

      But even though we do adore our Lord in the Sacrament, we always emphasize that receiving our adoration is not the reason our Lord instituted the Sacrament – rather that He might impart to us His body and blood for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. The point that Vatican II made about the over-riding importance of receiving the Eucharist is one that we certainly resonate with.

      • Schütz says:

        And yet – apart from some questionable doubts about the perduration of the real presence – I have never really understood why Eucharist Adoration outside the Eucharist should be so anathema to Lutherans. Once we grant that the purpose of the sacrament is to “eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins”, why should there be a problem with offering adoration outside the Eucharistic liturgy itself as an extension from and a pointer to the the Eucharistic celebration? It would be a bit like saying one ought not to adore God Incarnate in Christ because Christ did not become incarnate in order to be adored but in order to redeem us.

  7. Kiran says:

    Agreeing with all of the above, I have a couple of additions.

    As Anthony Kenny pointed out, transubstantiation, far from being an Aristotelian concept, makes absolutely no sense in the Aristotelian world-view. Thomas, as he frequently does, is subverting Aristotle here. To say that bread is transubstantiated into Christ is not, as it is often interpreted, to say that there is an imperceptible “breadness” that makes bread bread, and that this breadness vanishes to be replaced by “Christness” but simply that this here bread becomes Christ. But then Aquinas deals with the problem: This here bread looks like bread, tastes, and breaks and all such things as does bread. Does that mean that those “outward properties” have become the outward properties of Christ? No. Importantly no.
    The accidents have ceased to be accidents of anything at all, except to point to Christ. Because what is done to the outward properties isn’t done to Christ. So that when the Host is divided, Christ is not divided. Likewise, one does not, properly speaking, chew (or munch) on the body of Christ. We consume Him, for better or for worse. Likewise too, Christ isn’t a prisoner in the tabernacle: He is present there, and continues to be present for as long as the accidents still remain, but Christ as such is beyond change and . There is nothing miraculous about these secondary consequences. What is miraculous (and beyond explanation) is simply the change itself.

    Now all of this said, I think Aquinas hangs together, and has contributed something of value, but to reject Aquinas is not to reject Transubstantiation. Transubstantiation was around for a while before Aquinas came along (as Pastor Pearce pointed out). I suspect though that the more and more one denies certain conclusions (like the three I denied above) from Eucharistic doctrine as false, the closer we will get to Thomas’ own position.

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