Eucharistic Presence: "More than physical"–but not less

Poor old Pete’s been fighting a battle up north on the issue of whether it is appropriate to descrive the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as “physical”. He’s got Paul VI on his side, but unfortunately not many others.

So I was interested to read this on the First Things blog the other day, by our dear Father Neuhaus:

Theologians of an orthodox persuasion sometimes say that the Real Presence does not mean physical presence. This is to guard against the debased notion of a cannibalistic consumption of a portion of human flesh and blood. That is indeed a gross distortion of our being encountered by, and receiving body and soul, the living Christ in his humanity and divinity. Yet I have come across people who are deeply troubled when they hear it said that the Real Presence is not a physical presence. They misunderstand that to mean that his presence is less than physical, when the point is that his presence is more than physical. The physical is part of the finitude of space and time, which is both embraced and transcended in the wonder of God become man. Finitum capax infiniti.

That (as RJN himself would say) sounds about right. The Resurrrection is an analogy: to insist on the “physical” resurrection, sounds as if you are talking about a resuscitation. In opposition to this, many (the Spong types) want to talk about a “spiritual” resurrection. But as N.T. Wright and many others point out, a first century Jew could never have spoken of “resurrection” if the body was still lying in the tomb. The resurrection was obviously more than physical (Christ’s resurrected body was no longer limited by time or space)–but certainly not less.

The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is surely in the same category. It is odd how people define the real presence in such a way that it seems less, rather than more, real. Physical is real, as any scientist will try to convince you. A Catholic theologian will agree–but he will also point out that there is a reality that is more, not less, real than merely physical. It is that bodily presence that is not limited by time and space. And this is the sort of Presence that we call really Real in the Eucharist. Thus when Paul VI called the Real Presence “physical”, he added the same caveat that Aquinas did:

Christ is present whole and entire in His physical “reality,” corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place. (Myterium Fidei 46)

Yes, Peter, it is physical. And you are right to oppose those who would try to say it is anything less. But it is also more than physical.

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7 Responses to Eucharistic Presence: "More than physical"–but not less

  1. Peter says:

    A philosopher friend advised me to carefully define how I use the word ‘physical’ in this debate before arguing my case. Wise advice I think. Most of the problem seems to be that people are over simplifying ‘physical’ to mean ‘measureable’. That is, they use ‘physical’ in the same way SAt Thomas uses ‘accidents’.

    I think I need to post on this myself rather than try to formulate my thoughts here.

  2. Jeff Tan says:

    Very good post here; I’d never thought of it that way.

    Perhaps the question is on what “Real” means. It would be a mistake to suggest that the the physical universe is the exclusive realm of what is real.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    I think the reason why this tends to be such a fraught discussion is the pervasive heresy of materialism..

    As you rightly say, David, the physical is real, but a materialist would assert that only the physical is real. And I think that many of those who are a little shrill in insisting that the Real Presence must be physical are, without realising it, affected by materialism. They fear that if the Real Presence is not physical, then it is somehow less real.

    I think myself that this is a mistake. To insist on the physicality of the Real Presence is to misrepresent it. If we go back to the substance/accidents language of transubstantiation, then all the properties and characteristics that “physical” normally refers to – texture, shape, colour, molecular and atomic structure, how a substance reacts or combines with other substances, weight, density, conductivity, electrical charge, magnetic properties, everything – is “accidental”. And, as the language of transubstantiation reminds us, the accidents of bread and wine remain. Hence it is (at least) defensible to say that, physically, the consecrated elements are bread and wine. To deny this is arguably to misrepresent the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation.

    If we want to say that the consecrated elements are, physically, the body and blood of Christ, we have to use a highly qualified and unusual sense of the word “physical” – so heavily qualified, in fact, that I question the value or appropriateness of using the word at all. Are we doing anything more than using it as a synonym for “real”? In which case, would we not do better to avoid it? Using “physical” as a synonym for “real” appeals to, and reinforces, an erroneous materialism. This is not a good start to Eucharistic catechesis.

    The converse also applies. To say that the consecrated elements are physically bread and wine, although I think strictly true, paints a misleading picture if we stop there. We need to go on and say that the are really the body and blood of Christ, and to explain why this reality does not depend on physicality.

    Either way, the term “physical” is a hindrance, not a help. The conclusion that I think I am groping towards is that the concept of physicality is not a helpful one for understanding the Real Presence, and is probably best avoided, unless we want to explore the difference between reality and physicality.

  4. Schütz says:

    The only circumstance in which I would insist that the word “physical” has its uses in the Eucharistic debate is, as in the Resurrection debate, to forstall any well-intentioned but misdirected spiritualising of the Real Presence.

  5. Peregrinus says:

    “The only circumstance in which I would insist that the word “physical” has its uses in the Eucharistic debate is, as in the Resurrection debate, to forstall any well-intentioned but misdirected spiritualising of the Real Presence.”

    Mmmm. We need to be a bit careful here. Definitive teaching on the Real Presence never uses the word “physical”, but it does use the word “spiritual”. So “spiritualizing” the doctrine is not inherently misdirected; it is, if anything, closer to the mark than “physicalising” it would be.

    I suggest that the best use for the word “physical” in this context is in the sentence “stop thinking about the word ‘physical’”! When you think about it, ordinary human experience readily recognises as real, and as significant, things which are not physical at all. (Example: a credit balance in a bank account. Or, even more significant to most of us, a debit balance in a bank account.) It shouldn’t be difficult to lead people to understand that an examination of physicality is a bit of a distraction when it comes to answering the question “is Christ really present in the Eucharist?”

    Fr Joseph Ratzginger, as he then was, published an essay in 1978 on The Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament, in which his only use of the word ‘physical’ was in the statement that the consecrated elements “from a purely physical point of view . . . remain the same”. He explains consecration in terms of the Lord “taking possession” of the elements and “lifting them up . . . out of the setting of their normal existence into a new order”, as a result of which “they have become profoundly different”. The transformations from flour and water and grape juice into bread and wine are physical transformations; the transformation from bread and wine into body and blood is a much more profound transformation and operates on an entirely different and greater level of reality. A consideration of physicality is of no help in understanding the nature of this reality, and this transformation.

  6. Christine says:

    Great post.

    Kudos to Father Neuhaus and everyone posting here.

  7. Christine says:

    Great post.

    Kudos to Father Neuhaus and everyone posting here.

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