Sunday, October 11, 2009

Question on the Real Presence


Some time ago when I was in college I recall hearing a quote from St. Thomas which said that "Christ is not present in the Blessed Sacrament as to a place." This confused me, since I always thought Catholic teaching is that Christ is present physically in the Blessed Sacrament. Can you clarify this for me?

Before I begin with this, I want to say that I am not an expert in St. Thomas or Scholastic theology, so if this is a little off point I would appreciate any clarification - but I will answer to the best of my meager ability.

The statement of St. Thomas, I believe, is found in STh III, 76.5, where the question being discussed is Whether Christ's body is in this sacrament as in a place? St. Thomas' ultimate answer to the question is in the negative, and St. Thomas says "Christ's body is not in this sacrament as in a place."

This certainly can be confusing, and I think I may have heard of some evangelical Protestants haphazardly tossing around this phrase as some sort of "proof" that St. Thomas did not believe in the Real Presence as understood from time immemorial. Clearly Thomas believed no such thing (I would be hard pressed to believe that the composer of Adoro Te Devote, O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum Ergo disbelieved in the Real Presence); therefore we can I think safely and immediately rule out any interpretation that would impugn the fidelity of St. Thomas. The correct answer must be of a more technical and semantic nature.

Part of the problem with these sorts of questions is the imprecision with which we are used to speaking about the Blessed Sacrament. Even very orthodox Catholics sometimes use language that is improper when talking about the Sacrament. Sometime back, I was speaking about the Sacrament and used the terminology that the Lord was present "under the forms of bread and wine." My pastor, whose field of study was Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy, pulled me aside and said that this language was not acceptable due to the metaphysical implications of the word "form." He told me that I ought to only refer to the "species" of bread and wine, "the appearance" or bread and wine, or the "signs" of bread and wine, but never the forms. I am not astute enough at Aristotelian hylomorphism to grasp the subtleties implied by the word form, but the point is that precision of language is needed when dealing with the Sacrament (does anyone know what the issue with "form" is? If so, let me know).

In Article 5 of Question 76, St. Thomas proposes to answer the question of whether Christ is present in the sacrament as in a place. He has already established in the preceding articles that Christ is truly present in the species and in every particle of the species. Now he attempts to describe how Christ's presence in the sacrament (already asserted and assumed here) relates to the physical place in which the sacrament is consecrated locally.

The real question Thomas is getting at is whether, in the physical locale where any given Sacrament is consecrated or reserved, the Body of Jesus Christ can be said to fill that place. Here Thomas is drawing a distinction between the species themselves and the place occupied by the species. Clearly, the whole Christ is present in the sacred species, even to the smallest fragment (III, Q. 76, Art. 4.). So though it is certain that Christ's whole substance is contained in the sacred species, this is a different question from whether or not the physical place the sacred species occupy is filled by Christ. It is this latter question that St. Thomas answers in the negative.

Thomas notes that, "The place and the object placed must be equal, as is clear from the Philosopher (Phys. iv). But the place, where this sacrament is, is much less than the body of Christ. Therefore Christ's body is not in this sacrament as in a place." Since the particular place occupied by the species is less than Christ's body, it is not possible that a single place could encompass the whole Christ or be filled with it.

It is important to note that St. Thomas does not regard the sacred species as a "place", even though their accidents can be said to occupy space. St. Thomas would not say that Christ was present in the sacrament "physically", as we are accustomed to do, but would rather say that His mode of presence is according to substance, or that it is a sacramental presence. We'd better let him explain it:

I answer that, As stated above (1, ad 3; 3), Christ's body is in this sacrament not after the proper manner of dimensive quantity, but rather after the manner of substance. But every body occupying a place is in the place according to the manner of dimensive quantity, namely, inasmuch as it is commensurate with the place according to its dimensive quantity. Hence it remains that Christ's body is not in this sacrament as in a place, but after the manner of substance, that is to say, in that way in which substance is contained by dimensions; because the substance of Christ's body succeeds the substance of bread in this sacrament: hence as the substance of bread was not locally under its dimensions, but after the manner of substance, so neither is the substance of Christ's body. Nevertheless the substance of Christ's body is not the subject of those dimensions, as was the substance of the bread: and therefore the substance of the bread was there locally by reason of its dimensions, because it was compared with that place through the medium of its own dimensions; but the substance of Christ's body is compared with that place through the medium of foreign dimensions, so that, on the contrary, the proper dimensions of Christ's body are compared with that place through the medium of substance; which is contrary to the notion of a located body.

Somewhat intricate, but here is what he is getting at. If I say "My cat is on the counter," and if this in fact true, this means that the cat fully occupies the space at which it is present; it is present on the counter, whole and entire, and in such a way that excludes its presence anywhere else. If the cat is on the counter, this means is it necessarily not on the floor or on the bed. This is what it means for the cat to be present on the counter "as in a place." Yet this is not the way Christ is present in the Sacrament - if He were, it would not be possible for Him to be present on all the altars of the world, but only in one locally, just like during His earthly life we could say that He was present in Palestine "as to a place." Yet this is not the manner of His sacramental presence.

Christ's body is fully contained in the sacred species because of the relation of substance to dimension. Thomas notes that when the substance of our Lord succeeds the substance of bread, the accidents remain, but there is an important change: whereas the accidents of the bread are natural to the dimensive qualities of the substance of bread, the dimensive qualities of the Body of Christ are foreign to the accidents of bread (this could not exist in nature, and it is only miraculously that the accidents remain at all). Thus, though the species take up space according to their accidental properties, it cannot be said in anyway that the whole Christ is present locally in that space or that the space can contain Christ exclusively (inasmuch as what is contains is greater than that which is contained).

St. Thomas says in the same Question (III.76, 5):

Hence in no way is Christ's body locally in this sacrament... Christ's body is not in this sacrament definitively, because then it would be only on the particular altar where this sacrament is performed: whereas it is in heaven under its own species, and on many other altars under the sacramental species. Likewise it is evident that it is not in this sacrament circumscriptively, because it is not there according to the commensuration of its own quantity, as stated above. But that it is not outside the superficies of the sacrament, nor on any other part of the altar, is due not to its being there definitively or circumscriptively, but to its being there by consecration and conversion of the bread and wine, as stated above (1; 15, 2, sqq.).

What St. Thomas is arguing against here is any idea of a local presence which would exclude the possibility of His presence elsewhere, and he notes that this is due to the nature of Christ's presence in the sacred species. I admit I am a little muddled on the last sentence here, but I think I get the drift. So while Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, His real Presence is different from the presence He had upon earth, though both are "physical." His earthly presence was physical but also local, and the dimensive properties of his earthy body and its accidents were commensurate with the properties of His substance. In the Blessed Sacrament, Christ is present in a physical, literal manner but not locally or "circumspectly", as if He is present only upon one altar. The qualities of Christ's Body are foreign to the accidents of the bread, which is why a miracle is necessary to hold the accidents of the species in place while the substance of Christ succeeds the substance of bread. The species become His body by substance but cannot contain it locally because He is greater than any place.

I think this is what St. Thomas is getting at - can anyone offer any clarifications or correct me if I have gone astray here?

Click here for a link to III.76, 5


Mr S said...

What St. Thomas is arguing against here is any idea of a local presence which would exclude the possibility of His presence elsewhere, and he notes that this is due to the nature of Christ's presence in the sacred species.

I think that sums (no pun)it up. Unlike other things of "matter", Christ is not restricted by place and time

This would agree with the doctrine of the Atonement, which non-Catholics have also mis-understood.

Sean said...

Hello Boniface. Regarding 'form' I think it is that form is too easily taken to refer to the Platonic Forms with all the problems of such (eg: each particular would seem to need its own particular Form which kind of destroys the idea of universal Forms) whereas species is part of the Aristotelian solution to these problems of Form (species contain differences but remain a single species, the form can become universal because the differences arise from a single form being expressed in matter differently).

Anonymous said...

I'll take a stab at the form question:

I have two thoughts that are related:

First, I believe that the soul gives form to the body. Vegetative soul for plants, sensitive soul for animals, and rational soul for human persons. Christ had a human soul, giving form to His human body, which He received from Our Lady. He has no soul to give a form of bread or wine. This would be a category error, I think.

Second, Christ in the Incarnation, took the form of a man. He became True God and True Man. Thus the divine person took the form of a man. In the Eucharist, He does not take the form of bread. He is present body, blood, soul, and divinity, while appearing to be something that He is not - bread. He does not become True God, True Man, and True Bread. The bread is gone, only the accidents (appearances) remain. Yet Christ is there, both True God and True Man.

I hope I made some sense.