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“”If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes will turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you've lost your mind, but if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.
Transubstantiation is the miracle of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths which occurs during the Eucharist, when the Priest converts the wine and host (a cracker) to the actual blood and body of Christ. This ritualistic cannibalism is a major part of Roman Catholic ceremonies.
Transubstantiation, real presence, and the Eucharist
Transubstantiation falls at the far end of a sliding scale of complex doctrines on real presence (essentially the question of whether or not and to what extent Jesus is actually present in the Eucharist). Other responses to this question include the Eastern Orthodox doctrine which regards the Eucharist as a theological mystery (this deserves its own article, really) but which is otherwise more or less in line with the doctrine of transubstantiation. Many Protestants (especially Anglicans and Lutherans) believe in consubstantiation - the idea that Christ himself and the bread of the wafer are both fully and equally present in the Eucharist. Symbolic presence is the default position of most other denominations, and should not require further explanation.
Note that the original formulation of the doctrine of transubstantiation occurred at a time in the very early history of the Christian church when atomic materialism was not the usual view of natural philosophy. Within the antiquated paradigm it makes a strange sort of sense, but in the present day, it is perhaps one of the most nonsensical rituals in the Catholic church.
Council of Trent ruling
From the council of Trent (1545-1563):
- If anyone denies that the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, but says that Christ is present in the Sacrament only as in a sign or figure, or by his power: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that the substance of bread and wine remains in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist together with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and extraordinary change of the whole substance of the bread into Christ's body and the whole substance of the wine into his blood while only the species of bread and wine remain, a change which the Catholic Church has most fittingly called transubstantiation: let him be anathema.
- If anyone denies that in the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist the whole Christ is contained under each species and under each and every portion of either species when it is divided up: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that after the consecration the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are not present in the marvelous sacrament of the Eucharist, but are present only in the use of the sacrament while it is being received, and not before or after, and that the true body of the Lord does not remain in the consecrated hosts or particles that are kept or are left over after the Communion: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that the principle effect of the most holy Eucharist is the forgiveness of sins, or that other effects do not come from the Eucharist: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is not to be adored in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship of latria, including the external worship, and that the Sacrament, thererfore, is not to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations nor solemnly carried from place to place in processions according to the praiseworthy universal rite and custom of the holy Church; or that the Sacrament is not to be publicly exposed for the people's adoration, and that those who adore it are idolators: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that it is not permissible to keep the sacred Eucharist in a holy place, but that it must necessarily be distributed immediately after the consecration to those who are present; or that it is not permissible to carry the Eucharist respectfully to the sick: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that Christ present in the Eucharist is only spiritually eaten and not sacramentally and really as well: let him be anathema.
- If anyone denies that each and everyone of Christ's faithful of both sexes, is bound, when he reaches the age of reason, to receive Communion at least every year during the Paschal season according to the command of holy Mother Church: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that it is not permissible for a priest celebrating Mass to give Communion to himself: let him be anathema.
- If anyone says that faith alone is a sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist: let him be anathema. And, lest this great sacrament be received unworthily and thus be received unto death and condemnation, this holy council has determined and decreed that those who have mortal sin on their conscience, no matter how contrite they may think they are, must necessarily make a sacramental confession before receiving, provided that they have access to a confessor. If anyone presumes to teach, or preach, or stubbornly maintain, or defend in public disputation the opposite of this, he is excommunicated by his action.
So you had best believe it.
Transubstantiation all hangs on a literal interpretation of Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:17-20, where Jesus is quoted as saying (this one from Matthew) "Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body" and, further on, (from Luke this time) "this do in remembrance of me". Biblical literalists are left with no doubt—if Jesus said it it must be true.
The artist Michael Craig-Martin presented a piece of work entitled An Oak Tree in 1973 that perhaps best explains how people think transubstantiation actually works. Despite An Oak Tree consisting of nothing more than a glass of water, the artist declared that it was actually a full grown oak tree. As he explained: "it's not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn't change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water." So now that's all cleared up, anyone for crackers?