As we have already seen, transubstantiation, in its affirmation or denial, is an important identity marker for both Catholics and Protestants, even while many people in both groups do not clearly understand whet the term entails.
Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, Brett Salkeld
The practice of the ecumenical movement in its official documents has been to ignore or marginalize the term transubstantiation. Some have lauded this move, as it allowed for dialogue on the concept and meaning, as opposed to a focus on the term itself.
It would seem to me a good way to start. Avoid the term; just discuss what each group understands about the eucharist. Are the concepts aligned or not? If the concepts are aligned, does the terminology matter? In any case, the attempt to downplay the term failed.
It would seem that the decision to avoid or marginalize the term actually created anxiety about it, while a decision to address it head-on would have relieved such anxiety.
Ignoring the elephant in the room does nothing to change the reality that the elephant is, in fact, in the room. Salkeld suggests that given some of the writing of participants in such movements, these had the capacity to address the issue directly. For example, an Anglican bishop would write “…that Christ himself is really present…”, a phrasing with which Catholics who have studied the term could agree. Salkeld suspects that Lutherans could also accept such language.
Yet, Catholics needed reassurance that what their Church understood as transubstantiation was “indicated adequately”; Anglicans were worried that the term was allowed through the back door; a third group was glad to see it marginalized!
Neither of these latter groups, however, demonstrated any knowledge about what the term in question actually means.
One of the commissions would write “becoming does not here imply material change. Nor does the liturgical use of the word imply that the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood in such a way that in the eucharistic celebration his presence is limited to the consecrated elements.”
It does not imply that Christ becomes present in the eucharist in the same manner that he was present in the earthly life. It does not imply that this becoming follows the physical laws of this world. What is here affirmed is a sacramental presence in which God uses the realities of this world to convey the realities of the new creation: bread for this life becomes bread of eternal life.
Salkeld finds this paragraph – written by a joint commission – is a very satisfying paragraph to a Catholic. Yet because the term goes unmentioned, it doesn’t clear up the confusion regarding the term. Is the term repudiated or affirmed? Does the word “becoming” without reference to the term “transubstantiation” diminish the meaning of the latter? Does “transubstantiation” imply material change while “becoming” does not?
Had the commission adverted to the fact that the above quoted paragraph aligns very precisely with what Catholics actually mean by “transubstantiation,” both the Catholic and the Anglican reader would have been reassured.
Following further clarification, it would be determined that the Final Report of the commission expressed what was intended by the Council of Trent in the use of the term. So, what’s the problem? Largely, Christians will not accept statements of faith if these are not articulated in accustomed language.
What is affirmed as an outcome of ecumenical dialogue must be deemed synonymous with one’s faith. The terms need not be the same, but the statement must affirm that the meaning conforms to the terms. But this is the largest hurdle on the term transubstantiation.
Paul VI did not deny, in 1965, the legitimacy of fresh ways to express the change, even by using new words, as long as these words reflected the intention. For example, Rome recognizes the eucharistic faith of the Orthodox Church, even though they use a different term to describe it.
When it comes to the laity, if the term is not affirmed – no matter that the intention is captured – many Catholics will not be satisfied. If the term is not denied, Protestants will be equally put off regardless of the meaning. Yet all affirm Christ’s presence. The identity marker will be the stumbling block.
Many churches that are careful to reject transubstantiation make no attempt to define it.
What do the Orthodox mean by the “transformation” of the elements? How else might the Catholic Church express what is happening? For those Protestants that deny any “essential change,” what, exactly, are they affirming?
…if there is to be any rapprochement on the question of eucharistic presence between the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant groups, then the issue of transubstantiation must be tackled head-on.
Salkeld will offer: what is being rejected by the various Protestant groups is almost the opposite of what Aquinas intended. What if he is correct?