The well-known dogma of the Catholic Faith on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist can be summarized as follows:
“Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in a unique and incomparable way. He is present in a true, real and substantial way, with his Body and his Blood, with his Soul and his Divinity. In the Eucharist, therefore, there is present in a sacramental way, that is, under the Eucharistic Species of bread and wine, Christ whole and entire, God and Man” (Compendium, n. 282).
To the above succinct summary, we can add the infallible Canons of the Council of Trent:
“CANON I. If any one denies that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but says that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or power; let him be anathema.
“CANON II. If any one says, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood — the species Only of the bread and wine remaining — which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, 13th session)
But few Catholics realize that it was the Council of Florence, about a hundred years before the Council of Trent, which first defined the doctrine of transubstantiation (though without the term itself).
“The form of this sacrament are the words of the Saviour with which he effected this sacrament. A priest speaking in the person of Christ effects this sacrament. For, in virtue of those words, the substance of bread is changed into the body of Christ and the substance of wine into his blood. In such wise, however, that the whole Christ is contained both under the form of bread and under the form of wine, under any part of the consecrated host as well as after division of the consecrated wine, there is the whole Christ.” (Council of Florence, 8th Session)
There are several important truths within the Church’s one dogma on transubstantiation:
1. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ.
2. In the same instant, the soul and Divinity of Christ also become present.
3. Christ is then wholly present, with his whole human nature (body and soul) and His Divine Nature.
4. Christ’s presence is true, real, substantial, and sacramental, but hidden under the appearances of bread and wine.
5. The body of Christ present in the Eucharist is His glorified body; this is true even of the Eucharist of the Last Supper.
Common errors on transubstantiation:
Error 1. that the substance of bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s soul and Divinity, as well as His body and blood.
Error 2. that the substance of bread and wine are annihilated (return to nothing) and are replaced with the real presence of Christ.
Error 3. that the body of Christ present in the Eucharist at the Last Supper, before His death and resurrection, was not His glorified body.
Error 4. that Christ is not physically present in the Eucharist.
Is Christ’s presence physical? The answer depends on what we mean by the word physical.
Human nature, including the human nature of Christ, has a physical part, the body (or, as we say, body and blood), and a spiritual part, the soul. It would be a heresy to claim that Christ is present in the Eucharist without the physical part of His human nature, or without the spiritual part of His human nature, or without His Divine Nature. So He is physically present in the sense that the physical part of His human nature is wholly present.
However, the physical part of His human nature is glorified. The Eucharist includes both His Divine Nature and His glorified human nature: a glorified soul and a glorified body. Concerning the body of Christ: we do not eat a piece of literal flesh, nor drink a cup of literal blood. We consume the whole Christ, with His glorified human nature united to His Divine Nature.
But the glorified body is still physical; it has not been changed into something spiritual, as if the human nature of Christ would then consist of a spiritual part, the soul, and another spiritual part, like a second soul. The glorified body (even our glorified bodies after the general Resurrection) has abilities, given to it as a gift from God, beyond the physical. Adam and Eve, before the Fall, had preternatural abilities, abilities beyond nature. But this is true for the glorified bodies of the resurrected just to an even greater extent. These glorified bodies are still physical bodies, but they have been transformed to exceed the limits of the merely physical. And such is the case for the glorified body of Christ as well.
How is a glorified body related to molecules, to that which constitutes non-glorified material objects? The answer is a mystery. But the glorified body cannot be unrelated to its non-glorified state; it cannot be unrelated to molecules. (If it were, we could not say ‘body and blood’ to describe the physical part of His human nature in the Eucharist.) For if such were the case, then it would not be a glorified version of the body in life; such a proposition would in effect deny that the general Resurrection is a resurrection, implying instead that the event is the creation of a new body. So the glorified body must still be physical, even in the sense of having some relationship to all that is essential in a physical object (its substance).
And such is the case with the physical presence of the body and blood of Christ (the physical part of the human nature of Christ) in the Eucharist. Since we must by faith believe that Christ is wholly present in the Eucharist, with His whole human nature and His whole Divine Nature, we cannot hold that the physical presence of Christ’s human nature in the Eucharist is anything less than if He were standing, glorified, right in front of us — except that in the Eucharist He is hidden. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is no less physical than when He returns from Heaven (body, blood, soul, Divinity) in the last days.
Faith and love enable us to recognize the whole Lord — body, blood, soul, Divinity — physically and spiritually present under the appearances of bread and wine.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator