Monday, June 11, 2012

The Transubstantiation Vexation

There has been a whole lot of pother recently, stirred up by those bad boys in The Irish Times, about what Irish Catholics actually believe happens to the communion bread and wine when they are consecrated. Two-thirds of Catholic polled believe that they merely "represent" the body and blood of our Lord, which would seem to make the consecration rather redundant.

Richard Dawkins, as could have been expected, took the poll as an opportunity to call on Catholics to admit that they do not believe what their Church teaches. Colum Kenny of the Sunday Independent, gallantly if ill-advisedly, rode to the aid of Irish Catholics, suggesting that they could still find the Eucharist meaningful if it was not the literal body and blood of Christ, adding: "Transubstantiation never made much sense to many believers. It makes even less sense today unless it can be reinterpreted and integrated into our scientific knowledge of physics and psychology."

What has physics and psychology got to do with it?

I can't comprehend Transubstantiation or the Trinity. That's partly the reason, Tertullian-like, that I believe in them. I don't understand the concept of curved space-time. I don't understand quantum mechanics. Why should metaphysics be any less mysterious than physics? It would seem anti-climactic if it was. I would rather Reality was built upon mystery than mundanity.

I do not believe the Fathers, Doctors, Popes and saints of the Church would have fought so heroically and doggedly-- guided by the Holy Spirit, of course-- to preserve truths of the Faith unless they were of surpassing importance. The fact that it took the Church centuries to even begin to comprehend them only underlines their supernatural significance. If the early Church had fought like a cornered dog over doctrines that quite patently had social or political or cultural implications-- the divine right of Emperors, say-- it would be a strong suggestion that the Church was merely human in nature. But when we see an institution resisting every trial and temptation, even unto persecution and death, to stand over doctrines that seem utterly unconnected to any human power struggle, we can suspect there is something supernatural at work.

For my own part, I don't have the slightest difficulty in accepting the doctrine of Transubstantiation, or of the Trinity. If, per impossible, the Pope announced tomorrow that the consecrated communion Host was merely a symbol, I would cease to be Catholic.

I was delighted to find, when reading the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, that Newman had expressed my own view perfectly:

"People say that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is difficult to believe; I did not believe the doctrine till I was a Catholic. I had no difficulty in believing it, as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God, and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation. It is difficult, impossible, to imagine, I grant;—but how is it difficult to believe? Yet Macaulay thought it so difficult to believe, that he had need of a believer in it of talents as eminent as Sir Thomas More, before he could bring himself to conceive that the Catholics of an enlightened age could resist "the overwhelming force of the argument against it." "Sir Thomas More," he says, "is one of the choice specimens of wisdom and virtue; and the doctrine of transubstantiation is a kind of proof charge. A faith which stands that test, will stand any test." But for myself, I cannot indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is; but I say, "Why should it not be? What's to hinder it? What do I know of substance or matter? just as much as the greatest philosophers, and that is nothing at all;"—so much is this the case, that there is a rising school of philosophy now, which considers phenomena to constitute the whole of our knowledge in physics. The Catholic doctrine leaves phenomena alone. It does not say that the phenomena go; on the contrary, it says that they remain; nor does it say that the same phenomena are in several places at once. It deals with what no one on earth knows any thing about, the material substances themselves."

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