The doctrine of transubstantiation, that the Eucharist contains the substance of Jesus Christ–His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity–but not the “acccidents”, uses terms derived from Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle.
Substance was, for Aristotle, what makes a thing what-it-is. What does it mean “to be”? The Latin verb “to be” is esse, from which we get essence. A thing’s substance is its essence.
Classic example: a man is a man. His having a beard is an “accident”, because he can have a beard or not have a beard and still be a man.
Anything that is not necessary to one’s being is an “accident.” Anything necessary is a “substance.”
Modern science has basically turned that around and said that a “substance” is that which is. Just the thing in front of you. In chemistry, any finite object is a “substance.”
A human, considered as a human, is a “substance.” A cell, considered as a cell, is a “substance.” A DNA molecule, qua DNA molecule, is a substance. And so on.
But Aristotle wanted something deeper. Plato said that substances didn’t exist in this world: they’re “forms” of things in Heaven. Somewhere in Heaven, for Plato, there’s an IDEAL BED. There’s also an Ideal Sofa Bed. And there’s an Ideal version of the precise sofa bed I”m reclining on as I write this.
C. S. Lewis embodies this philosophy in the last chapters of The Last Battle.Aristotle could not see how substance could be refined to a purely spiritual reality, since things exist in a material plane. So he sought out how to define that which a substance is. Metaphysics is the field of study “beyond physics,” but philosophers have long debated whether that title is just bibliographic, as in “The book after Physics,” or “Physics, Level II”, or else it’s really “a field of study about things higher than what physics studies.”
Today, the proper study of metaphysics belongs to those who study quarks and dark matter and relativity and quantum physics.
Medical science probes the human brain and discovers parts of the brain that fire when people have mystical experiences, showing how the spiritual realm transects with our reality.
Physical science studies the fringes of the cosmos and discovers how limited our universe really is, and how limited our understanding of matter and energy really are.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church remains trapped in Medieval cosmology.
The substance of a body is something physical. Something that can be touched . Something that can be seen. Something that can be observed with any of the senses.
So, those who try to give a pragmatic, worldly theology of the Eucharist, even doing so in an orthodox manner (because they argue from council proclamations based upon obsolete science), will say, “It’s the substance, but not the accidents,” using Aristotle’s terminology.
But, as soon as you point out that Aristotle’s substance is something physical, they say, “We can’t be confined to Aristotle’s terminology.”
Or else that there is a Divine substance, such as “consubstantial with the Father.”
But it’s not the Divine Substance of Jesus we’re talking about. It’s the substance of His Body. The substance of His Blood. Even the Blood more than the Body. For if one is to say, “it’s just a ‘spiritual body,'” then what is spiritual blood?
Transubstantiation has to mean something, or else it is meaningless. It has to be something *different*. It cannot be something we just chalk up to “spiritual reality.” If that’s the case, then Transubstantiation is no different than the omnipresence of God.
I certainly have no problem with spiritual reality, and it is quite obvious that transubstantiation cannot be observed according to the standards of our every day observation of material reality.
But if we’re going to use the term “substance,” and we’re going to use the term “body,” and we”re going to use the term “accidents,” then we have to play by Aristotle’s ground rules. I’d rather we didn’t. I’d rather we scrapped the whole issue altogether.
But Transubstantiation touches on the very question Aristotle is asking in the Metaphysics: What does it mean to be? And not just to be, but to be what we are? What makes me John Charles Hathaway?
On the human level, that is the fundamental question I ask of people who support abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, or other aspects of the Culture of Death: how do you define what a human being is?
Liberals usually answer that question with an appeal to religion: a human being is a soul. It’s a “spiritual reality.” They sever the human body from the human soul and say the soul is what defines the person, not the body.
Pro-lifers argue that, given our current knowledge of science, we have to say that the continuum of human life begins at conception, and we cannot create arbitrary divisions in the stages of development of the human person. The reason for this is that, to create such a division, you have to deny human rights to someone already born, as well. The usual division one hears is “viability,” when the baby is no longer 100% dependent upon the mother exclusively(but the adoration of George Tiller by abortion supporters show they don’t really care about viability).
Yet that removes the right to life of anyone on life support of any sort.
The argument that “life begins at conception” is almost a kind of fall-back measure, because we can’t really say what a human being is.
We don’t know what, in the Aristotelian sense, the substance of a human being is.
The answer to that question may not exist, but the fringes of modern science show that it very well may.
What if transubstantiation and the mystery of human life are inherently linked, which is why they are so important to Catholics of a more traditional mindset, and why “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics want to downplay both?
Both touch on the fundamental question of Creation, of how the supernatural and the natural interact.
When a priest consecrates the Host, he performs a similar accomplishment to what a married couple do when they conceive a child: both are bringing a human substance into the world.
One is bringing the human substance of the God Man, Christ, back into the world in the appearance of bread and wine.
The substance of the bread and wine–what makes them bread and wine–go away. The “accidents” remain.
And the man and woman combine the cells of their bodies into a new embryo, and that embryo has what we call a “soul” (and Aristotle’s word “anima” is the biological equivalent of “substance”–whatever it is that makes things alive).
Only in such an explanation can the claim that “the Eucharist is a spiritual reality” be saved from leadinng to Rahnerism.
For perhaps Plato was right. Perhaps all substance is spiritual. Maybe we’re all just little game board pieces, little avatars, being moved by our True Selves in Heaven.
Or there’s something else.
If the substance of a human being is the DNA, or the cells, if “life begins at conception,” then we have to be able to put the Host under a microscope and see evidence of the substance of Christ’s Body.
A 1 week old embryo and a 100 year old man will, in theory, have the same DNA when looked at side-by-side.
If the genetic code is the “substance” of a human person, whether that person is under the appearance of an embryo or an old codger, then the Eucharist *must* have the genetic code of a man, not wheat.
The problem is in the pro-life argument. DNA *cannot* be where we find the anima or the substance of man, because DNA CAN CHANGE
First, there’s the common response to “life begins at conception”: identical twins. Their DNA doesn’t change, per se, but the embryo splits in two, and the two new embryos have identical DNA, so that DNA cannot be the “substance” of either one.
DNA can be mutated during a person’s lfe, by radiation for example, or by certain drugs that have been shown to alter DNA. An embryo’s cell is not the same as the cell of an old man because an embryo is all stem cells, and we know that even adult stem cells are not exactly like embryonic stem cells.
So the 100 year old man does not necessarily have the same DNA as the baby. Even if it only happens that way occasionally, it still proves that DNA is not the substance of a person.
So, now, from the pro-life perspective, we have an insoluble quandary, but the philosophical quandary of the Eucharist makes more sense.
But, again, what if there is a third way between Plato and Aristotle? What if there is a third way between “spiritual” and “physical”? What if, as scientific knowledge advances, we hit on some level of existence that really is what Aristotle calls “substance” and also what Plato calls Forms?
Whatever happens to the universe at the moment of Consecration is the same as whatever happens at the moment of conception. If we can figure out what that is, we’ll have solved everything.