Word Games   Leave a comment

Sacre Couer Bell TowerPretend for a moment that you and I are sitting down together, and I show you a bottle. It can be any kind of bottle you like: a cold beer, some good wine, or your favorite soda. Then I tell you that the bottle is actually a penguin named Boris.

Quite reasonably, you ask why Boris looks like a bottle of sloshing liquid.

I respond by saying that Boris is a magical penguin. Boris has the ability to appear to be a bottle but remain, in reality, Boris. You could examine Boris under a microscope, perform chemical experiments, or do any other test that you wanted, and Boris would appear to be a bottle without actually being bottle. Boris’ nature, what Boris really was, is entirely separate from his appearance as a bottle.

Seeing the size of the bottle, you ask if Boris is a baby penguin, to be so small.

I explain to you that no, Boris is an adult male emperor penguin, weighing in at the average of that species, about 75 pounds. Answering before you can ask the question, I tell you that weight has two properties, internal weight and external weight. Internal weight is intrinsic to a thing’s nature. Right now, Boris is 75 pounds and there is nothing that can be done to change that in this instant. External weight, however, is simply how much an object appears to weigh, and Boris’ magic allows him to change his external weight (and dimensions) to appear to be the weight of a bottle.

Okay, now roll those ideas around in your head for a little bit. Do they make sense? Do the explanations seem contrived? I think so, but do you? If you’re Catholic, think especially hard about those explanations. Assume for a second that magical penguins are not only plausible, but likely. In that case, does the explanation make sense?

I ask Catholics to think especially hard, because (as I’m sure a few of you figured out) this is actually a post about transubstantiation. So, before I go any farther, I want to make something clear:

I am not intending to mock the idea of transubstantiation. Nor am I intending to mock the scholastics who developed these ideas. The example of Boris the magic penguin was intended to do two things: First, I wanted to examine the ideas behind transubstantiation in a way that would elicit genuine reactions from Catholic minds that were not informed by doctrine. Associations are the paint set of the mind, and I wanted to work with a blank canvas, at least for a little while. Second, I wanted to encourage people to keep reading through the abstract morass that is medieval philosophy. I thought I might not lose everyone in the second paragraph if Boris the penguin was there to give a bit of incentive for readers to continue. Anyway, if some of you are still offended, I can only say that I sincerely meant no disrespect.

So with that out of the way, I’m basing the rest of this discussion from this article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

So, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, transubstantiation is the idea that the substance of the bread and wine change during the Mass into the Body and Blood of Christ. Once this change occurs, the bread ceases to be bread, and the wine ceases to be wine. The example given is of a soldier who is promoted. When someone is promoted, they cease entirely from their former rank to their current rank.

But the bread and wine still look like bread and wine. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains this by distinguishing between ‘substance’ and ‘accidents’. ‘Accidents’ refers to nonessential qualities of an object: characteristics like taste, appearance, weight, and size. If that doesn’t make much sense, that’s because ‘accidents’ is only fully understood in contrast to ‘substance.’ The Encyclopedia describes substance as ‘the thing in itself.’ For example, let’s say that Bob is a nice man. Then we push Bob into a lake. After we push Bob into a lake, the accidents of Bob are anger and wetness, but the substance of Bob is still a nice man.

A similar line of thought is used elsewhere to explain how Christ’s whole body fits into a small piece of bread.

Later Scholasticism… tried to improve upon this explanation along other lines by distinguishing between internal and external quantity. By internal quantity is understood that entity, by virtue of which a corporeal substance merely possesses… the “capability” of being extended in tri-dimensional space. External quantity, on the other hand, is the same entity, but in so far as it follows its natural tendency to occupy space and actually extends itself in the three dimensions.

So basically, internal quantity is the ability to be a size or shape, and external quantity is actually being that size or shape. So Christ’s internal quantity remains the same, it just doesn’t express itself as an external quantity when it is in the accidents of a host.

Now here’s the deal, I don’t buy this. I think the scholastics were playing word games. When we talk about bread, we only ever refer to its accidents (unless we’re an anthropologist, a linguist, or a theologian). We use the word bread to convey something about taste, shape, chemical composition, or nutritional content. All of these are ‘accidents’ of bread that remain after the consecration. ‘Accidents’ and ‘substance’ are terms that were developed long after bread to convey a distinction between consecrated bread and unconsecrated bread. Before those terms, and even today in ordinary usage, the accidents of bread are merely referred to as bread, which indicates to me that the distinction exists only in the mind.

The same is true of internal and external quantity. These concepts were invented to explain how Christ’s Body was in the host without saying that Christ’s body was host-sized. These concepts were invented to play a linguistic game. The people who formulated these concepts wanted to be able to answer yes to these questions:

Is the consecrated host Christ?

Does the host contain Christ’s whole body?

And just as importantly, to avoid impiety (the Catholic Encyclopedia uses the term “fitting,” as in fitting the dignity of Christ), the theologians who contrived these ideas wanted to answer ‘no’ to these questions:

Is the consecrated host bread as well as Christ?

Has Christ’s body been shrunk to fit the host?

If you realize that the theologians had answered these questions before they ever started to try to figure out how Christ’s presence in the Eucharist works, their answers look ingenious. They also look obviously made up. How do you maintain that a consecrated host is not bread even when it fits every single description we have for bread? All you have to do is make up another layer of definition for bread: bread-in-itselfness, that you can maintain a consecrated host has lost. How can Christ’s whole body be contained in something as small as a host? Well if there are two kinds of sizes, it’s easy.

And oddly enough, I get the urge to do this. I don’t think the theologians who developed these ideas were stupid or evil or impious. They were clearly highly intelligent men who were motivated by respect for God. But that doesn’t change the fact that they were making up distinctions, that a host is smaller than Christ’s body, or that a consecrated host is still bread in every way that counts (albeit with something extra, too).

So I get the urge, but I reject the doctrine. I believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, but I also believe that transubstantiation is just a word game.


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