Science and the Eucharist

by Jack Vogel


This brief article shows the profound compatibility between faith and science.

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The Catholic Answer



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., September/October 1998

The Real Presence is accepted as a fact by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This means that although the bread and wine of the Eucharist may still look, smell and taste like bread and wine, they have actually been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Grappling with this mystery and attempting to reconcile faith and reason, medieval scholars distinguished between the appearance of a thing (its look, smell and taste) and its underlying substance. They maintained that the substance of things could be changed without changing the appearances. Nevertheless, the need to question the evidence of the human senses calls for extremely strong faith on the part of believers and makes the doctrine seem preposterous to those without such faith.

Adding to the problem is an impression held by many that science makes such belief unreasonable. It seems to have been little noticed that, on the contrary, certain aspects of modern science actually offer some support to the medieval philosophers.

Science can neither prove nor disprove the doctrine, but it does agree with early philosophers that little in the universe is really as it seems to the human senses. Science paints an astonishing, almost mystical picture of that which exists — a picture that leaves claims of the Eucharist no more mind-boggling than the claims of science.

Quantum theory, now generally accepted by science, holds that all things in the universe — bread, wine, trees, earth, sun and stars, our human bodies — all are made up of just a few very strange, mysterious and invisible quantum particles. Why do we call them strange and mysterious? Because the physicists themselves tell us so. They say that no one can describe the particles — they can only be expressed mathematically.

Niels Bohr, one of the early founders of quantum theory, said that anyone who wasn't shocked by it just didn't understand it. In his book, "The God Particle," Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, writes of the "inherent spookiness of quantum theory." And astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle stated, "No literary genius could invent a story one-hundredth as fantastic as the sober facts that have been unearthed by astronomical science."

Astronomy is not alone in providing astonishing facts. Following are a few of the many examples contributed by physics. Science textbooks tell us that everything is made up of matter, which is defined by two fundamental attributes — that it possesses mass and occupies space.

But what is mass? Albert Einstein stated that mass and energy are interchangeable, with the fearsome proof at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To quote Sir James Jeans: "We now know that there is in principle no permanence in substance; it is mere bottled energy."

And energy? Another Nobel winner, Richard Feynman, wrote, "It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is." As to matter occupying space, Lederman says that it is starting to look as if the quantum particles occupy zero space. Concerning the electron, for example, he wrote the following:

"But the electron is real. Probably a point particle, but with all other properties intact. Mass, yes. Charge, yes. Spin, yes. Radius, no.

"Think of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat [in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland']. Slowly, the Cheshire Cat disappears until all that's left is its smile. No cat, just a smile. Imagine the radius of a spinning glob of charge slowly shrinking until it disappears, leaving intact its spin, charge, mass, and smile."

Going beyond physics into metaphysics, the astronomer Sir James Jeans, in "The Mysterious Universe," wrote that the universe "begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine." Roger Penrose, one of the developers of the black-hole theory, said, "The world is an illusion created by a conspiracy of our senses."

Readers would ordinarily expect reasonable explanations to be offered for the bizarre statements made in the preceding paragraphs. Unfortunately, the physicists themselves say this can't be done. They tell us that quantum behavior can't be pictured, can't be described in words, and can't even be "understood" in the ordinary sense of the word: it can only be explained by mathematical equations.

Here is Feynman explaining why his physics students didn't understand quantum theory: "That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does." Lederman questioned "whether the human brain will ever be prepared for the mysteries of quantum physics."

Even though strange and not "understandable," quantum theory is now generally accepted by scientists as giving accurate representations of reality. Both development and acceptance of the theory came gradually, with the acceptance being forced by the spectacular success of quantum equations in providing solutions and accurate predictions in matters which couldn't be handled by the older sciences.

As examples, the equations describe conditions during the Big Bang and subsequent history of the universe, the formation of chemical elements, the workings of the stars (red giants, white dwarfs, our own sun) and the existence of black holes and cosmic radiation. On earth, those equations have unraveled the behavior of metals and insulators and have been instrumental in the development of superconductors, lasers, masers and the transistor, which is responsible for computers, microelectronics and the revolution in communications and information.

All of the physicists and astronomers who are cited herein are renowned experts in their fields. Four of them were Nobel winners, two others were knighted for their scientific achievements, and the remaining two are internationally recognized mathematical physicists. None of their opinions is based on unique theories of isolated researchers. Instead, their comments are applicable to the standard models of mainstream physics and support the view that basically the universe and everything in it must be considered utterly fantastic — far beyond our powers of imagination.

Now, returning to the mystery of the Real Presence, even the most agnostic physicists would have to agree that, at bottom, the faith required is a belief that one very mysterious thing has been changed into Another of equal mystery. Further, they would have to concede that in neither case would the human senses give the slightest indication of the underlying reality.

Speaking of similar mysteries, it probably says something about human prejudices that most Christians can believe that God accepted existence in a human body, but stumble at the idea He could accept existence under the appearances of bread and wine. Yet science tells us that exactly the same kinds of particles made up the composition of Christ's Body as make up the composition of bread and wine.

None of the foregoing is intended to try to explain away the mystery of the Eucharist. Faith beyond understanding is still necessary.

Physicists might well point out that the quantum building blocks of nature, weird though they may be, must still be organized in certain patterns to form the atoms, molecules and arrangements of molecules that make up all things. The consistent look, smell and taste of bread and wine indicate a consistent pattern of quantum organization. How the look, smell and taste can persist if the substance is changed is beyond our understanding.

Even here, however, the physicists are of some help. In his book "A Brief History of Time" Stephen Hawking theorizes that it would be unnecessary for God to originate the universe provided that the physical equations were then functioning. But still he adds that something must "breathe fire" into the equations to make a universe for them to describe and that if we understood everything about them, we would know the mind of God.

This latter position would be quite familiar to the early theologians who long ago insisted that God not only created the universe, but also sustains it or — to use Hawking's words, "breathes fire" into it. Thus God is both the source of the physical equations and also the One Whose power has always been, and continues to be, needed to put them into effect. These theologians would see no difficulty in believing that an omnipotent God could adjust His own physical laws as He sees fit to accomplish His many miracles.

One of these early theologians was Thomas Aquinas. Even after 700 years, he would see no need to revise Tantum Ergo, his beautiful hymn in praise of the Blessed Sacrament:

"Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the Sacred Host we hail!
Lo! O'er ancient forms departing,
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying
Where the feeble senses fail." +

About the author

Mr. Jack Vogel is a retired petroleum engineer living in Seabrook, Texas. After 43 years in the oil industry and the raising of seven children, his retirement has left time for other activities, such as attempting the present article.

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