Action Alert!

Attacking Transubstantiation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 25, 2010

Good Jesuits must be gritting their teeth as a prominent member of their Order does it again. Fr. Michael Kelly, the Jesuit leader of the Asian Catholic news agency, is uncomfortable with the forthcoming liturgical translations, which more closely match the Latin text and strive for a greater sense of the sacred. Apparently, this led him to remember once again the benefits of translations that are vague, horizontal and banal, namely, that they obscure the Faith. The danger, as Fr. Kelly sees it, is this:

Regrettably, all too frequently, the only Presence focused on is Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine. Inadequately described as the change of the “substance” (not the “accidents”) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist carries the intellectual baggage of a physics no one accepts. Aristotelian physics makes such nice, however implausible and now unintelligible, distinctions. They are meaningless in the post-Newtonian world of quantum physics, which is the scientific context we live in today.

This is actually fairly funny. First, it is such a blatantly obvious use of the Modernist tactic of indirection. Fr. Kelly doesn’t question the truth of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. No, he is simply concerned that: (a) People pay too much attention to it in relation to other forms of Christ’s presence; and (b) The way the Church explains it is based on Aristotelian physics, which nobody finds intelligible today. It is such a shame. We can envision Fr. Kelly wringing his hands.

By now everybody knows the real issue: Fr. Michael Kelly does not believe that Christ is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. That’s a unique form of Presence (which is why Catholics call it “Real Presence”), unlike all the other forms which are spiritual only, in the same way the Holy Spirit is present to us. There are strong links to the Incarnation in the dogma of the Real Presence. Thus one would not be surprised to hear Fr. Kelly questioning the Incarnation next week, and it probably goes without saying that he interprets the “Resurrection event” as a faith-symbol of the early Church (though why there would have been any faith to symbolize if a real physical resurrection had not occurred is something the Modernists never explain).

But what about this physics stuff? Well, in fact, the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation, including the traditional distinction between substance and accidents, is not based on physics at all, but on metaphysics. It is a distinction in philosophy, not in natural science. As Fr. Kelly would know if he were an educated man, natural science deals only with phenomena—with how things manifest themselves to our senses. Natural science is not at all designed to examine the actual “being” of things, or what we might call their substance. That doesn’t mean natural science can’t give us clues about being from the phenomena that natural things present to our senses. It just means that natural science is confined to the study of phenomena, and nothing more.

But the Church, being more interested in essences (and, as an institution, far better educated than Fr. Kelly), understands that phenomena and being are not identical and that, in particular, phenomena does not exhaust being, any more than the shape of your nose or the sound of your voice captures the essence of what and who you are. So the Church adopts the useful philosophical distinction between substance and accidents to show that the mystery of transubstantiation, while it certainly transcends reason, does not violate reason. Somehow, what the bread IS and what the wine IS has been changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, even though their manifestation to our senses (that is, their measurable phenomena) remain unchanged. To put this in the terms that great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas have used, the subtance has changed, but the accidents have not.

This explanation may be incomprehensible to a modern Modernist like Fr. Kelly, though a great many modern physicists have no trouble at all with it. Nor should they, as it contradicts absolutely nothing in their own specialty. But whether or not the explanation is incomprehensible to Fr. Kelly or anyone else, the mystery itself is certainly incomprehensible, and to everyone. That’s why we believe it not based on physics or philosophy but solely on the authority of God revealing, that is, based on the words and actions of Jesus Christ. You may know Jesus as the Incarnate God who proved Himself by rising from the dead. Have I mentioned that Fr. Kelly almost certainly does not?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 27, 2010 7:53 PM ET USA

    Fr. Kelly may well be a modernist and a heretic and even a Jesuit, but the kernel of his commentary may be valid. I was under the impression that if one is disposed against Aristotelian philosophy, one could come up with another description of the Real Presence, as long as it wasn't denied. It's simply that "transubstantiation" is the universally recognized best answer. However, this discussion seems a bit high-minded and elitist for someone concerned about the poor people in the pews.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 26, 2010 10:49 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, Fr. Kelly is certainly not alone in his unbelief. Another example of "lex orandi, lex credendi." The dramatic liturgical shift away from those traditional practices fostering a sense of mystery and reverence has had its effect as has the desire of Catholic intellectuals to accommodate modern science. Transubstantiation has been an anachronism for decades. It is a term not mentioned once in Vatican II. Ask for the definition among PRACTICING Catholics and see for yourself.

  • Posted by: - May. 26, 2010 9:02 AM ET USA

    I get something different from this statement when reading it in the context of the entire article. It seem's that Fr. Kelly's real objective is not to criticize the philosophy of transubstantiation as the mechanism for the Real Presence (apparently not denying the Real Presence itself), but to say that the new translations of the liturgy confuse the faithful by not oversimplifying doctrine (which he would rather do). It's smug (e.g. I know my people better than Rome) but not heretical.

  • Posted by: - May. 26, 2010 7:51 AM ET USA

    tim.moore - I was taught by the Jesuits 1972-1976 (high school) and the rot was very evident then. There were some still faithful to the Church though - they must have suffered a good deal.

  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - May. 25, 2010 11:50 PM ET USA

    You've hit the nail on the head; Fr. Kelly doesn't believe in Transubstantiation. My only question to those tiresome dissenters who publically doubt the Real Presence is this: why don't you simply join a denomination whose practitioners believe as you do? I'm afraid the answer is that there's no celebrity to be had in building up the Church, only in trying to destroy her. Physics has nothing to do with it.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2010 9:33 PM ET USA

    How sad that many if not most attacks on Jesus' Church comes from within. Many people wonder where this came from. It came when Pope John XXIII 'opened the windows' of the catholic church. The only trouble with that act is anything can come in from outside and has. There was a time when heretics attacking the Church left the Church; but they have attained a new strategy of staying in the Church and destroying it from within. Looking around, I would say the strategy is working.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2010 7:50 PM ET USA

    Perhaps as a high school student I did not see the problems the Jesuit order was having; or perhaps such problems did not exist among those teaching me in 1962 - 1964. However, the chaos that the order has entered into since then should leave no one surprised or dismayed. Chagrined, perhaps; bemused maybe. That great order seems to have lost its way as a group, while there are still a few shining stars amongst its ranks. Hard to see a shining star when there are so many clouds in the way.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2010 7:21 PM ET USA

    A truly excellent exposition that deserves meditation and prayer and can serve as an authentic reaffirmation of the deep and profound richness contained in our true faith.

  • Posted by: Lilacs2me - May. 25, 2010 6:45 PM ET USA

    Bingo! My priest must have studied under Fr. Kelly. Asking about Adoration, he stated there were "many presences" during liturgy--Jesus' presence in the priest, congregation, lector, yada yada. I mentioned perhaps he had forgotten the most important one? He seemed confused. Hint: Jesus' Real Presence--Body, Blood, Soul & Divinity. Somehow, that escaped him. These are today's priests that are supposed to help us get to heaven, but minimize basic tenets of our Faith.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2010 2:21 PM ET USA

    Personally, I've always found quantam physics to be unintelligible, and the substance/accident distinctions of Aristotle to be quite clear.

  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - May. 25, 2010 1:43 PM ET USA

    When Catholic leadership is confused and confusing, where does that leave the flock? When leadership in one's parish tell members of the parish that people who study the Catechism of the Catholic Church are too judgmental, are people to assume that what was put forth by Pope John Paul II as a sure norm for teaching the faith, formative or deformative. I wonder, at times, how little the Catholic Church has become. What is it to be a disciple without discipline?

  • Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD - May. 25, 2010 1:31 PM ET USA

    Amen, brother Jeff! I wonder if Fr. Kelly believes that the doctrine of Transubstantiation would be more comprehensible to the average Joe-in-the-Pew if it were explained in terms of quantum (meta)physics?