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Beware the Term ‘Real Presence’

“But I believe in the Real Presence!” said Doug, my Bible Christian friend. “Why do you Catholics refuse to admit me to Communion?”

“Whoa!” I said. “I’m delighted to hear that you believe in the Real Presence, but what do you actually mean by the term?”

“Well, I prefer to remain vague about the details,” said Doug. “I would only want to go as far as the Scriptures do, and Paul said in I Corinthians that Communion is ‘a sharing in the body of Christ.’ I don’t think you have to go further than that.”

We then sparred through John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. But the conversation got me thinking about the term “Real Presence.” Doug was happy to use the term to describe what he felt about the Lord’s Supper at his independent Bible church. It was during my Anglican days that I’d gotten used to the phrase “Real Presence.” Anglo-Catholics use the term all the time, and even many Evangelical Anglicans seem fairly happy to use “Real Presence” to describe their view of the Eucharist. But then I picked my brain a bit further and remembered Methodists, Reformed ministers, and other free Evangelicals using the term as well. When I became a Catholic I found lots of Catholics also using the term “Real Presence” to refer to their Eucharistic beliefs.

But what did everyone mean by the term? Could it be that God was using the term “Real Presence” as a sort of ecumenical bridge? Was it becoming a universally accepted term that was bringing non-Catholics into the fold of the true Church? I didn’t want to rule out this creative possibility, but I had my suspicions that “Real Presence” was in fact an elastic term that could mean almost anything and was therefore the enemy of true ecumenism.

For instance, by “Real Presence” a Bible Christian might mean,”I feel closer to Jesus at the Lord’s Supper.” At the same time a Methodist might mean, “When we gather together the presence of the Lord is real among us,” referring simply to our Lord’s promise that where two or three are gathered in his name he is in their midst. A Lutheran might mean Christ’s risen presence is “with” or “beside” the bread and wine. An Anglican Evangelical might say, “There is a real sense in which Christ is present as the Church gathers—for the Church too is the Body of Christ.” At the same time, an Anglo-Catholic would say there is a real, objective, abiding spiritual presence of Christ when the Eucharist is celebrated.

One of the reasons the term “Real Presence” has become a flexible friend is because it has been lifted from its full context. Historically, theologians spoke of “the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of the altar.” But now it has been shortened to the “Real Presence.” Reference to the body and blood has been quietly dropped and even the name of Christ omitted. As a result, for some people “Real Presence” has come to mean simply “the idea of the risen Lord” or “the Spirit of Christ” or even just “the fellowship of the church.” In fact, the term “Real Presence” could mean just about anything to anybody. There are probably even some New Agers who talk about the “Real Presence” of the Christ within.

Another reason why the term is so conveniently vague is because “Real Presence” in most cases focuses on the abstract noun “presence” and not on the concrete body and blood of Christ. This implies that the “presence” is somehow separate from the sacrament.

The widespread use of this term is a sign that many non-Catholics are coming around to a higher view of the sacrament. This is cause for rejoicing. But it is also a cause for concern, because many non-Catholics—hearing Catholics use the term—quite naturally assume that Catholics believe the same thing they do. As a result, Christians like my friend Doug can’t understand why they are not welcome to receive Communion at a Catholic Mass. So while the widespread use of the term “Real Presence” seems encouraging, it’s really misleading. The ambiguous terminology, I theorized, causes confusion and encourages false ecumenism. But so far it was only a theory.

I decided to do a bit of research. I traveled to Downside Abbey, the great Benedictine house in the southwest of England. After Mass, the librarian, Fr. Daniel, ushered me from the neo-Gothic monastic buildings over to the library, which looks like a newly landed flying saucer. I wanted to discover more about this term “Real Presence”—when it was first used and why. Finding the background of the term might explain why and how it was being used today.

My first port of call was the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. It defined “Real Presence” as an especially Anglican term which “emphasized the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist as contrasted with others that maintain that the Body and Blood are present only figuratively or symbolically.” The first edition of the dictionary quoted the sixteenth-century English reformer Latimer to show his use of the term: “[T]his same presence may be called most fitly a Real Presence, that is, a presence not feigned, but a true and faithful presence.”

That sounded pretty Catholic. But it’s a bit more complicated. The second edition of the same dictionary points out that the English Reformers used the phrase only with other expressions which made it a term for receptionism—the belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ only to those who receive it faithfully. Latimer is quoted in the second edition more fully: “[T]hat same presence may be called a Real Presence because to the faithful believer there is a real or spiritual body of Christ.”

Catholics believe in a corporeal, substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is not just a spiritual presence. The whole Christ is present—body, blood, soul, and divinity. Furthermore, Catholics believe in an objective presence, not one that is available only to those who receive in faith. Latimer’s colleague Ridley makes their position about the Real Presence most clear. Writing in the Oxford Disputations of 1554, he said, “The true Church doth acknowledge a Presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper to be communicated to the godly by grace . . . spiritually and by a sacramental signification, but not as a corporeal Presence of the body of his flesh.”

These references seem to suggest that the term was a construction of the English Reformation. Latimer and Ridley did their best to use a term for the Eucharist which would please their Catholic persecutors and yet not compromise their Protestant beliefs. But had the term “Real Presence” originated before the sixteenth century?

Fr. Daniel brought me an excellent two-volume work titled The History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist by Oxford scholar Darwell Stone. Stone traces the Church’s beliefs about the Eucharist from New Testament times through the late nineteenth century. The book is arranged chronologically, with copious quotations from theologians.

Debates over the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament were ignited by the eleventh-century French theologian Berengar of Tours, who denied that there could be a material change at the consecration. The controversy raged for the next two hundred years and culminated in the definition of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It is interesting that during this controversy the orthodox terminology is “real body and real blood of Christ.” The term “Real Presence” doesn’t occur.

I found the first reference to the term “Real Presence” in the writings of fourteenth-century theologian John of Paris: “I intend to defend the real and actual presence of the body of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, and that it is not there only as by way of a sign.” But John of Paris was deprived of his professorship because his views on the sacrament were considered unorthodox. It was in the same century that the precursor of Latimer and Ridley—John Wycliffe—used the term “Real Presence,” also as an alternative to transubstantiation. In other words, “Real Presence” was a compromise term used to suggest a high view of the sacrament while in fact denying the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

In denying transubstantiation and holding a merely symbolic and spiritual view of the sacrament, Ridley and Latimer wanted to avoid extreme Zwinglism and, because of Catholic pressure, needed to express their beliefs in as high a way as possible. Thus they said they believed in the Real Presence; their term for a kind of high receptionism. Anglican Jeremy Taylor also used the term “Real Presence” as a contrast to transubstantiation in his treatise The Real and Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament proved against the Doctrine of Transubstantiation.

Stone’s second volume shows how the great Anglican, E. B. Pusey, recoined the phrase “Real Presence” in the mid-nineteenth century and promoted it most strongly. It is thanks to Pusey that the term entered common usage within the Oxford Movement and eventually made its way through the Anglican and other non-Catholic churches that today use it so widely.

But what did Pusey mean by “the Real Presence”? He was at pains to point out that he did not hold to any corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “In the communion there is a true, real, actual though spiritual communication of the body and blood of Christ to the believer through the holy elements.” In another place, Pusey denies transubstantiation explicitly and argues for a “mystical, sacramental, and spiritual presence of the body of our Lord.”

Pusey in the Oxford of the mid-1850s was not at risk of being burned at the stake like Ridley and Latimer, but in that same university city he felt a similar pressure to reconcile English Reformation doctrines with the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Pusey sincerely wanted the Anglican Church to be as Catholic as possible, but as an Anglican clergyman he had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of religion, and Article 28 specifically repudiates transubstantiation. So—like Ridley and Latimer before him—he used the term “Real Presence” to sound as close to Catholicism as possible while in fact rejecting Catholic doctrine.

So why does it matter if the presence is only spiritual? It matters because the whole work of Christ is more than spiritual. It is physical.

Ever since Irenaeus the Catholic Church has been insistent that the Incarnation really was a supernatural union of the spiritual and the physical. Irenaeus was countering Gnosticism which, as Stone writes, “interposed an insuperable barrier between spiritual beings and material things, between the true God of the universe and the universe of matter.” And it is one of the great heresies of our age that Christians attempt to “spirit away” the physicalness of the gospel. In this way the Resurrection, the miracles, and the Incarnation itself become mere “spiritual events.”

So likewise the Church has always insisted—despite the difficulties—that the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is not simply spiritual and subjective. It is objective and corporeal. The Fourth Lateran Council explained that belief with the term “transubstantiation.” As the Oxford Dominican Fr. Herbert McCabe has said, “Transubstantiation is not a complete explanation of the mystery, but it is the best description of what we believe happens at the consecration.”

So what should Catholics do when confronted with the term “Real Presence”? First of all, Catholics should realize that it is not a Catholic term at all. Its history is mostly Anglican; it was always used as a way to adroitly sidestep the troublesome doctrine of transubstantiation, and as such it is not an accurate term to describe true Catholic Eucharistic doctrine.

Secondly, when non-Catholics say they believe in the Real Presence, Catholics should ask what they mean by it. (Needless to say, this should be done in a positive, non-argumentative way.) Non-Catholics will almost never mean transubstantiation, and their definition can open the way for an explanation of what a Catholic means by “Real Presence.” Clear definitions help everybody.

In his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI encouraged the use of clear and unambiguous language about the Eucharist. He said, “Having safeguarded the integrity of the faith it is necessary to safeguard also its proper mode of expression, lest by careless use of words we occasion the rise of false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime of mysteries.”

In the same encyclical Pope Paul VI actually uses the term “Real Presence,” but, ironically, in doing so affirms all the ways non-Catholics might define the term. He said Christ is really present in the Church when she prays. He is also present when she performs acts of mercy. Christ is present in the Church as she struggles to perfection. He is present when the Church governs the people of God. Christ is present in the preaching of the gospel, and he is present as the Church faithfully celebrates the Eucharist.

However, the whole thrust of Mysterium Fidei is to support and recommend the continued use of the term “transubstantiation” as the Catholic terminology. Paul VI makes it clear that the Eucharistic presence of the body and blood of Christ is different from these other forms of Christ’s presence. It is a unique presence. So he affirms, “This presence is called ‘real,’ by which it is not intended to exclude all other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense. That is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ the God-Man is wholly and entirely present. It would therefore be wrong to explain this presence by making recourse to the ‘spiritual’ nature, as it is called, of the glorified Body of Christ which is present everywhere, or by reducing it to a kind of symbolism as if this most august sacrament consisted of nothing else than an efficacious sign of the spiritual presence of Christ and of his intimate union with the faithful members of his Mystical Body.”

As Catholics we must use clear language about the sacrament. We can affirm the “real presence” of Christ which non-Catholics affirm in the fellowship of their churches, in the preaching of the gospel, and in the celebration of the Eucharist. But we must also affirm that the fullest sense of the “Real Presence” is that which we worship in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. With this in mind I suggest Catholics should avoid the ambiguous term “Real Presence” and speak boldly of “transubstantiation.”

Mysterium Fidei encourages those devotions that are implied by our belief in the “real body and real blood of Christ.” That such devotions are encouraged to support transubstantiation is nothing new. It is no coincidence that just fifty years after the doctrine of transubstantiation was promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council, Pope Urban IV decreed the Feast of Corpus Christi. The beliefs of the Church are always reflected in her devotions. We should encourage the devotions which accompany our belief in Christ’s corporeal presence in the sacrament of the altar. It is the practice of Benediction, prayer before the Sacrament, and veneration of the Blessed Sacrament which make clear exactly what we do mean by the term “Real Presence” and that it is not the same thing that non-Catholic Christians mean.

These distinctions should not be emphasized in a spirit of division and exclusion, but with the true longing for Christ’s body to be reunited. That true and costly reunion will not come as long as we accept ambiguous language that allows us to pretend that we all believe the same thing. Instead it will come as we recognize the true divisions which still exist, understand our differences, and seek to resolve them with patience, love, and a good sense of humor.

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