Catholicism Confuses Me: Transubstantiation

Even setting aside the more obvious problems I have with the Catholic church’s positions on queer and trans issues, there are a number of things about Catholicism that just don’t make sense to me. Oh, certainly, many of them could be considered relatively small and picky — details, if you will — but the thing about the Catholic church as an institution is that the details matter. It’s very fussy about its details. In particular, today, I’m going to focus on transubstantiation.

I remember upsetting my mom when I was younger by comparing transubstantiation to cannibalism, transubstantiation being the process by which the bread and wine for communion literally become the body and blood of Jesus (I think it’s a belief unique to Catholicism; I know that it’s one of the key beliefs of Catholicism). It made perfect sense to me: either it is merely a symbolic process, and the bread and wine are only representative of the body and blood, or — if Catholics are truly to believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus (which is what I’ve always been taught) — they are engaging in some form of cannibalism. Logically, I can’t find a way around that. What I learned in first communion class and twelve years of Catholic school is that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus — it’s not a symbol; it’s not merely filled with the presence of Jesus  — it becomes the body and blood (in every way that matters, except for physical form).

However, despite all of the negative connotations of cannibalism, I’m not necessarily saying that I believe it would be bad — morally wrong — of them to engage in this if it were considered cannibalism. After all, no one is really being harmed: regardless what they think the bread and wine becomes, in a physical sense, it remains bread and wine (which means that there’s no one actually missing parts of their body because of this). Additionally, if you really follow the theory back, Jesus did this all willingly (and it’s not as though people eating him is what killed him). So, even if Catholics were actually committing cannibalism, I think it would mostly fall into the category of consensual actions Jesus undertook exercising his free will (going with the idea that he would have the right to do what he wanted with his own body, although now that I think of it, the Catholic church has rules that limit what you’re allowed to do with your body, and I’m fairly certain that allowing people to eat it isn’t allowed). Despite all of that, and disregarding that transubstantiation is seriously taught as fact, I imagine that most Catholics get around the cannibalism ickiness by treating it as a form of symbolism.

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2 responses to “Catholicism Confuses Me: Transubstantiation

  1. Results after a very brief search:
    ‘There are two views regarding the sense in which this text is to be interpreted. Many of the Fathers declare that the true Flesh of Jesus (sarks) is not to be understood as separated from His Divinity (spiritus), and hence not in a cannibalistic sense, but as belonging entirely to the supernatural economy. The second and more scientific explanation asserts that in the Scriptural opposition of “flesh and blood” to “spirit”, the former always signifies carnal-mindedness, the latter mental perception illumined by faith, so that it was the intention of Jesus in this passage to give prominence to the fact that the sublime mystery of the Eucharist can be grasped in the light of supernatural faith alone, whereas it cannot be understood by the carnal-minded, who are weighed down under the burden of sin.’
    from: http://oce.catholic.com/index.php?title=Eucharist#I._THE_REAL_PRESENCE_OF_CHRIST_IN_THE_EUCHARIST

    originally found from: http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?p=1531616 and http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=55111&highlight=cannibal

    As far as I can tell, there’s not exactly an answer I would accept as refuting cannibalism– but I guess it’s the conversio substantialis that is generally accepted? Still doesn’t make too much sense:
    ‘The idea of conversion is amply realized if the following condition is fulfilled, viz., that a thing which already existed in substance, acquires an altogether new and previously non-existing mode of being. Thus in the resurrection of the dead, the dust of the human bodies will be truly converted into the bodies of the risen by their previously existing souls, just as at death they had been truly converted into corpses by the departure of the souls. This much as regards the general notion of conversion. Transubstantiation, however, is not a conversion simply so called, but a substantial conversion (conversio substantialis), inasmuch as one thing is _sub_ stantially or essentially converted into another. Thus from the concept of Transubstantiation is excluded every sort of merely accidental conversion, whether it be purely natural (e.g. the metamorphosis of insects) or supernatural (e.g. the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor). Finally, Transubstantiation differs from every other substantial conversion in this, that only the substance is converted into another—the accidents remaining the same—just as would be the case if wood were miraculously converted into iron, the substance of the iron remaining hidden under the external appearance of the wood.’

    Maybe it’s like… how I see the moral war of honey between vegans and vegetarians. You’ve got a vegetarian who goes “Sure, I’ll eat honey: it’s delicious. But cows are right out because they have horrible living conditions/are awful for the planet/humanity/etc.” but a vegan goes “You’re just as bad as everyone else! Bees make honey and it’s at their expense which you consume the honey they would otherwise be using to fuel their hive!” So Catholics are vegetarians saying that The Eucharist isn’t Cannibalism because of transubstantiation which isn’t quite true conversion, and everyone else is vegan and saying “C’mon, now. You said it totally WAS his body and blood.”

    It may be clear by now that I know nothing about religion.

    • I enjoy both your vegetarian/vegan analogy and your comment about knowing nothing about religion (although I wouldn’t call it clear that you don’t know anything about religion).

      To be honest, I think the thing that really bothers me about the whole transubstantiation thing is less what the scholars and Catholic apologists may aruge actually happens (or how it should be taken) and more what I was taught in school. They were, to the best that I can remember, very clear that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus, and they would sidestep all of my questions. The debate is almost undoubtedly more complicated than I made it out to be, but given its importance to the church, ordinary Catholics (or at least Catholic religion teachers) should be able to give a decent explanation as to what’s going on.

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