Transubstantiation is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church which, since the Apostolic Age, has held that during the consecration of the sacrificial offerings of bread and wine at the Mass, that the bread and wine are literally changed into the body and blood of Christ. The use of the term transubstantiation to describe this sacred mystery dates from the 11th century, when it was used by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours; it was in common use by the 12th century. The doctrine of transubstantiation holds that while the outward, sensible characteristics (called the accidents) of the bread and wine remain, the reality (called the substance) is transformed into that of Christ. It should be noted also that Christ's body and soul are united in Heaven and cannot be separated, so that not only the body and blood, but the soul and divinity—the whole of Christ—are believed to be made present under the species of bread and wine.
This is a view that contrasts with the beliefs of the Protestant churches. Most of the Reformers during the Protestant Reformation taught one version or another of the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist, instead of a purely symbolic view. In the Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches, the doctrine of the Real Presence is affirmed, but not the additional doctrine called Transubstantiation.
In other words, those churches accept that Christ's body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist or Lord's Supper, but not that the bread and wine consumed by the minister and the congregation alike have ceased to be bread and wine.
For other Protestants (mostly Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal) who also celebrate Christ's Last Supper, the belief is that the wine and bread merely symbolize or represent the body and blood of Jesus.
Transubstantiation was a contentious issue during the Protestant Reformation, a historical period of conflict and warfare among Christians over a number of issues of scriptural interpretation, doctrine, philosophy, and both ecclesiastical and secular politics.
The Bible and Transubstantiation
Catholics believe the doctrine of Transubstantiation can be validated by Scripture.
In John 6, Jesus promises to His followers the Bread of Life, His flesh. (John 6:51) When the Jews began to argue over how Jesus could give them His flesh, He responded by repeating the necessity of doing so: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you have no life within you” (John 6:53). When His disciples said “This is a hard teaching; who can follow it?” (John 6:60), Jesus allowed them to go and even asked His 12 apostles if they too would leave. Catholics note that Jesus did not claim to be speaking symbolically or metaphorically when His disciples left, even though they seemed to take Him literally. Thus, it is concluded, Jesus was speaking literally. Then, at the Last Supper when He said “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” He was fulfilling His literal promise made in John 6:51, according to Catholics, to give His followers His body and blood.
As noted above, most Protestants do not dispute the fact that Jesus intended to give his body and blood to his followers. That is not the issue involved in the doctrine called "Transubstantation."
As to whether or not the Communion bread and wine cease to be bread and wine (i.e. Transubstantiation, a change-over of substance into another substance) while taking on the presence of Christ, Protestants maintain that there is no Biblical evidence which supports that speculation.
In Roman Catholic theology
"Substance" here means what something is in itself, its "essence". A hat's shape is not the hat itself, nor is its colour, size, softness to the touch, nor anything else about it perceptible to the senses. The hat itself (the "substance") has the shape, the color, the size, the softness and the other appearances, but is distinct from them. While the appearances, which are also referred to, though not in the Church's official teaching, by the philosophical term "accidents", are perceptible to the senses, the substance is not.
Consider the classic example of the human body. All of the separate chemical compounds, minerals and water—which when piled together constitute the sum total of the actual physical matter of the human body—are not of themselves a human body, however much they may be physically compounded and mixed and rearranged in the laboratory, since they are still only a pile of organic chemicals, minerals and water in a particular complex configuration. If this has never been alive it is not a human body. If they are participant  in the integral physical expression of a living human being who has absorbed and metabolized them, or if they are now the physical remains of a once-living human being, the substance of what they actually are is human, hence, a human body. The substantial reality of what is before us is human. The substance (substantial reality) of what is seen is not solely that of a complex organization of organic chemical compounds, but is (or has been) someone. The chemical elements of the food a person eats become in a few hours part of that person's human body and are no longer food but have been turned into the human flesh and blood and bone of that person, yet the physical chemical elements of what was once food remain the same (calcium, copper, salt, protein, sugars, fats, water, etc.). The substance of any matter that has become an integral part of any human being has ceased to be the substance or reality of food and has become incorporated as an integral part of the physical manifestation or expression of that human person. To touch that matter now is not to touch a batch of chemical compounds or food but to touch that person.
When at his Last Supper, Jesus said: "This is my body", what he held in his hands still had all the appearances of bread: the "species" remained unchanged. However, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that, when Jesus made that declaration, the underlying reality (the "substance") of the bread was changed into that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to scientific investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. Jesus united it entirely to his person. The Catholic Church holds that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at the consecration of the Eucharist when the words are spoken in persona Christi "This is my body ... this is my blood." In Orthodox confessions, the change is said to start during the Liturgy of Preparation and be completed during the Epiklesis. Using the instrumentality of the ministerial office of the celebrating priest, and acting through him, Jesus unites the consecrated and offered elements entirely to his own person.
Teaching that Christ is risen from the dead and is alive, the Catholic Church holds that when the bread is changed into his body, not only his body is present, but Christ as a whole is present (i.e. body and blood, soul and divinity.) The same holds for the wine changed into his blood. This teaching goes beyond the doctrine of transubstantiation, which directly concerns only the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
In accordance with the dogmatic teaching that Christ is really, truly and substantially present under the remaining appearances of bread and wine, and continues to be present as long as those appearances remain, the Catholic Church preserves the consecrated elements, generally in a church tabernacle, for administering Holy Communion to the sick and dying, and also for the secondary, but still highly prized, purpose of adoring Christ present in the Eucharist.
The Roman Catholic Church declares that the doctrine of transubstantiation is concerned with what is changed, and not how the change occurs; it teaches that the appearances (the "species") that remain are real, not an illusion, and that Christ is "really, truly, and substantially present" in the Eucharist. To touch the smallest particle of the host or the smallest droplet from the chalice is to touch Jesus Christ himself, as when one person touches another on the back of the hand with only a fingertip and in so doing touches not merely a few skin cells but touches the whole person: "Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ."
In the arguments which characterised the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century, the Council of Trent declared subject to the ecclesiastical penalty of anathema anyone who:
- "denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue" and anyone who "saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood - the species only of the bread and wine remaining - which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation, let him be anathema."
Protestant denominations have not generally subscribed to belief in transubstantiation or consubstantiation.
As already stated, the Roman Catholic Church asserts that the "species" that remain are real. In the sacrament these are the signs (evidence, visible presence) of the reality  that they efficaciously (actively) signify, not symbols. And by definition sacraments are "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Catholic Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us."
In The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: The Eucharist and Its Effects (2000-2012), James H. Dobbins, citing the work This Tremendous Lover (1989), by Dom Eugene Boylan, expresses the paradox of Holy Communion:
- "Ordinary food is consumed and becomes that which consumes it. In the Eucharist, we consume God and become that which we consume."
According to Catholic teaching, the whole of Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, is in the sacrament, under each of the appearances of bread and wine and in each part of the appearances of bread and wine (since the substance of bread or wine is in each part of ordinary bread or wine, and the substance of Christ is in each part of the consecrated and transubstantiated elements of the host and the cup of the sacrament), but he is not in the sacrament as in a place and is not moved when the sacrament is moved. He is perceptible neither by the sense nor by the imagination, but only by the intellect.
St. Thomas Aquinas gave poetic expression to this perception in the devotional hymn Adoro te devote:
- Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
- Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
- See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
- Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
- Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
- How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed.
- What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
- Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.
Evidence in the early Church
- John Cuthbert Hedley, Holy Eucharist (Kessinger 2003 ISBN 978-0-76617494-8), p. 37
- John N. King, Milton and Religious Controversy (Cambridge University Press 2000 ISBN 978-0-52177198-6), p. 134
- Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article Transubstantiation
- This illustration is given in Maisie Ward and F. J. Sheed, Catholic Evidence Training Outlines (Sheed & Ward, third edition 1935), p. 240.
- See Natural Philosophy: Substance and Accidents (aquinasonline.com)
- "The word 'substance' as here used is not a technical philosophical term, such as might be found in the philosophy of Aristotle. It was used in the early Middle Ages long before the works of Aristotle were current. 'Substance' in common-sense usage denotes the basic reality of the thing, i.e., what it is in itself. Derived from the Latin root 'sub-stare', it means what stands under the appearances, which can shift from one moment to the next while leaving the subject intact. Appearances can be deceptive. You might fail to recognize me when I put on a disguise or when I become seriously ill, but I do not cease to be the person that I was; my substance is unchanged. There is nothing obscure, then, about the meaning of 'substance' in this context" (Avery Dulles: Christ's Presence in the Eucharist: True, Real and Substantial).
- Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, et al. For more detailed treatment and bibliographical links and references see The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Nominalism, Realism, and Conceptualism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The Medieval Problem of Universals", and "Meaning and the Problem of Universals, A Kant-Friesian Approach"
- See Logical fallacy of Composition (Modo hoc fallacy) (logicallyfallacious.com)
- see also Moderate realism and Ontologism for influences found within the specifically Catholic interpretation of the reality of the human person underlying the outward physical appearance that is the human body. see also soul and incarnation.
- Matthew26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1356-1381, number 1376
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1356-1381, number 1377; and Christ's Presence in the Eucharist: True, Real and Substantial
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1406-1409, number 1413
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1356-1381, number 1374
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1356-1381, number 1377, Cf. Council of Trent: DS 1641: "Nor should it be forgotten that Christ, whole and entire, is contained not only under either species, but also in each particle of either species. Each, says St. Augustine, receives Christ the Lord, and He is entire in each portion. He is not diminished by being given to many, but gives Himself whole and entire to each." (Quoted in Gratian, p. 3, dist. ii. c. 77; Ambrosian Mass, Preface for Fifth Sunday after Epiph.) —The Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, issued by order of Pope Pius V, translated into English with Notes by John A. McHugh, O.P., S.T.M., Litt. D., and Charles J. Callan, O.P., S.T.M., Litt. D., © 1982 by TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois 61105, p. 249 "Christ Whole and Entire Present in Every Part of Each Species" ISBN 978-0-89555-185-6.
- Council of Trent, The Thirteenth Session
- For example, smoke and heat are active signs of a real fire, and not just a symbol. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is the active sign of God's love, and not just a symbol representing something else.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1333-1344, numbers 1333-1336 under the heading "III. The Eucharist in the Economy of Salvation The signs of bread and wine".
- Study Bible: Strong's number 5485 χάρις charis grace, especially, the gift of "the divine influence upon the heart" (literally, "in-flowing", much more than the meaning of "approval").
Catechism of the Catholic Church 1996, 1997 "Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an "adopted son" he can henceforth call God "Father," in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. (boldface emphasis added)
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131-1134, number 1131 (The Sacraments) IN BRIEF. 1131.
- Boylan, Dom Eugene, This Tremendous Lover, Christian Classics, Westminster, Maryland, 1989, pp. 159-170
- The Eucharist and Its Effects—The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, James H. Dobbins. (therealpresence.org) Copyright © 2000-2012 by www.therealpresence.org, Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association, 718 Liberty Lane, Lombard, IL 60148, Phone: 815-254-4420
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, Question 76
See also Catholic Encyclopedia: Intellect