Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Presence of Christ on the Altar

Peter L. P. Simpson has an interesting article at Commonweal, Have You Tried Scotus? I'm by and large sympathetic with the idea of the article -- as I always say, the Church does not need Thomisms as much as it needs St. Thomases, nor Scotisms as much as Bl. John Duns Scotuses. But I think the article takes the wrong way about to do this. For one thing, it's frankly absurd to suggest that there's any vast number of people who are "exclusive Thomists"; actual Thomists are themselves relatively thin on the ground, and most of them are hardly purists. The reason people do not make any extensive use of Scotus is not exclusivity but accessibility; St. Thomas, difficult as many people find him, is infinitely easier to find and follow than Bl. John, so naturally they are much more likely to consult Aquinas than they are to consult Scotus. Scotus is slowly become more accessible, due in part to people like Simpson, in fact, but that has happened very, very slowly, and Scotus is probably never going to be as accessible as Aquinas, because he tends to be more technical. But that's an infrastructural problem, a difference in the cost and difficulty of studying one rather than the other, not because there are any great numbers of people deliberately being "exclusive Thomists".

I also wish he were a little less sloppy in his set-up, since his discussion of Aquinas on the real presence is not quite right, and I doubt many people without a fair amount of background would have an easy time figuring out what Kenny's problem actually was. On the first point, that he muddles Aquinas's account up a bit, he mixes up discussion of transubstantiation, real presence, and location, which while related points are distinct. Aquinas distinguishes the first two, although he thinks they are related; that's why he considers them in distinct questions -- transubstantiation is the account of the change when the elements become the sacrament, and real presence is something that has to be further argued. Aquinas completely separates the second and the third, because he doesn't think that all presence is local, and, as he points out, treating Christ's presence as local raises the puzzle of how Christ could be located here on this altar, wholly present, and also located at some other altar, wholly present. Thus Aquinas, pace Simpson, does in fact have a response to Kenny's problem: while the bread and wine has accidents that locate it, in the sense of containing it in a place, in transubstantiation the substance of these accidents is replaced by Christ Himself, but he does not take on the accidents of the bread and wine (so far we have Kenny's set-up) -- but obviously that includes the accidents that contain it in a place. There is no problem of how Christ can have the where of the bread and the wine if he doesn't take on the accidents that remain; he doesn't have the where of the bread and the wine. He is present there, but not localized there. (This is explicitly discussed in ST III.76.5.) Kenny is making the mistake of assuming that all presence is local presence. Consider the soul, what it is that makes you a living thing; it is present in your hand, but it would be an error to assume that your soul is localized in your hand, for the obvious reason that it's present elsewhere, too. Likewise, a cause that has localized effects can by way of those effects be present in their location without the cause itself being located there. So too Christ is wholly present under the accidents of both bread and wine, and on this altar and that altar, because Christ does not become bread and wine, and so doesn't take on, Himself, the location of bread and wine any more than he takes on the flavor and consistency of bread and wine. Christ's Body is present where the host is located; that location was in a sense a measurement of the bread, but it is not a measurement of the Body of Christ.

Now, while Scotus's discussion is not particularly easy to follow, he is quite aware of all these distinctions, despite his differences from Aquinas in discussing them; he denies that transubstantiation is the foundation of the doctrine of the real presence (the difference from Aquinas that Simpson notes, since Aquinas starts with transubstantiation and moves from there to discussing the real presence) and he treats the question of location as a further question beyond that of presence. I am not a scholar of Scotus by any means, but it seems to me that Scotus's insistence on separating the question of transubstantiation and that of real presence is that he wants to insist that Christ's ability to be present is not limited, so that you cannot say (for instance) that Christ can only be really present by transubstantiation or under some kind of sensible signs in a sacrament. Christ's doing this is for our sake, not because He is in any way limited to doing it this way; Christ could be present in the very same way even without transubstantiation. Thomists, I take it, are perfectly free to agree that Christ's ability to be present is not limited to transubstantiation, but would insist that that is necessarily a different kind of presence. Which is right is, I think, a more interesting question than Kenny's, which makes an assumption that both Aquinas and Scotus reject, that Christ could only be present on the altar by being Himself localized on it.

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