Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Praesentia Realis

 A recent article, The Eucharist is about more than the real presence, by Thomas Reese, got a great deal of (deserved) pushback on social media recently. I normally wouldn't pay much attention to it, as Fr. Reese is famously one of those modern priests who likes talking about how to make theology relevant to the broader culture yet whose shaky grasp of theology is balanced by a nearly non-existent grasp of what is appealing to the broader culture. However, one paragraph in the article caught my attention:

Since my critics often accuse me of heresy, before I go further, let me affirm that I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I just don't believe in transubstantiation because I don't believe in prime matter, substantial forms and accidents that are part of Aristotelian metaphysics.

As people have pointed out, the doctrine of transubstantiation isn't based on Aristotelian metaphysics; the Fourth Lateran Council defined it as a dogma before Aristotelianism had made a comeback, and the metaphysics of Aristotle himself doesn't have the resources for talking about transubstantiation. All the major scholastics had to make modifications to the metaphysics in order to discuss the doctrine. Thus transubstantiation makes no appeal to Aristotelian metaphysics, and the doctrine is not based on any considerations arising from Aristotelian metaphysics. But this wasn't really what caught my eye. What caught my eye was that the way real presence is being talked about here was a little odd. I couldn't figure why, at first, in part because Fr. Reese never explicitly says what he means by 'real presence', which obscures the oddity, but it was bugging me. And finally I realized it: Fr. Reese can say something like this paragraph because he doesn't know what 'real presence' means.

The give-away is that he dismisses 'prime matter', 'substantial forms', and 'accidents' as technical terms and contrasts these with 'real presence'. But the 'real' in 'real presence' is a technical term, not a colloquial one. It always has been. It does not mean 'genuine' or 'true'. (If you want to say that you believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, you say, "Christ is truly present in the Eucharist". This is a precondition for real presence, but is a much weaker claim.) Saying you believe in the real presence is not equivalent to saying that you believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, if by that you are just using 'really' as a colloquial synonym for 'truly' or 'actually'. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is His being, Himself, in the Eucharist -- not merely in an extended sense, not merely by proxy, not merely by sign, not merely by action, not merely in part, but Christ, himself, in his very person, present in the Eucharist. A technical way to say this would be something like "Christ is present as res". That's where the word 'real' comes from. Another technical way to state it is that Christ is present in proprietate naturae et veritate substantiae, in His proper nature and true substance. Aquinas, with his typical simplicity, likes to describe it by saying, "Christ as a whole is in the sacrament" or "The entire Christ is in the sacrament."

I suppose it's not surprising that contemporary Catholics show increasing confusion when asked about the real presence if the priests are misreading 'real presence' as a colloquial label rather than a technical label based on a highly specialized meaning of 'real'. And I suppose it's not surprising that Fr. Reese thinks the Eucharist is about more than the real presence if he doesn't understand that 'real presence' here is a technical philosophical way of indicating something like 'Christ Himself in the fullness of what He is'. But I also suppose that a man who doesn't know this probably should not be giving people advice about Eucharistic renewal.

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