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Transubstantiation: An Interview with Dr. Brett Salkeld

November 12, 2019


Today, Matt Nelson sits down with Dr. Brett Salkeld, in-house theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina in Canada. Dr. Salkeld is an expert in the doctrine of transubstantiation and, in today’s interview, he discusses the history and significance of the central Christian teaching in light of the recent Pew Research study that suggested the majority of Catholics today do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

It is rare to find someone with a PhD who is not working in academia. Tell us what you do for a living.

I am the Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina (in Saskatchewan, Canada). I got the job—back in my home diocese—because the previous Archbishop wanted to start a diaconate formation program, but we’re a long way from the nearest seminary or theology faculty. So diaconate formation is the biggest part of my work, but once you have a theologian on staff, you find lots for him to do.

I consult with the Archbishop and many others in the Archdiocese regularly on a wide range of topics. I write and speak (here in the diocese and across Canada). I have a podcast (Thinking Faith!) with our communications director, Deacon Eric Gurash. It’s really great to be “on the ground” so to speak. For many theologians the trick is to remember the Church outside academia. I have the reverse problem; I need to find a way to keep in touch with academia. One way I do this is by editing book reviews for the theological journal Pro Ecclesia.

Can you tell us about your dissertation, which was focused on transubstantiation?

Yeah. So, I wrote on transubstantiation as a question that divides Christians. Lots of Catholics don’t know it, but there has been remarkable movement ecumenically on the question of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Most Protestant denominations acknowledge some sense of presence beyond the merely symbolic (even if that understanding is still the most common in large evangelical communities that many of us encounter). But the achievements of the ecumenical dialogues on Real Presence were usually ambiguous on transubstantiation. It was often felt that the term was too “loaded,” and perhaps outdated, language best left behind in our ecumenical age.

The upshot of this decision was that people didn’t always know how to read the agreed statements. The irony was that Protestants were worried that transubstantiation was somehow smuggled in to them under new terminology. Catholics were worried transubstantiation had been quietly scuttled.

So I tried to tackle this problem head on. I did so by examining the agreements of the ecumenical movement and the responses to them and then by looking at the history and development of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Once through the historical work, I do a lengthy analysis of transubstantiation in St. Thomas Aquinas, followed by a study of the Eucharistic theologies of Martin Luther and John Calvin, with particular attention to their treatment of Real Presence, including, of course, their ostensible rejections of transubstantiation.

When you start digging, it becomes pretty clear that what Luther and Calvin were rejecting was not what Thomas was teaching (the term “substance” had undergone a serious shift in meaning between Thomas and Luther), and that what they did teach was not as different from transubstantiation as they, or almost anyone since them, suspected. This is not to say there is no difference, but getting clarity here helps show us much more precisely what the difference is. I even boldly suggest, in my conclusion, that transubstantiation, properly understood, could help overcome historical differences between Lutherans and Calvinists on the Eucharist.

Where did the term “transubstantiation” come from?

Historically, it emerges at a time when a new philosophical framework in Western Europe was making the Church’s traditional belief in Real Presence harder to understand. In the ancient world, symbol and reality were not seen as opposites. But as a more or less Platonist worldview faded in Western Europe they came to be seen as opposites, and the temptation was to pit a sacramental (sometimes almost merely symbolic) understanding of the Eucharist against a physical (sometimes almost cannibalistic) one. The Church needed language for something that was really really very real, but that was not physical in the normal sense. “Substance” fit the bill.

In Aristotelian philosophy “substance” is the deepest reality of the thing, and it is present not to the senses, but to the mind. So, for example, our senses perceive something white, granular, and sweet, but our intellect identifies “Sugar!” Sugar is something deeper than whiteness or sweetness or granularity. There is something that is more than the physical characteristics, something that has the physical characteristics.

After a fairly lengthy back and forth and some failed attempts, the Church settled upon “substance” language and within a generation the term “transubstantiation” was being used to describe the Eucharistic change of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. It was used in an undefined way at a Church Council in 1215 (Lateran IV). At that point it could still mean quite a variety of different things. With the work of St. Thomas Aquinas later that century, the term takes on the specificity it has for us today (e.g., it now means very precisely a change of the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Body and Blood of Christ). But before it could have meant that the substance of the bread and wine remained and had the substances of the Body and Blood of Christ added to them (consubstantiation) or that the substances of the bread and wine were destroyed and replaced by the substances of the Body and Blood of Christ (annihilation). The term also underwent some degradation after Thomas so that, by the time of Luther, the common understanding in nominalist philosophy was actually the annihilation theory. That was part of what led to Luther’s rejection of it (and Thomas would have seconded the motion!). 

In any case, Thomas’s version of transubstantiation is really the only one that counts in the Catholic tradition (Trent quoted it almost verbatim), and it is the one with the most ecumenical promise.

Are Catholics obligated to believe in transubstantiation? 

Very nearly! It is a very strange, perhaps unique, case in Catholic teaching. According to the Council of Trent, Catholics are to believe that transubstantiation is “most apt” for discussing Eucharistic presence. The Church is saying, in essence, “We’re talking about something that surpasses our conceptual categories, but about which we can still say useful and true things. And transubstantiation is about the best we’ve managed.”

This is actually really important for ecumenical dialogue. Our ecumenical partners do not need to profess transubstantiation to be in full communion with us. In this way, it is not like something like Christ’s divinity. Christ’s real Eucharistic presence is more like Christ’s divinity, in that we would need to know that we hold faith in it in common. But transubstantiation as a conceptual framework for understanding Christ’s Eucharistic presence is not strictly necessary for belief in Christ’s Eucharistic presence. That said, anyone denying transubstantiation would be seen to be denying something essential about Christ’s Eucharistic presence. So our partners would not need to use it as their own way of speaking about Christ’s presence, but an explicit rejection of transubstantiation would make full communion impossible.  It would need to be viewed by our partners as one legitimate, but not the only possible, way of talking about Real Presence.

What was your reaction to the recent Pew Forum study that suggested that a large number of Catholics today do not believe in the Real Presence?

Two things, really. The first is that I was not super surprised. I mean, we all know Catholics who don’t believe in Real Presence. On the other hand, I thought the numbers sounded fishy. So I wanted to know more about the study itself. Sure enough, if you go digging, you find that the case is not nearly as bad among regular Mass attendees, which is an important consideration. But more that that, you find that the framing of the question was not well done.  There were two key problems. In the first instance, it set up a false dichotomy between symbol and reality that is alien to Catholic sacramental theology. I mean, the Baltimore Catechism (not to mention Aquinas himself) includes the category of “symbol” or “sign” as part of the definition of sacraments. Secondly, it used a term, “actually,” that has no defined theological meaning or pedigree. Is Jesus “actually” present?  Well, that depends what one means by “actually.” If one means “physically,” then no.  The Church uses the adverbs “really, truly, and substantially” to describe Jesus’ Eucharistic presence. It does not use “literally,” “physically,” “actually,” or any other such terms with no precise theological meaning. Another term that I think can work theologically is “sacramentally” (though it might be read as merely symbolic by some). Other studies (like the Disciple Maker Index) with different methodology have got different results. I am hopeful that the upcoming survey from CARA gives us a better method and, consequently, a clearer picture.

What do you believe are the major causes of this mass ignorance about the Eucharist among Catholics? 

There are quite a few things going on here. On the one hand, you have the large-scale abandonment of a lot of traditional language and practice after Vatican II. You have decades of catechetical work that often downplayed Christ’s Eucharistic presence in order to highlight other (often perfectly legitimate in themselves, but distorted when posed against an emphasis on Real Presence) elements of the Eucharistic mystery. You are also dealing with the fact that Christ’s Eucharistic presence is a witness to a very different worldview than the one prevalent in contemporary culture. To me that means two things. First, it means without significant catechetical, evangelistic, and liturgical work, a lot of people are going to be left in the dark about this central element of the Catholic faith. It will seem basically meaningless. I know that’s what it was for me for my first twenty-five years or so, even as a Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday. But second, it means that this central element is itself part of the antidote to a desacramentalized world. Transubstantiation is a witness to a world permeated by God, in which God is creator and God’s word is effective. So I think this question deserves a lot of our attention and resources. It is not peripheral. 

What can we do as evangelists to explain and defend the Real Presence to Catholics and non-Catholics?

The first thing is to get clear on what transubstantiation is and is not. I started working in this area when I learned about my own misconceptions in a class in grad school. I realized my dialogue with Protestants was often completely misrepresenting Catholic teaching. They were actually right to disagree with me! A lot of pop theology of transubstantiation is really lacking.

I think it is important, also, the get clear on the relationship between Real Presence and transubstantiation. Real Presence is an ancient and biblical doctrine. From a historical perspective that is impossible to deny, and many Catholics and Protestants can be brought a long way if you start there. Transubstantiation is a really effective way for coming to understand how this traditional article of Christian faith is not nonsense or incoherence. It allows us to clear away misconceptions that block the mystery, but it does not “solve” the mystery.

And of course, some people need this kind of intellectual work right up front. For others, something more experiential is more helpful. For most people, exposure to Eucharistic adoration is a better gateway. Then, if they have more intellectual questions, they are already approaching those questions seeking understanding, not seeking to debunk or argue. That can make a huge difference.

You have a book coming out soon on this topic, right? Tell us about it and where we can find it.

Yes, Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity is coming out from Baker Academic in November 2019. Baker is really a top-notch theological publisher and I was delighted when they accepted my proposal. Everything from the cover art to the endorsements (two Catholics and two Protestants, by the way) to the editing process has been really great. It’s based on the dissertation I described above, but I like to think it doesn’t read like a dissertation. (In fact, if it did, Baker would have rejected it.) But I had managed to publish a couple books before I did my dissertation, so I was consciously working on that project as if it were already a book manuscript. Of course you can get it through major online retailers, but I encourage people to support their local bookstores when they can, or order from the publisher’s website. That way authors and publishing houses get a much larger percentage of the sale and can keep on with the good work they’re doing.