The following is the first half of a very pleasant discussion with Dr. Timothy O’Malley, the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, on his latest book Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter? The book is a helpful guide for catechists and theology teachers, but it is also an accessible read for anyone seeking to understand the Church’s Eucharistic doctrines and the role devotional life plays in forming a Eucharistic worldview. 

Robert Mixa: Tim, let’s begin with the findings of a 2019 Pew Research report which said that only 31 percent of Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Christ. I remember there was concern about the way the survey questions were phrased and whether or not the findings were truly representative. Can you elaborate on that report and the various responses to it?  

Timothy O’Malley: The study reports that 31 percent of people profess having faith in the Real Presence, or at least that’s the interpretation of the data. I believe the Pew report doesn’t actually get the doctrine of the Eucharist question correct, in fact. I think a lot of people may have answered “no” because what was actually asked in the Pew report isn’t the Church’s teaching.

So there are some real significant problems with the Pew report. In fact, my own institute, the McGrath Institute for Church Life, is doing a study with CARA meant to supplement the Pew report, so we can help people better understand what Eucharistic practice is. Relative to the responses, there has been a call for more catechesis, which is good. Whether the Pew report is precise or not, it’s very clear to me that most people don’t understand the technical language that the Church uses, even around the fact that there are two doctrines: the doctrine of Real Presence and the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Helping with precision and informing people are important. I think the invitation of Bishop Barron to do this is integral. There’s a variety of people who dismiss the whole thing. Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, dismisses the entire study. He agrees that it’s perhaps an accurate reflection but argues that understanding the Eucharist as Christ’s Real Presence doesn’t matter because the real focus should be on the presence of Christ amongst us, the gathered assembly who are transformed and recognize Christ in the world. Of course, there’s a huge problem with this critique because the Church is not just the gathering of people who get together because we like each other and we want to represent Jesus to the world, right? We’re convoked by a presence outside of ourselves.

And that presence is love itself, which is made manifest in the Blessed Sacrament. So, what gathers Robert and Tim and every single person throughout the world is not our own ingenuity, our own ideas, but the love of Christ. How do we start to recognize that? Well, we have to recognize the presence of love among us, and to do that, it’s a whole series of devotional and religious practices. This is why reverence is so essential. It’s part of catechesis. If you look at the New Directory for Catechesis, it underlines once more that simply teaching people the technical language of the doctrine covers only one dimension of a whole project of Eucharistic formation of learning to see and behold with the eyes of love the presence of Christ dwelling among us.

The Catholic theologian Reinhard Hütter explained that there are three kinds of divine presence: by way of divine essence; by way of the mission of the Holy Spirit; and by way of Christ’s substantial, personal presence, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. Sometimes we overlook the last way of being present. Can you explain the Real Presence, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and their distinction? 

The doctrine of Real Presence has been held from the earliest days of the Church. We find it in the letters of St. Paul, where he refers to the Eucharist as the presence of Christ that transforms the Church into Christ’s Body. We find it in the Gospel of John in chapter 6: Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you shall not have life within you.” This, of course, is a real sense of Eucharistic presence in the early Church. And we see it even picked up in early martyrs of the Church. We find it in Ignatius of Antioch. By AD 100, we have a profession that Christ is present in the Eucharist. And when we eat Christ’s Body and Blood, we are transformed and participate in divine life.

Some think Catholicsand maybe the Orthodoxare the only ones who believe in Real Presence. That’s actually not true. There are Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Anglicans who believe in the Real Presence. The point of contention is around transubstantiation, which is the doctrine that says that the substance of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. I’ll explain that in a bit. But the language of transubstantiation came about because of what happened in the early Church, certain language around symbols or signs were insufficient to the devotional realities that began to arise at the turn of the first millennium.

And so, what ended up happening was people became devoted to the Blessed Sacrament in different ways. There were Eucharistic processions, miracles, new devotions for perceiving the Eucharist with one’s eyes. You would gaze upon the Blessed Sacrament in love. The language of the early Church didn’t work in the same way, though, and so the Church began to use, in the course of a series of arguments, the language of transubstantiation, which was to protect the Church from a potentially dangerous or wrong understanding of Real Presence. I often encounter Mass-going Catholics who would attest that the Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, but they get it wrong, still, because they think that what we’re really doing is chewing on the physical flesh and blood of Jesus. 

Some Catholics think a Eucharistic miracle proves what’s happening, but that’s not what St. Thomas Aquinas says. By the time he writes on the Eucharist, transubstantiation is the substance, that which is not visible or tangible. It’s what makes a thing what it is. 

This is how I introduce substance to my students: A dog has a substance, which isn’t its stuff but what it is. It’s this particular dog, right? That makes it what it is. It’s the reason my daughter can yell out to our neighbor’s dogs, Ollie and Archie, when they look and say, “Oh, that’s Ollie and that’s Archie.” No matter whether they’re shaved or not. If Ollie and Archie lose a limb, my daughter will know that’s Ollie or Archie. And so that’s what makes it what it is. It’s not visible. It’s an act of the intellect or the understanding. And so what happens occurs in the substance, that which cannot be touched, tasted, smelled. It’s not a physical but a substantial change, entirely, of the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. It is his presence. It’s the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead and dwelling among us in a way as intimate as he did with his disciples, except given to us in a way that we can receive it.  

And so the speciesthat which is tangible, touchable, tastablethrough a miracle remain, but substantially it’s no longer bread or wine; it’s now Christ’s Body and Blood. And so when we receive the Eucharist, we receive what tastes like bread and wine. But what we’re really receiving is the person of Jesus who wants to unite himself to us. So, that’s the difference. Real Presence as a doctrine is saying, Christ is given. And there are a lot of our Protestant brothers and sisters who might agree with that doctrine. Where they struggle is with the language of transubstantiation, which is not a philosophical doctrine. It’s really a doctrine meant to guard the mystery of how Christ gives himself to us personally, in what looks like bread and wine.

That’s well said. You explained that in a way that does not require graduate coursework to understand. Can you elaborate on how Thomas Aquinas uses the term “substance” in his writings on transubstantiation? He’s not using it in the same way philosophers do, right? 

Right, because if it’s philosophy, it’s really bad philosophy. Aquinas is saying that this is different. It’s different from anything else. In some sense, he is upholding the mystery rather than explaining it away. I think that’s the heart of St. Thomas’ work. It’s saying this is a substance, unlike any other. And the real heart of the doctrine is just the promise that Jesus said on the night before he died, This is my body and this is my blood given for you. And that’s what St. Thomas wants to uphold, but also upholding the value of the Eucharist as real food, right? Manna, Passover—the food quality matters, right? It’s not just like Jesus could have done this with anything. That it comes to us as food really matters.