Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, December 6, 2000
Catholics believe in transubstantiation


I am writing to respond to a report of comments by Professor Hans Gumbrecht regarding the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, quoted in the article, "Colloquium assembles scholars on 'The Medieval Senses'" (Stanford Report, Nov. 29). Professor Gumbrecht is quoted as saying, "After the transubstantiation, what is present and looks like bread is really Christ's body; and what looks like wine is really God's [sic] blood. For us, that's kind of weird. Now, for European medieval culture, this is as real as anything else." Aside from the fact that transubstantiation was also counterintuitive and extraordinary for medieval Christians, the problem here is the unspecified use of the first-person plural: To whom does "us" refer? To Protestants and to non-Christian religious believers, certainly, as well as to secular unbelievers. But not to Catholics, whether medieval or modern. In 1215, following New Testament foundations, patristic elaborations and earlier medieval developments, the Fourth Lateran Council
formally and explicitly defined transubstantiation as an article of faith. Today, the Roman Catholic Church continues to teach this dogma, just as it has taught it during the Protestant Reformation, the rise of modern science, the Enlightenment and beyond. Of course, if one severs transubstantiation from its place in the whole of the Catholic faith, tears it from a Catholic sacramental view of reality, isolates it from the Church's liturgy and life, spirituality and theology, then it is bound to seem "weird." Yet the fact is that whether or not they articulate their convictions with theological precision, faithful Catholics believe that transubstantiation occurs in every validly celebrated Mass ? including those celebrated on the Stanford campus every weekday and twice on Sundays. (Each week, a congregation of more than 1,000 people, including students, faculty, staff members and people from the surrounding communities, attends the Sunday afternoon Mass in Memorial Church.)

I quote from the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1376, which in turn quotes from the 16th-century Council of Trent: "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation." This catechism was published in 1992, not in the Middle Ages.

Historically, heightened pluralism and increasing numbers of competing truth claims have indisputably characterized Western modernity, and a fortiori global postmodernity. The fact that millions of orthodox Catholics exist today, however, makes it equally indisputable that the cultural diversity of our society includes those who believe and affirm that they receive realiter the body of their Lord in the consecrated host. We shouldn't overlook this fact in thinking about the transition from "medieval" to "modern."

Assistant Professor of History