Aquinas, the Sacraments, and the Catholic Church
February 4, 2016
Steven Wedgeworth has posted a rebuttal to Leithart’s thesis. As y’all know, I posted a defense earlier this week. Wedgeworth’s piece is a long rebuttal, including complaints about “churchly nostalgia” and a defense of Calvinist hip-hop! It is worth reading. We come at all of this from very different places, to put it mildly.
I will not address all of Wedgeworth’s criticisms, but I must address his account of the sacraments. And then I will briefly address his take on Newman’s high-church aesthetics, which is very off the mark.
This will allow me to discuss a topic that I have wanted to discuss again for quite some time: Thomas Aquinas’ view of the sacraments, namely the Eucharist.
Blame it on Trent?
Wedgeworth argues that Leithart has the doctrine of the sacraments all wrong, at least the Roman Catholic view. Here is Wedgeworth, worth quoting in full:
In Leithart’s words, a proper use of symbolism allows objects to “be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else.” This is all actually very interesting, and at the heart of Dr. Leithart’s larger career project, but it is not the way in which “sacraments” were debated at the time of the Reformation.
Assuming for a moment that Zwingli himself could not allow symbols to “to be both themselves and also… without ceasing to be what they are… something else,” it is abundantly clear that another religious party also had this very problem. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine cease being bread and wine when they become the body and blood of Christ. Thus Zwinglian poetics ought to be in close company with Roman Catholic poetics. Blame it on Marburg if you like, but don’t forget Trent.
This is far more than a cute tu quoque. When it comes to the Eucharist, the Tridentine position, which is still the definitive one for Rome, is that “a conversion is made 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.” Indeed, the Council of Trent had a strong revulsion towards any assertion that both bread and body or wine and blood existed together at the same time:
“If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.”
This is a major problem for the sacramental poetics of Miss Flannery as Dr. Leithart has represented them. If the Eucharist really was the center of her existence, and if she really was a good Roman Catholic, then she ought not to have been able to write as she did. Perhaps she was a subconscious Lutheran. …
Is this true? Leithart argues that the sacraments operate simultaneously as themselves and as “something else.” For the Eucharist, this would mean that the signs used in the sacrament (bread and wine) are also Jesus himself in the Eucharist while remaining bread and wine. According to Wedgworth, this is not the Roman Catholic position. His argument is that the Council of Trent definitely stated that the elements of the bread and wine are no longer present but instead, at the time of the consecration, changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As such, the sign is no longer the sign (in reality) but entirely substituted by the reality to which it ostensibly signifies.
That is a common enough account, but it is not correct, as I understand Trent and the official Roman position. As is well-known, the Tridentine position on the sacraments is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Even though Trent avoids canonizing the substance/accident categories of Aquinas, it is impossible to understand Trent without understanding Aquinas. It is wholly permissible for a later generation to substitute these categories with other, perhaps better and more serviceable, categories, so long as Trent is properly understood and affirmed in the distinctions that it intends. That, at least, is the duty of the Catholic theologian.
So, what is Trent actually saying? It all depends upon what Trent means by “substance.” It does not mean what we would mean. According to the standard Oxford Latin Dictionary of Lewis & Short, substantia means “that of which a thing consists, the being, essence, contents, material, substance.” For accidens, it is defined as “non-essential quality of any thing,” with a parenthetical note opposing the Latin substantia and the Greek οὐσία. According to Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin (Oxford, 1949), substantia means “a real existence; the thing itself,” referring to Tertullian, and substantialis means “substantial, real, essential,” also citing Tertullian. These definitions are, admittedly, not entirely helpful for clarifying matters. The reason is because they are abstract categories with, as you would expect, a broad and shifting referential range.
Most importantly, the “that of which a things consists” in terms of its “contents” or “material” or “substance” is different today from what it was in Aquinas’ day. We are far more likely to refer to the physical properties, chemical composition, and graphical terrain of any object as “essential” and therefore the “substance” of the object. That is not what Aquinas means, and it is not what Trent means. I first grappled with this topic by taking a very close, hard look at what Aquinas says, how he uses these categories, and the limits he places upon them. Luckily for myself, I have already dealt with this on the blog:
The moral of the story is that we must attend to the particular context in which these categories are used in order to understand what they mean. Yes, the substance is replaced by the substance of another (hence, “transubstantiation”), but what does Aquinas mean by “substance”? For Aquinas, substance is a non-local property, and this is a non-negotiable for dealing with this Thomist view of “the real presence” of Christ. As a local property, substance would acquire the properties of a local presence, which is spatially circumscribed. If that were the case, these properties would be essential to the “appearance,” which is (in Thomist language) the “accidents” and therefore not essential to the “substance.” I know that this is complicated for most people, but I try to explain it in the three-part series above on Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation.
The point is rather simple, all things considered. The properties of bread and wine remain after consecration, insofar as they are physically and chemically and spatially defined — which is entirely how they are defined today as their “essential” properties. This is the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware of anyone, knowledgeable on the subject, who would disagree with me on that. I am, of course, very open to any challenges. Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985) defines transubstantiation as “only a transformation of substance, not of the incidental properties or accidents of the bread and wine. The appearance of bread and wine, therefore, remains” (p. 306). That is true, but we are prone to mistake “incidental” and “appearance” in ways that Aquinas and Trent never intended. The accidental properties that remain (the bread and wine) are not incidental in the sense of being capable of substitution by other properties! But that is exactly how we think of “incidental.” Likewise, the accidental properties are not mere “appearances” in the sense of a magical hallucination but are, in fact, the concrete properties that a scientist can verify and the Catholic can affirm as “really” present.
All of this is to say, the Roman Catholic position allows for the sort of “real” presence of the sign while allowing for the “real” presence of the signified, precisely in the way that Leithart argues.
John Henry Newman’s Aesthetic Motivations?
As a part of Wedgeworth’s criticism of “nostalgia,” he brings Newman and the 19th century into his discussion:
The move towards a “High Church” aesthetic began in the 19th century, with figures like Orestes Brownson and John Henry Newman, and it has continued throughout the 20th century with many celebrated examples. In nearly every case, these figures did not produce their literary or artistic works because of their newfound religious tradition, but instead found the new religious traditions because of the literary or artistic quests.
This is so incredibly wrong, if the second sentence is meant to apply to Newman. I don’t blame Wedgeworth, honestly, because he is simply placing Newman into a common narrative of 19th century theology and philosophy. As many of y’all know, I have spent a considerable amount of time with John Henry Newman. I have read most of his published works, and I wrote a master’s dissertation at Aberdeen on his most difficult work: the culminating masterpiece of his career, A Grammar of Assent, which has been unduly neglected in comparison to his more famous Essay on Development and the celebrated Apologia.
The best place to begin with Newman is actually his Oxford University sermons, while an Anglican, now published by the University of Notre Dame, which currently publishes most of his works. These are not typical sermons but more like lectures, and yet Newman was beloved by the students who flocked to see this quiet, shy, humble man in the pulpit. He had none of the charisma that we associate with a celebrated figure. There is a strong continuity from his Oxford sermons to the essay on development to the apologia and finally A Grammar of Assent, and you can clearly see it in his early work on the doctrine of justification.
The continuity is the priority that Newman places on the moral conscience. If we consider the Platonist transcendentals of truth/reason, goodness, and beauty, then we must say that Newman puts goodness and the conscience in the driver’s seat, with reason and beauty in a definitely subordinate position.
This is not altogether uncharacteristic of the 19th century, given the priority of moral or practical reasoning (usually associated with Kant) in matters theological, especially by the time of Ritschl. But aesthetics is also a defining feature of the 19th century (usually associated with Herder and others who reacted against 18th century rationalism and strict empiricism). Where does Newman stand? It is quite clear. Newman is deeply suspicious of the “aesthetes” who place beauty in the driver’s seat, including the more sophisticated and impressive accounts of a Coleridge or Blake. This is why it is wrong to characterize Newman as finding Rome because of an aesthetic quest. Far from it, even though that may have been the case with many of his peers. If aesthetics were in control, then Newman would have happily stayed in his beloved Oxford Anglicanism, instead of moving to the industrial Birmingham and founding an Oratory and inspiring others to do the same among the working class.
The most surprising thing of all, for anyone who has studied Newman, is how little aesthetics is part of his quest for religious truth. I believe that aesthetics is very much a part of his moral epistemology, but the law of God is the fundamental determination in his thought. This is even more clear in his collection of sermons after his conversion: Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations.
Newman is such an anomaly for his time and far more so today.