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:

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part two

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part three

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.


Image: source


16 Responses to “Aquinas, the Sacraments, and the Catholic Church”

  1. cal said

    I didn’t know that Newman had put such an emphasis on the good. I guess I’ve only read/heard the standard, Kingsley, account that he was the worst kind of aesthete.

    In terms of the Eucharist, from Aquinas’ account, do you find transubstantiation, when properly accounted, not oppositional to your own Reformed place? Or something else?

    As for me, I appreciate how Calvin was able to bring the presence of the Spirit back into the Supper. I think there’s a way, as in the Temple, to bring back altar and table together as one, not as opposed. I dislike transubstantion, but I also dislike Lutheran consubstantiation, receptical, and the Reformed, ‘by faith’, approaches. I think Chelcicky, an unknown out of the Bohemian tumult, had an interesting perspective between Rome and the very Genevan sounding Taborites.


    • Kevin Davis said

      Newman was definitely not an aesthete. This is abundantly clear in his three major works — the essay on development, the apologia, and the grammar of assent — but it is even more clear and very accessible in his sermons, both before and after his conversion. All of this is free online at

      I do believe that Thomas and Calvin are closer than is often believed in their doctrine of the Eucharist. However, it requires a lot of theological work to mediate between the two. Calvin, obviously, has no interest in defining and employing the Greek categories of Aquinas, because Calvin is committed to limiting himself, as much as possible, to the biblical categories.

      The mediation can happen because Calvin believes that the “body and blood” of Christ is in heaven, mediated to us by the Spirit, and Aquinas also believes that the “body and blood” of Christ is in heaven. The difference is how Aquinas (and Catholicism) believes that the “elements” on earth are also capable of communicating the “presence” of this same body, without being locally circumscribed. Is this antithetical to the Reformed position? I doubt it, but it does require us to rethink how a creaturely medium can truly “present” the living God and the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ. This requires us to rethink how the “essence” (or “substance”) of a creaturely “thing” can be divine without assuming that the creature has some claim upon the divine or capacity for the divine. I take it for granted that Chalcedon gives us the instructions for doing this work, difficult as it may be.

      • cal said

        I didn’t really mean much besides listing a technical and scholastic attempt to explain the Eucharist. I’ve heard that a Lutheran formulary is “in, with, under”. I’m not sure what that qualifies as. I know Consubstantion is a dirty word, so, in retrospect, I was sloppy to deploy it.

      • Ian said

        “‘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.’ And in all of these ways, the bread and wine remain — and also the body and blood remain in heaven.”

        Kevin, I’m not trying to be a Leithartian troll (though perhaps a lighthearted one) when I ask this, but ask I must: is this sort of a conciliar sleight of hand similar to Maritain claiming Aristotle was the first existentialist because he taught that existence precedes essence (in a heavily qualified sense)?

      • Kevin Davis said

        I don’t think so, but admittedly it is people like Schillebeeckx (who I quote in the series) — and not traditional Thomists — who are the most forthright in confronting what this whole “substance” thing means and how it relates to everything we know (and, likewise, what Thomas knew) about physical properties as basic to the reality of any given thing in space/time.

        I know that the “existential Thomists” are no longer the cool guys in town — because nearly the whole theological academy (minus feminist/liberation folks) has shifted toward scholasticism and “rigorous” analytics and a downright obsessive inclination to reject any whiff of narrative or personalist approaches. I get it. The new generation, of which I am a part I guess, has to distinguish itself and indeed make genuine corrections. That’s an unrelated comment, but I just wanted to express it. Cheers!

    • Cal – I’m curious what specifically you mean by ‘Lutheran consubstantiation.’ Consubstantiation is a term rejected among Luther scholars, and Lutheran theologians generally (that is, rejected as applied to Luther–it absolutely applies to an earlier position which has not much in common with L). That said, you might just dislike Luther’s position on the Supper–but when I hear that word, I start to suspect that the speaker has been fed a slightly odd version.


      I’d tend to agree in finding a certain kinship between Thomas and Calvin, though I might point more specifically to the peculiar hitch through Leo’s Tome. That said, I see what Wedgeworth is saying, and am somewhat sympathetic–on a purely technical level, I’m not sure Leithart’s thesis holds up so well. There really is an important sense in which the bread & wine aren’t bread & wine anymore–their properties are. Not nothing, but not perhaps exactly what Leithart wants.

      Again, on the other hand, I think something related to Leithart’s broader point is almost uncontroversially right. We needn’t dig into the finer points of Reformation or Medieval eucharistic theology to see this–in much of the Protestant world, the Supper simply isn’t anything but a human act with some prayers stuck to it. Much of popular Protestantism IS sub-Zwinglian and crudely literal in any number of ways.

      • cal said

        My above comment was for you, but another thought:

        Zwingli was a unique view but this kind of anti-sacramentalism has nothing to do with him. Rather, its wide appeal is a certain embarrassment with ritual that Enlightenment philosophes initiated and has stuck around within the Church. I’ve witnessed enough Roman Catholics who show equally a skepticism towards it. A priest once gave out the host to people he knew were most likely non-Catholic. He’s not seriously concerned of eating damnation upon oneself!

      • Kevin Davis said

        There really is an important sense in which the bread & wine aren’t bread & wine anymore–their properties are. Not nothing, but not perhaps exactly what Leithart wants.

        I wouldn’t say that what Leithart wants, in regard to the sacraments, is altogether clear, or that Aquinas — rightly understood — is precisely what he wants. But I am saying that Aquinas is not properly understood (and therefore Trent is not either), and Wedgeworth’s comments on Trent reflect this misunderstanding. My argument is that, in the way that we would define the “substance” of the bread and wine, the bread and wine remain after the consecration — according to Roman dogmatics. To quote myself, “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.” And in all of these ways, the bread and wine remain — and also the body and blood remain in heaven.

        I’ve been pondering the relation to Calvin. My argument, if it is true, would remove some metaphysical obstacles between the Catholic and the Reformed teaching on the Eucharist. But, the Catholic doctrine is still focused on giving some ontological account of the elements, whereas Calvin’s attention — and the Reformed as a whole — is entirely on the reality signified, not on the elements (or, at least, minimally so). Likewise, the Reformed liturgies are “disembodied” relative to the Roman liturgy. It would seem that a Catholic could criticize Calvin’s teaching as leading, albeit unintentionally, to a de facto memorialism in the Reformed churches.

      • I agree with your summary of Aquinas, but be careful. There’s a huge disjunction between how we use names and how Aquinas takes them to attach to things. Saying, “well, we’d call this substance” is granting that we in fact don’t accept the theory of substances as Aquinas relates it, and we aren’t metaphysical realists. It’s important to recognize that Aquinas really does think names work in the way he says.

  2. That’s a fair point, and I think goes to Wedgeworth’s critique of Leithart– the sorts of genealogies that identify some distant dogmatic original sin are fashionable right now, but often historically suspect. In this case compounded by American evangelicalism’s hesitance to recognize itself as post-Enlightenment (in fact, resistance to locating itself historically at all, except in direct succession to Acts and maybe a couple of Reformers).

    On the consubstantiation thing–“in, with and under” phrasing does go back to Luther, though it’s hardly a formulation he insisted on. He doesn’t seem to me very concerned to work out the relation between the bread and Christ in a precise way–from his premises, it’s not that complicated a matter (the basic logic is the same as the relation between water and the word in baptism, or even the word of the preacher and Christ himself in the sermon). All his real effort is expended on the proper use of the sacrament–gift rather than sacrifice, to be received in faith, for the forgiveness of sins, etc. What’s distinctive is the way he collapses the distinction between signum and res–but that would make a rather less pithy formula, wouldn’t it?

  3. cal said

    “I wouldn’t say that what Leithart wants, in regard to the sacraments, is altogether clear”

    If you will, please allow this to be a soapbox for my conspiracy theory:

    I think Peter Leithart stirs the pot in these ways because he is trying to catapult himself and his ideas into the mainstream. I think he is, in essence, trolling the Evangelical/Conservative Christian blogosphere for publicity. When he put out that “The End of Protestantism”, not only did he get the internet in a tizzy, but he got a Biola talk out of it, the 2nd year with him being a kind of MC and getting Theopolis out there.

    I think Leithart is an opportunist, but one, in his mind, that is sanctified. He is trying to escape the legacy of FV (almost being destroyed in the PCA witch-hunt) and Doug Wilson (who’s ship is sinking into the Sea of Obscure Cultdom). He is trying, with all his soul, to get James Jordan’s voice, who is normally cantankerous and cranky, an audience, and “save” Evangelicalism from itself.

    These carpet-bomb, full assault posts get qualified into meaninglessness and trivialities. In the spirit of Jack Sparrow:

    “You’re the worst Pirate I’ve ever heard of”
    “Ah, but you have heard of me!”

    *steps off, wiping the spittle from my wild, dirty, and unshaven mouth*


    • Kevin Davis said

      Ha, ha, ha — I love this, even though I obviously disagree that his thesis gets “qualified into meaninglessness and trivialities.” It is heavily qualified, and that was a primary motivation on my part for coming to his defense. But there is still a wide and influential swath of Protestantism that is truly indicted by Leithart.

      Having said that, you may very well be correct in regard to Leithart’s strategy and politicking. I acknowledged at the beginning of the previous post that the title alone was meant to cause controversy and bring attention, even though it is misleading. But I find it hard to blame Leithart for doing this. At this point in history, Protestantism is a fairly incoherent movement, and the only way to hope to influence and refashion Protestantism is to play the populist field to your advantage. This will obviously raise the ire of principled intellectuals, like yourself. Likewise, it frustrates those within the Reformed world who are basically doing the same thing (Wedgeworth & co.): creating their own branding for a high-minded, serious Reformed theology and practice. They are all fighting for the increasingly diminishing and increasingly implausible embodiment — ecclesiastically and socially — of their vision of Protestant fidelity to the Word.

      • cal said

        Yeah, perhaps a more optimistic spin is “populist” rather than “spinster” or “opportunist”. Though I do find him kind of goofy on this front. I recall quite vividly when he wrote, more or less, he hoped non-sacramental Protestantism was “blasted from the Earth” and to turn its grave into a dance-floor. I instantly pondered, given Leithart’s charisma (lacking), what kind of dancing would he plan to do? The images in my mind were amusing. He is no Luther belching at the Papists, truly a peasant among peasants. At least Calvin did not pretend to be one of the “boyz”.

        I am flattered to be referred to as a “principled intellectual”. My evaluation is not completely negative. I do not believe hiding in a tower of academia (even churchly academia) is worthwhile or helpful. So, I am not faulting him for trying to stand amongst the hoi polloi. It’s what anyone ought to do. I commend him for taking what really are rather unpalatable ideas and attempting to make them accessible. He’s attempting what Mercersburg and Radical-Orthodoxy have generally failed to do.

        But, he’s just kind of an awkward guy and he is no common-man. As any cursory reading of Theopolis’ culture pieces will show, he’s pretty out of touch, by maybe 40 years or so, with American culture at large. While I do not think it is destiny for old men to become obsolete, he certainly has become the weird old-guy who tries to be “hip”, but no one buys it.

        Yea, Evangelicalism is sort of diffusing and dying. That’s probably a good thing. I am connected with a network (Missio Alliance) that is at least interesting in how they are trying to deal with the 21st century. They have their problems, but it’s still enjoyable to participate. The Modern disgust in all rituals is giving way, even among so called “Zwinglians”. A guy I recommend is Dave Fitch, he’s a pretty cool dude.

      • Kevin Davis said

        I commend him for taking what really are rather unpalatable ideas and attempting to make them accessible. He’s attempting what Mercersburg and Radical-Orthodoxy have generally failed to do.

        That’s right, and — as my comment indicated — I am skeptical of its success. I am actually capable of being rather critical of Leithart, but I am easily annoyed with his detractors. I do not see Wedgeworth in particular as doing anything substantially different, yet he is happy to quibble on details that are inconsequential at best. Do we wonder why most people in our society ignore us? Sure, there are hardened hearts, a capitalist numbing of our wills, and a demonic allure to find security within ourselves — but our Protestant divisions and group interests are underlined by claims that are ultimately subjective. Everyone knows it, even if only subconsciously. We routinely give evidence for our basic incoherence.

        I will look at your missions alliance. You are certainly right that the disgust for rituals is waning. But, of course, this could lead to the dead end of the “emergent” church, which had little impact even in its heyday.

  4. landser said

    I don’t know how anyone could believe the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

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