Friday, 27 July 2012

I’m with Müller: the Eucharist


The Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has a new head – Gerhard Müller, the former archbishop of Regensburg in Germany and he is being severely criticized by various ‘traditionalist’ groups. The accusation is heresy (a pretty tricky label to pin on the Church’s Chief Doctrinal Officer), principally on three counts: denying the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, denying the virgin birth and falsely proclaiming Church unity where it isn't there. From everything I have read by Archbishop Müller, I have a very positive impression, also for his saying the following:
“Faith is characterized by the greatest openness. It is a personal relationship with God, which has within it all the treasures of wisdom. Because of this our finite reason is always in movement toward the infinite God. We can always learn something anew and understand with ever greater profundity the richness of Revelation. We will never be able to exhaust it.”
To me this sounds exactly like the right attitude and what I have read by his accusers just seems to reveal their insecurity and their sense of feeling threatened by his freedom and lightness of approach. So, what I will try to share in the coming days is my understanding of the three counts on which he is being charged with heresy and I'll start with the most important one by far – the Eucharist.

Before giving some thought to what Müller said, I would like to come clean about the fact that I treasure and love the Eucharist and also that I believe in Jesus’ real presence there - in it being Jesus! (More on what ’real’ and ‘being’ means later, plus I hope my agnostic and atheist friends are not put off by my coming out like this and that they will bear with me for a couple of paragraphs :)

If you take Jesus seriously (and I do), you can't not take to heart when he says: “Take it; this is my body.” (Mark, 14:22) as he passes bread round to his disciples and next “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” (Mark, 14:24) when he does the same with wine. This is a very strange thing to say and definitely one that would have grabbed your attention had you been sat there with the apostles! What it means to me, and what it has meant to many over the last two thousand years, is that Jesus has left his followers a great gift - a way for them to have a relationship with him like that of the apostles. When I receive the Eucharist, or even when I walk past a church anywhere in the world, I thank him for his presence there and I both derive strength from it and take it as an opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to following him with all my strengths and weaknesses.

OK, lets turn to Müller now and see what he actually said, that earned him such ferocious criticism:1
"In reality, body and blood of Christ do not mean the material components of Jesus the human during his lifetime or of his risen bodily existence. Here, body and blood refer much more to the presence of Christ in the sign of bread and wine."
The way I read it is as follows: bread and wine don't materially turn into the bodily parts of Jesus (i.e., there isn’t a restructuring of matter from predominantly carbohydrates to predominantly proteins) during transubstantiation. Instead, bread and wine acquire Jesus' real presence while phenomenologically remaining only its signs. In other words, I see bread and wine while I believe that the priest’s acting on Jesus’ behalf when repeating his words from the Last Supper brings about Jesus' presence. My affirmation of the Eucharist really being Jesus is an act of faith and is in no way compromised by stating that the bread and wine have not altered in a way accessible to the senses.

So, while the above attempt at unpacking Müller’s statement merely transposes it into my words and exposes that I fully agree with him, let’s take a look at whether it sounds like what the Church teaches:
“[B]y 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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1376)
In essence, Müller changes nothing in how St. Thomas Aquinas puts that the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist “cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone” (Summa Theologica, III, 75, 1), but for the sticklers there remains the question of what the Catechism means by ‘substance.‘ Here we have to refer back to Aristotle, whose theory of being it employs and where a distinction is made between a thing-in-itself (the substance) and its properties (which can be accidental or essential). Loosely put (for to do anything else would take us way off track), the substance of something is that which is inaccessible about it to the senses, while its properties are what is. This distinction between the sense-accessible and sense-inaccessible is echoed throughout the history of ontology and there are certainly other, more recent ways of thinking and talking about it than Aristotle’s ones. In Müller’s defense, it is plenty to realize though that his ’presence’ refers to ‘substance‘ while his labeling bread and wine as ‘signs’ refers to their ‘properties.’

Finally, it is worth remembering though that the above sophistication of thought is merely an attempt at being formal and structured about something that is ‘technically’ unknown and that fully relies on faith.

1 Note that the quote is my own translation, as opposed to the following, Googlified one, bandied around on English websites: “In reality, the body and blood of Christ do not mean the material components of the human person of Jesus during his lifetime or in his transfigured corporality. Here, body and blood mean the presence of Christ in the signs of the medium of bread and wine.” For the German speakers among you, here is what he said directly: „In Wirklichkeit bedeuten Leib und Blut Christi nicht die materiellen Bestandteile des Menschen Jesus während seiner Lebenszeit oder in der verklärten Leiblichkeit. Leib und Blut bedeuten hier vielmehr Gegenwart Christi im Zeichen des Mediums von Brot und Wein.“ quoted from „Die Messe.: Quelle christlichen Lebens “, Augsburg, S. 139f.