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Sunday Thought: Revealed Unto Babes

It is easiest to tell what transubstantiation is by saying this: little children should be taught about it as early as possible. Not of course using the word...because it is not a little child's word. But the thing can be taught... by whispering. ."Look! Look what the priest is doing...He's saying Jesus' words that change the bread into Jesus' body. Now he's lifting it up. Look! Now bow your head and say 'My Lord and my God...' "
I have spoken of teaching little children, both because it is important in itself and because it is the clearest way of bringing out what "transubstantiation" means. That word was devised (first in Greek and then in Latin by translation) to insist precisely on this: that there is a change of what is there, totally into something else. A conversion of one physical reality into another which already exists. So it is not a coming to be of a new substance out of the stuff of an old one...Nor is it like digestion in which what you eat turns into you. For these are both changes of matter, which can assume a variety of forms. When one says "transubstantiation" one is saying exactly what one teaches the child, in teaching it that Christ's words, by the divine power given to the priest who uses them in his place, have changed the bread so that it isn't there anymore (nor the stuff of which it was made) but instead there is the body of Christ. The little child can grasp this and it is implicit in the act of worship that follows the teaching. I knew a child, close upon three years old and only then beginning to talk, but taught as I have described, who was in the free space at the back of the church when the mother went to communion. "Is he in you?" the child asked when the mother came back. "Yes," she said, and to her amazement the child prostrated itself before her. I can testify to this, for I saw it happen. I once told the story to one of those theologians who unhappily (as it seems) strive to alter and water down our faith, and he deplored it: he wished to say, and hoped the Vatican Council would say, something that would show the child's ideas to be wrong. I guessed then that the poor wretch was losing the faith, and indeed so, sadly, did it turn out.

From "On Transubstantiation" by Elizabeth Anscombe
Collected Philosophical Papers, V.III: Ethics, Religion, and Politics, 1981, Univ. of Minnesota Press

Comments (11)

There seems to be an implicit argument here (maybe) for transubstantation which has something to do with the importance of change and something new being brought about.

But this isn't quite right, is it: He's saying Jesus' words that change the bread into Jesus' body.

What changes isn't so much the bread (it goes out of existence) but the accidents, which undergo the change of inhering in the bread to inhering in (is that right? or is it some other relation?) Christ's body.

But there's a change for consubstantationists as well and I wonder if they couldn't say the very same things as Anscolm with minor changes. There's something new on the consub. view. "There, right there, kid, co-located with the bread is now Christ's body. Look, kid. Something has changed. Before in that place there was one substance, now there are 2."

Dear Duns - Here is an entry on Consubstantiation from The old Catholic Encyclopedia


Thanks for that link, although it's not really clear to me exactly what counts as Consubstantiation from that encyclopedia entry (although whatever it is is a heresy--if you're a Catholic as it notes straightaway). One sensible view--a view which is consistent with a literal reading of "This is my body"--is that the bread and Jesus' body are co-located. "This (right here) is my body."
Don't know if that falls under what's typically referred to as Consubstantiation, but it seems to me as plausible as accidents remaining through a substantial change. At any rate, my point is that it's not perfectly clear that Anscombe's insight is unique to transubstantiation but not other real bodily presence views.


I'm fascinated with this topic. This passage seems key:

"When one says "transubstantiation" one is saying exactly what one teaches the child, in teaching it that Christ's words, by the divine power given to the priest who uses them in his place, have changed the bread so that it isn't there anymore (nor the stuff of which it was made) but instead there is the body of Christ."

What does she mean by "it isn't there anymore"? Surely if we analyzed the communion wafer with scientific tests, we'd find it was still a communion wafer. So what is the miracle? That the wafer, despite its form as a wafer is now the body of Christ? Should we think of the wafer as now having a sort of 'false' outward appearance and that its essence (not sure what this means) is really the body of Christ? I suppose this is why a proper metaphysics is useful -- it helps to have a good sense of what the church means (or a philosopher like Ed) means when they talk about the essence or the accident of a substance (or maybe I'm not even using the right words).

Interestingly, whatever the philosophy, I tend to agree with the kid -- taking communion for me is a beautiful miracle every time and helps make Mass an experience filled with joy.

What does she mean by "it isn't there anymore"?

I think she means that only the physical appearance remains (and not a false appearance) and that its substance has changed into the body and blood of Christ. Scientific tests would (I assume) certainly reveal "bread," so if the doctrine is true, it might say something about what science is actually capable of seeing, or of what "substance" really means. Certainly someone like Ed could be helpful, though I doubt you'll find anyone who can explain it to our satisfaction. If you do, I really want to meet him.

I, of course, was more interested in the contrast in faith between a theologian and a 3 year old, for if the theologian was deserting this doctrine, you can be sure that the others were soon to follow. And by the fact that the story is told to us by a philosopher who did not think her capacity for mental rigor in any way compromised by her willingness to acknowledge the miraculous. It's an attitude not so widespread these days.

There is a difference between the accidental and the ontological. Suffice to say, the accidents of the Eucharist don't change, at least 99.999999% of the time (though exceptions do exist, are recorded, and are properly venerated). I'm not all that well versed in the subject matter, and perhaps my betters would be able to further describe the topic.

As for the real sting of this article, it's the heterodox theologian. As if on cue, he mutters about Vatican II not being radical enough. He spent his whole life vandalizing the Faith to accommodate his adolescent worldview, only now finding that the Barque of Peter hasn't budged. He's likely soon for retirement, and as with all men, the dirt.

I try to forgive the likes of that theologian. His kind very nearly had me lose my soul, and while I work on forgiving, I shall never forget.

Reading this has made me realise I'm extremely befuddled, and I'm wondering if people here can help me out (or direct me somewhere I can find answers). My bufuddlement arises from a realisation I don't understand something about the thesis of transubstantiation - it's probably best to present it as an inconsistent triad. (I've included the thesis of transubstantiation in the triad, but I'm not offering this as an argument against it!)

1. Post change, the wine is identical to the blood.

2. Blood is a fluid that consists of plasma in which red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are suspended [from a dictionary]

3. Post change, The wine is not a fluid that consists of plasma in which ...

Which of (2) and (3) is false? Am I right in thinking that (3) is false? Is the 'consisting of ...' an accident of the substance? Or is (2) false - the wine does actually consist of plasma and so on, but merely appears not to if we were to look at it under a microscope?

oops, I meant 'wine-ish appearing stuff' in 1-3.


The meaning of "substance" is somewhat different in theology and philosophy than in, say chemistry. The source of your befuddlement is greatly based on perspective, of which the modern one is far more heavily weighted upon the materialist.

Chemically speaking, you won't find (in 99.999999999% of cases, there have been exceptions) any trace of hemoglobin in either species of the Eucharist. This is the material observation. However, please understand that viewing solely on the material appearance (accidents) is a rather new, and often incoherent, perspective in human history.

What a thing is, that is, beyond the crude swapping of electrons, has a great more to deal with a higher reality. Higher realities are not my strong suit, but here are a few:

Your body loses matter and gains it continually. Cells die and cells are and living ones split to make up for it. So are you any more or less you than you were ten years ago? Are you more you than you were as a child, simply because you have more mass? Or were you more you when you were a teenager, since you don't start losing brain cells in appreciable numbers until after you are twenty?

While all matter can be reduced to particles, not everything that is real can be. What is molecular composition of Truth? What subatomic particles compose Justice? What strange quarks are used to make Honesty?

Yet all these things are higher realities of a subordinate nature. God, and what God wills things to be, transcend not only the crude matter, but also the subordinate higher reality. If God wills wine be blood, yet retain the sensual appearance of blood, is it blood? More intriguing, is that the sacred species of the Blood of Christ contains not merely His Blood, but also His Flesh, His human nature and His divine. Can divinity be passed into human digestion and incorporated chemically? These are things to ponder, to wrestle with, as we are so inundated with materialism, we have collectively lost the ability to notice the transcendent. Reading John 6 is also helpful.

Thanks! I guess I'm still a bit confused.

I have in mind standard externalist thought experiments in philosophy involving water/H20 and twater/XYZ.

They motivate the thought that water - the stuff around us, in rivers, streams and so on - has an internal essential nature, being composed of H20. Other stuff can appear the same way, but without the same internal nature it fails to be H20. Conversely, H20 in some weird state so it appears different from how water normally does still counts as water in virtue of having the same internal nature.

Is the idea behind 'higher realities' just to take this one step further? There's a level of reality beyond the chemical, which plays the same role chemical reality might be supposed to by materialistic folks in determining which substances are identical irrespective of their superficial properties?

I guess I can make some sense of that. But my worry is then that it seems to make sense to suppose that we know what blood is - it has a certain biochemical nature (or indeed we know what water is - it is H20, as any schoolboy will tell you). That seems to be how most people use the term - they use it such that it latches on to chemical features. But from the Catholic viewpoint these feature are as inessential to substance being the substance it is as it's superficial appearance.

So if we use the term the ordinary way, we end up saying something like the post chance liquid is identical with a substance that is (was?) the blood of Christ, but it does not have the chemical properties of blood, and so is not blood. To put it another way, the substance which is the blood of Christ is only contingently blood (because it is present not as blood after transubstantiation).

Not sure if that's right, but thanks for helping me think through it.


Actually, you are getting closer. The thing is, such things are mysteries, things that we will never fully comprehend. It gets even more difficult if those more knowledgeable about the subject use words and concepts that are themselves difficult to understand. I suppose just like any other kind of learning, however, once in a while you'll get a "eureka" moment, where things start fitting together.

I suppose some good exercise in understanding would perhaps contemplate God's relationship with matter and time in general, and use that as a backdrop towards the more specific mysteries, like Transubstantiation. Here should be a good one: consider that God is definitively perfect. As such, God cannot change, and must therefore be immutable, since to change requires an imperfect former state. As God does not change, time is irrelevant to Him, for time exists only as a measure of change, and so therefore He must be eternal. Now since God is perfect, immutable, and eternal, God can never contradict Himself, since that would imply imperfection and change.

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