Term Paper: Eucharist in Catholicism and Calvinism

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[. . .] Aquinas answers the objection "whether bread can be converted into the body of Christ" by stating that:

this is done by Divine power in this sacrament; for the whole substance of the bread is changed into the whole substance of Christ's body, and the whole substance of the wine into the whole substance of Christ's blood. Hence this is not a formal, but a substantial conversion; nor is it a kind of natural movement: but, with a name of its own, it can be called "transubstantiation." (Summa III.75 Article 4)

As to what this actually means -- surely each Eucharistic wafer cannot individually be transformed into the totality of Christ's actual body -- Aquinas propounds the doctrine of the Real Presence, which

For the body of Christ is indeed present under the species of bread by the power of the sacrament, while the blood is there from real concomitance, as stated above (1, ad 1) in regard to the soul and Godhead of Christ; and under the species of wine the blood is present by the power of the sacrament, and His body by real concomitance, as is also His soul and Godhead: because now Christ's blood is not separated from His body, as it was at the time of His Passion and death. Hence if this sacrament had been celebrated then, the body of Christ would have been under the species of the bread, but without the blood; and, under the species of the wine, the blood would have been present without the body, as it was then, in fact. (Summa III.76 Article 2)

The question of scriptural justification is very far from Aquinas' mind here. But it is worth noting how the Catholic Eucharist works in practice -- in Aquinas' or Calvin's day, and in our own. Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Roman Catholic liturgy was conducted in ecclesiastical Latin: the refusal of the Vatican to permit vernacular translation of Holy Writ and liturgical texts was central to the Reformation complaints about the church. But it is worth noting, without any intention to offend Catholic sensibilities, that the Latin liturgical words spoken at the moment of Transubstantiation -- "hoc est corpus meum," or "this is my body," a Latin translation of the words of Christ spoken in the Gospels and quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians -- is the origin of the English term "hocus-pocus" (as a corruption of "hoc est corpus"). Scholars link this directly to the doctrine of Transubstantiation; an Anglican cleric called Tillotson in the eighteenth century would state that "In all probability these common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of 'hoc est corpus', by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation." (quoted in "Abracadabra; Hocus-Pocus"). This is merely a natural consequence of the centrality of the Eucharist within the Catholic Mass -- at the moment of saying "this is my body" and "do this in memory of me" (whether in the Latin Tridentine rite or in the post-Vatican-II vernacular liturgy), the Priest raises the Eucharistic wafer and bows his head in silence, the congregation bows their heads too, and an altar-server rings a bell. The bell-ringing serves to remind us, though, that when the Catholic Mass was conducted in Latin, the congregation -- who presumably were not fluent in this dead language -- needed a reminder of the most sacred moment in the proceedings.

But for a Reformation thinker like Calvin, this demonstrates an appallingly cavalier attitude towards sacred matters, and Aquinas' dependence on the formal logic of Aristotle represents an inappropriate contamination of things which can be proven exegetically by reference to the text of the Bible and later traditions which introduce extraneous corruption. In point of fact, Calvin is not far off from the dismissive attitude towards the supposedly miraculous nature of Transubstantiation that lurks behind the etymology of "hocus-pocus": Calvin's biographer William Bouwsma notes that Calvin in his Sermon Number 19 on I Corinthians -- which, outside the Institutes represents some of Calvin's most comprehensive thinking on Eucharistic practice -- "compared the almost inaudible 'muttering' of the celebrant of a mass to the spell of a sorcerer" (Bouwsma 217). For Calvin these were questions of real salvation or damnation and not to be handled lightly. Again Bouwsma is helpful in understanding Calvin's attitude:

The seriousness with which [Calvin] took his responsibility in administering communion, as in everything else, helps to explain the importance he attached to excommunication. The possibility of some negligence on his part, he confessed, haunted him whenever the Lord's Supper had to be distributed because of his ignorance about the spiritual condition of communicants. The power to excommunicate might at least protect a few of these from eternal damnation. (Bouwsma 29)

Calvin's views on the Eucharist are summed up in Chapters 18 and 19 of the Fourth Book of the Institutes, which present his own doctrinal teaching on the matter in opposition to Roman Catholicism. This hinges on the idea of commemorating Christ's sacrifice within the Eucharistic act. For Calvin, the doctrine of Transubstantiation makes no sense as it requires the shedding of Christ's blood to be perpetually re-enacted, whereas his view of that sacrifice is that Christ died for the redemption of our sins once, and finally, and that the Eucharistic commemoration of the act is one which "seal[s] and confirm[s] the promise" made by that sacrifice:

We now, therefore, understand the end which this mystical benediction has in view -- viz. To assure us that the body of Christ was once sacrificed for us, so that we may now eat it, and, eating, feel within ourselves the efficacy of that one sacrifice, -- that his blood was once shed for us so as to be our perpetual drink. This is the force of the promise which is added, "Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you" (Mt. 26:26, & c.). The body which was once offered for our salvation we are enjoined to take and eat, that, while we see ourselves made partakers of it, we may safely conclude that the virtue of that death will be efficacious in us. Hence he terms the cup the covenant in his blood. For the covenant which he once sanctioned by his blood he in a manner renews, or rather continues, in so far as regards the confirmation of our faith, as often as he stretches forth his sacred blood as drink to us. (Institutes 2557-8).

This is much in line with Calvin's theology as a whole, which stresses the omnipotence and omnipresence of God, such that Calvin felt the need to point out exegetically that when Scripture refers to "God in Heaven" it is only doing so rhetorically, since God is of course always and everywhere at all times. By doing away with both Transubstantiation and the Real Presence, Calvin falls back upon the idea of the Holy Spirit, which takes the place of any actual presence of Christ but is, of course, to be identified with Christ as well through the doctrine of the Trinity, which Calvin upheld alongside those Catholics he otherwise disagreed with, in a mutual stand against Arianism (Insitutes Book I, 13, 16-20). Calvinist practice follows the iconoclastic streak that marked Calvin's sharpest critiques of Catholicism, and is followed to this day in churches which could be termed Calvinist, such as the Presbyterian. Presbyterian and other reformed churches do celebrate the Eucharist with bread and wine but in sharp distinction to Catholic practice do not require communicants to approach the altar, which smacks of idolatry -- the bread is distributed centrally among the congregation in the most customary practice.

In conclusion, the furor of the Reformation debate in the seventeenth century obscures the doctrinal similarities between Catholics and Calvinists on the question of the Eucharist. They are agreed upon its centrality to Christian practice but disagree about the actual Sacramental character of the act. I am inclined to agree with Richard Cross, who sees "grounds for rapprochement" on the various doctrinal differences here, which he thinks have more in common than they do to divide them: Cross claims "the force of controversy to some extent hardened the various positions in such a way that their adherents were rendered more or less incapable of seeing the extent to which the positions coincided" (Cross 318). But after the Vatican II reforms to Catholic practice -- which remove the objection Calvin had that the parishoners could not even understand the service -- it seems like the more ecumenical position Cross advocates is also the best.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/index.html

The Holy Bible. Print.

Bouwsma, William. John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988 Print.

Calvin, John. Institues of the Christian Religion. Web. Accessed 20 Feb 2011 at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.html

Catechism of the Catholic Church. Web. Accessed 20… [END OF PREVIEW]

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