Michael Voris’s “Heresy and the Eucharist”: A Fraternal Correction
In his zeal for what he would call “traditional” Catholicism, Michael Voris has recently made a video series from Trent, Italy, home of the Council of Trent. As part of that series, he has produced this video, titled “Heresy and the Eucharist”:
Unfortunately, Voris’s zeal is not always matched by historical and theological accuracy. This inaccuracy, coupled with Voris’s sneering and sarcastic tone, virtually ensures that the Catholic message he wishes to promote to Protestants will fall on deaf ears. Who will listen to someone who seems to assume his opponents are acting in bad faith and, on top of that, gets the facts wrong?
In hopes of providing better conditions for separated Christians to come to understand one another on this important issue, I offer below some corrections of Voris’s claims.
1. “Luther had come up with the harebrained understanding that Jesus and bread were both present at the same time. . . . Luther called it consubstantiation.”
It is a matter of historical fact that Luther did not come up with this understanding. It had been considered as a possibility since before Thomas Aquinas and Thomas himself addresses it in ST III, 75, 2. In fact, though before Thomas most theologians consider it unlikely, Thomas is the first one to condemn it as heresy, some half a century after transubstantiation first shows up in official Church teaching at Lateran IV in 1215. In other words, when transubstantiation first entered Church teaching, the possibility of the bread and wine remaining was not excluded.
Within about a hundred years of Thomas’s death, western metaphysics underwent a drastic shift in which what Thomas called “substance” ceased existing and the term “substance” came to be identified with the accident of quantity, usually called the first accident and meaning, essentially, that something takes up space. For Thomas, substance was a thing’s underlying and definitive essence making something to be what it is and actualized by God’s act of sustaining creation. In other words, things were what God made them to be. For the nominalist tradition that followed, things had no essence. Things were what we called them simply for convenience of human discourse; we simply name them, hence “nominalism.”
In such a metaphysical context transubstantiation means the opposite of what it meant for Thomas. It has become a subtle form of transaccidentiation because substance has become just one more accident. This inversion led the vast majority of theologians from Scotus forward to proclaim that, while the faithful must affirm transubstantiation on the authority of the Church, consubstantiation was actually a more probable opinion, philosophically speaking – if the accidents remain and substance is an accident, then the substance of the bread remains, hence consubstantiation. (Thomas would roll over in his grave to hear theologians oppose reason and Church teaching in this way!) Luther was trained in the nominalist school and he specifically references the prominent nominalist Pierre D’Ailly, the “learned Cardinal of Cambrai” when he suggests that it seems more likely to him that the bread and wine remain.
On the other hand, it is important to note that Luther was never dogmatic on this point. He was happy to let each have his own opinion on the matter and said, in several places over several years that it didn’t matter to him if the bread and wine remained provided that the body and blood of Christ were present.
Finally, Luther never called it consubstantiation. That was a medieval term and Luther avoided it because he had no interest in using Aristotelian categories to try to understand the mystery of the Eucharist. This was one of his key reasons for rejecting transubstantiation and he wasn’t going to fall into the same trap in his own articulation. Now, I think Luther was naive to believe that he could avoid philosophy once the question of coherence had been raised by Zwingli and others and, in fact, Luther himself had recourse to some nominalist philosophy later in the controversies with the Swiss Reformers, but it is simply untrue to say Luther called his articulation consubstantiation. Some others have, because of its similarity to the late medieval doctrine of consubstantiation considered by D’Ailly and others, but Luther himself never did.
In any case, interested parties should consider the judgment of Joseph Ratzinger who notes that, in light of what transubstantiation had come to mean by Luther’s time, “it becomes clear that “transubstantiation” forms no antithesis at all to “consubstantiation”, if the latter is simply supposed to mean that bread and wine as physical-chemical entities continue to exist unchanged.” (The Problem of Transubstantiation and the Question about Meaning in the Eucharist)
2. “As opposed to transubstantiation, which by that the Church means that the substance of bread is totally annihilated.”
As a matter of fact, transubstantiation does not mean that the substance of bread is totally annihilated, at least, not since Thomas, whom the Council of Trent follows almost exactly on the question. In ST III, 75, 3, Thomas considers the possibility that the bread and wine are annihilated and rejects the possibility just as he had rejected the possibility of the (substance of the) bread and wine remaining in the previous question. According to Thomas, the annihilation theory would lead to numerous conceptual problems. Furthermore, as other theologians have pointed out, annihilation would counter the whole Christian conviction that God does not scrap the first creation in order to create a new one, but rather transforms the old creation from within. Annihilation takes the whole eschatological thrust out of the eucharistic banquet. And, as the great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe has pointed out, if the Catholic Church did believe that the bread and wine were annihilated the criticism of the Anglican 39 articles that “transubstantiation overthroweth the nature of the sacrament” would stand. On the other hand, because bread and wine are precisely what become (rather than being annihilated and replaced by) Christ’s body and blood, the Eucharist’s sacramental (and eschatological) nature is preserved.
3. “But today virtually every Protestant denomination worth its weight in heresy totally rejects any understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
While it is certainly true that a “merely” symbolic view of the Eucharist predominates in many Protestant churches, it is nonsense to lay the blame for this at the foot of Martin Luther, if only for the simple fact that such a view is fairly common in Catholic Churches as well. In a world where what one can see and measure is all that is true, Zwingli is going to have a lot of followers in every Church. On the other hand, the claim that the majority of Protestant denominations “totally reject any understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” is simply false.
Consider the following passage from the World Council of Churches document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, signed by representatives of virtually every major Protestant denomination (as well as by Catholic and Orthodox theologians):
The words and acts of Christ at the institution of the eucharist stand at the heart of the celebration; the eucharistic meal is the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, the sacrament of his real presence. Christ fulfills in a variety of ways his promise to be always with his own even to the end of the world. But Christ’s mode of presence in the eucharist is unique. Jesus said over the bread and wine of the eucharist: “This is my body … this is my blood …” What Christ declared is true, and this truth is fulfilled every time the eucharist is celebrated. The Church confesses Christ’s real, living and active presence in the eucharist. While Christ’s real presence in the eucharist does not depend on the faith of the individual, all agree that to discern the body and blood of Christ, faith is required. (Eucharist, 13)
Now, I will not deny that there are ambiguities here that a Catholic will want to look into (see the Catholic Church’s official response to the document if you’re interested in that), nor will I deny that some denominations were concerned that this presented too “realistic” a picture of eucharistic presence (see their own responses, collected in The Churches Respond to BEM, volumes I-VI; the Catholic response appears in volume VI) , but it remains impossible to square with Voris’s claim that virtually every Protestant denomination “totally rejects any understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
The simple fact is that ecumenical dialogue, not Voris’s “straight talk” condemnations, are what have brought about a major resurgence of eucharistic theology in the Protestant world so that many Protestant communities celebrate the eucharist with more frequency and more reverence, and with a deeper understanding of Christ’s eucharistic presence than before the ecumenical movement. This is a matter of historical fact.
4. “The Jews [at Capernaum in John 6] understood exactly what he meant.”
This may be one reading of John 6, but it is an implausible one and one not well represented in the Tradition. Consider, “Did the Jews understand that Jesus would consecrate bread and wine so that his followers could receive his body and blood and be in communion with him sacramentally, or did they think he meant they will consume him cannibalistically?” The answer is obvious from the text. The Jews thought they were being instructed to tear chunks of Christ’s flesh; to eat pieces of him/his corpse. (Such an interpretation is unfortunately reproduced for Voris’s Protestant viewers at 4:59 where Voris pinches his forearm to emphasize “his actual flesh.”)
The tradition has called those who follow Jesus’s audience in this understanding Capharnaites after Capernaum, the place where the bread of life discourse takes place. Why, if they understood correctly, would a heresy be named after them?
Rather, the Jews who left did not understand exactly what he meant, as the great voices in the tradition affirm. See, for example, this passage from St. Augustine’s tract on John 6:
14. The Jews, therefore, strove among themselves, saying,How can this man give us his flesh to eat?They strove, and that among themselves, since they understood not, neither wished to take the bread of concord:for they who eat such bread do not strive with one another; for we being many are one bread, one body.And by this bread,God makes people of one sort to dwell in a house.
15. But that which they ask, while striving among themselves, namely, how the Lord can give His flesh to be eaten, they do not immediately hear: but further it is said to them,Verily, verily, I say unto you, except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you will have no life in you.How, indeed, it may be eaten, and what may be the mode of eating this bread, you are ignorant of; nevertheless,except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you will not have life in you.(Paragraphs 14-15, emphasis added.)
Jesus’ insistence in John 6, on which Voris justly focuses, does not mean what Voris suggests it means. Jesus is not here reinforcing their cannibalistic misunderstanding but rather insisting that, even if this makes no sense to you right now, it is nonetheless true (as Augustine’s exegesis highlights). Indeed, it cannot make sense to you now, but if you know who I am, you will stay with me and trust my words and you will come to see how it is true in time.
This reading is supported by the whole context of John 6. In this brilliant passage, John is linking together a whole string of difficult ideas that no one could be reasonably expected to understand. Jesus’ claims in verses 35-40:
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.
are about the incarnation. He is claiming to be sent by God. And the crowd disputes in verses 41-42:
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’
Jesus’ claim in verse 51:
51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
is not only a claim about the eucharist, though that is also included, but it is about his death that will save the world.
John’s point, of course, is that the eucharist is not an isolated mystery but rather implicated in the whole mystery of our salvation, all of which is not amenable to merely profane logic, but which must be understood through the eyes of faith. This is how the tradition understands John 6:63:
63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
a passage which Voris’s Protestant viewers will justly point out that he ignores.
In Voris’s reading of John 6, verse 63 is inconvenient, but in the traditional reading, it provides the hermeneutical key. It is not, as some have suggested, that Jesus is here telling the audience to take everything he said before metaphorically. In this regard, Voris’s emphasis that the crowd left, and that Jesus did not try to stop them, is helpful, if not in exactly the way he suggests. They left after he made this statement, so it was not understood by the crowd as a backing off of his earlier claims. Rather, it was meant to highlight the fact that his claims were inaccessible to reason unenlightened by faith.
It is important to see what immediately precedes verse 63. In verses 61-62, Jesus says:
61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
Jesus has indicated the incarnation, the crucifixion, the eucharist, and now, the resurrection. It is as if he were saying, in this verse, “You think all this stuff sounds crazy? Just wait. You’ll see crazy!” In other words, the resurrection will demonstrate the truth of these claims.
This is perfectly consistent with the rest of the gospels. Even Jesus’ closest followers, those who did not leave after John 6, were scandalized at his death. When Jesus announced it, Peter said “God forbid,” and Jesus replied “Get behind me Satan!” When Jesus died, the disciples ran away and hid, thinking that they must have been mistaken, that Jesus was not really the Messiah. Only in the resurrection do they find the meaning in his death. John is pointing out that the same is true of the eucharist. Before the resurrection it could only seem meaningless cannibalism, the eating of a corpse. But when Jesus comes back, not as a corpse, but as the living Lord, able to be present in ways that defy worldly logic (showing up in locked rooms, walking about unhindered by gaping wounds, being unrecognizable even to his closest friends), eucharistic presence makes more sense. (Have a look at Luke 24, where the disappointed disciples – “We thought he was the Messiah” – fail to recognize him until he breaks the bread, for an interesting demonstration of this dynamic.)
Jesus insistence in John 6 is not on a misconstrued cannibalism, but on faith in his word. This is demonstrated in verses 67-69:
67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
The point is not that the disciples understand. Peter does not say, “Yes, we’re prepared to eat your corpse.” Rather it indicates that they trust Jesus because of who they know him to be. Like the Jews who left, Peter does not know that Jesus will consecrate bread and wine at the Last Supper making them to be his body and blood. He only knows who Jesus is and so he takes him at his word, content to wait for understanding.
For John, the incarnation and the eucharist are two facets of the same scandal. In both cases, God has come too close for comfort. In both cases what appears to be merely earthly (“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”) is in fact the presence of God. In both cases understanding can only follow faith in Him.
Contrary to Voris’s exegesis, the Jews at Capernaum did not understand at all what Jesus meant. Neither did the disciples. But one group trusted him, and their hope was not disappointed, and one group left. That’s the point.
Michael Voris simply does not have the theological or historical training to be making the kinds of claims he is wont to make. Furthermore, his willingness to excommunicate those who disagree with his misapprehensions of Catholic teaching is troubling. Finally, his method of engaging with our separated brothers and sisters is at odds with the magisterium of the Catholic Church, the very body he claims to represent and defend. Let us pray that Michael Voris submit to the magisterium in its teaching about ecumenism and become a more faithful son of the Church. Let us also pray that Protestants and Catholics do not take his articulations, like those above, to accurately represent Catholic theology. If they do, the divisions in Christ’s Church will be deepened.
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Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one. He is writing his dissertation on the question of transubstantiation in ecumenical dialogue.