Sunday, May 07, 2006

Did we put up straw men?

One of the common arguments of Anglican Catholics concerning the English Reformation is that the denials of Transubstantiation and Propitiatory Sacrifice at the Eucharist that occurred then were aimed largely at crude, materialistic and unbiblical conceptions that were popular even among theologians. This is especially said to be the case for official and authoritative documents of the English Church.

The Roman Catholic response from scholars such as E.C. Messenger, F. Clarke and others has been to show that the true doctrine of the times was not deficient in these ways and that the Reformers uniformly rejected this true doctrine, not any cruder version. Thus, both the ascription of “carnal” characteristics to Roman doctrines by the Church of England’s early teachers and the defence of them on this basis by later Anglicans are disingenuous.

However, while picking the right mediaeval scholars can give an impression of unassailable orthodoxy, there were four very good reasons why the early Anglicans described and reacted to Roman doctrine as they did.

  1. Berengarian Oath: During an early mediaeval controversy a theologian named Berengar was forced to make a recantation stating that in the Communion the Body and Blood of Jesus “are in truth sensibly and not only sacramentally touched by the hands of the priests and are broken and chewed by the teeth of the faithful” [emphasis added]. While these phrases were explained away by various scholastic authors, during the Marian reign between phases of the English Reformation this part of the Oath was used again to “reconcile” Sir John Cheke with a similar recantation, without the scholastic qualifications.
  2. Miracle proofs: One of the most popular ways to defend and preach the doctrine of Transubstantiation both before and after the Reformation was to appeal to a multitude of purported miracles revealing the Presence of Jesus. These ranged from bleeding Hosts to Hosts that would partly or wholly disappear to show the infant Jesus or a portion of his flesh, such as a finger. (Other miracles involved much slaying of disrespectful unbelievers, Protestants and Jews!)
  3. Chantry system: A system had developed in the mediaeval Western Church where a large number of priests were created with no pastoral responsibilities but to continually offer Masses for the departed souls of once-rich benefactors of religious institutions. A popular mechanical perception of the efficacy of these multiplied Masses along with a similarly mechanical or mathematical perception of the Purgatory the benefactors were being delivered from led to the rich apparently enjoying benefits over the poor in the next life as well as this one. There also existed the view, though not widespread, that the Cross dealt with Original Sin but the Mass with actual sins. The combination of these abuses and errors unmistakably reflect an unhealthy sacerdotalism both with respect to the Ministry and the Eucharist.
  4. Nominalism: The predominance of Nominalist philosophy in this period rather than the moderate Realism of Aquinas meant that the word “substance” was more likely to be interpreted as only truly meaningful in terms of material substance. Nominalism does not acknowledge a real distinction between substance and accidents, only a logical one. It is thus more difficult in this mode of thinking to distinguish an underlying metaphysical substance from material, sensible properties.

In the light of all of this bishops and doctors of the reformed Church of England were quite justified in seeing transubstantiation as really referring to material substance in the physical and localised sense, whatever the subtleties of their RC interlocutors. That many did is easily seen from their works, where the critical epithets are “grossness”, “sensibleness”, “carnal”, “local”, “material”, “corporal”, “natural” and “physical”. Once the Roman conception of Presence was so conceived, the related conception of Sacrifice could not be seen otherwise but as essentially materialistic, relating to activities really physically performed upon or with Jesus flesh and blood. This, in combination with certain prayers after the Words of Institution in the Canon of the Mass and related elevations, would have easily persuaded the critics that what was proposed was a sacrificial act involving Christ distinct from and additional to the Sacrifice of the Cross being made mystically present. Indeed, there were RC scholars such as the Dominican Melchior Cano (1520-1560) who made the oblation itself later than (though dependent upon) the consecration. Bellarmine and De Lugo taught that the Sacrifice was not complete until the Priest’s communion, since this act of eating best constituted the act of “destruction” said to be necessary for any “true and proper” sacrifice.

Even the early Twentieth Century Catholic Encyclopedia says “the sacrificial gift must exist in physical substance, and must be really or virtually destroyed (animals slain, libations poured out, other things rendered unfit for ordinary uses), or at least really transformed” [emphasis added]. Later in the same article this is effectively qualified by this statement: “We have an absolute sacrifice, for the Victim is -- not indeed in specie propria, but in specie aliena -- sacramentally slain, we have also a relative sacrifice, since the sacramental separation of Body and Blood represents perceptibly the former shedding of Blood on the Cross.” However, the tension between the belief of the author that he had to prove a “real” and “absolute” sacrificial act of destruction belonging properly to the Mass-action itself and the unavoidable biblical understanding that only the Cross is the Absolute Sacrifice has led to a bemusing conclusion. The “absolute sacrifice” is actually a sacramental representation which does not affect the Victim in Himself at all! How this is different to the denial by many early Anglicans of a “proper” sacrificing of Christ conjoined with their affirmation of an effectual sacramental representation of the act of the Cross is difficult to tell!

Ironically, given the claim that the true Roman doctrine is not and was not materialistic or crude and the related claim that everybody has or should have known this, I found the following recently written by a Fr Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap., in Homiletic and Pastoral Review (Feb. 2006, pp.12,13):

The bread and wine still remain subjectively, as an “appearance” or “species,”
in the minds of the priest and members of his congregation, but not objectively
as “physical reality” outside the mind and on the altar …

… obviously … there is some physical reality put in the hand or on the tongue of the
communicant. … What is this physical reality? … Christ’s “physical ‘reality’” is
“corporeally (bodily) present” …

… substantial change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ must involve a material and “physical” change …

… substantial change of the bread and wine … includes a change of the
bread and wine into … the divine Being of the Blessed Trinity

No, I’m not making this up.

Now, if anyone wants to make the point that this is not an accurate representation of Transubstantiation, he’ll get no argument from me. Concomitance has flown out the window here with respect to the presence of the Divine Essence, as have the Angelic Doctor’s careful qualifications, such as denying the mode of the presence is corporal or local and affirming that the species or accidents of the Elements are real outside the mind and continue to exist as proximate objects of the senses. But if an educated, respected and frequently published RC priest such as Fr Scanlon can write something like this in the 21st Century, then accusing English Churchmen of dishonest “straw man” arguments is even more conclusively demonstrated to be entirely unjust.

Only a minority, it is true, of Anglican Divines in earlier centuries fully and unambiguously affirmed the Real Objective Presence, though they were much more strong and consistent on Eucharistic Sacrifice. However, their rejection of a “change of the substance” and a repeated physical offering of Christ made Present by this change was not unorthodox, especially given the context in which they had to interpret the Roman doctrine and its intrinsic difficulties.


Albion Land said...


Anonymous said...

Well said. I am constantly amazed that contemporary Cahtolics will strenuously argue that they are canabals.