Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another Common Misunderstanding

I'm going to be writing two "Common Misunderstanding" articles on the Eucharist. Later this week, hopefully, I will write one discussing why I think emphasizing "Eucharistic Miracles" like Lanciano can be confusing theologically and, frankly, repulsive to people, at least in a contemporary setting. Today, however, I'm going to be discussing the notion of "accidents" as it relates to the Real Presence.

In both cases, I would first like to highly recommend this article from the Real Presence Association which I think does a pretty good job at explaining what Catholics really believe about the Eucharist, in contrast to many common misunderstandings and faulty, even grotesque, imaginings of the doctrine, which have probably played a large part in people rejecting it.

Informed Catholics know that, in the Aristotelian language that was adopted in solemnly defining the doctrine of the Real Presence, the "substance" is said to change while the "accidents" remain.

However, Catholics often seem to be under the mistaken impression that the concept of "accident" is related intrinsically to our sense-knowledge. Even priests, though perhaps they are just speaking sloppily, tend to describe accidents as if they were equivalent to sensory phenomena, as if the accidents that remain after transubstantiation (to use, for convenience's sake, the Aristotelian-based terminology popular in the West) are just some sort of sensory illusion.

"Oh, the shape and the color you see, and the flavor you taste, and the texture and mass you feel remain by a miracle of God." While this may all be true, it is an incomplete description; it gives the impression that the accidents are merely the sense-impressions of an object, and that the action of the miracle in transubstantiation is largely an action on our own consciousness, that God is deceiving our senses directly with some sort of illusion.

This, however, is not correct. As Catholic Encyclopedia says:
Theorists who, like the Cartesians, deny the objective, distinct entity of all accidents have been obliged to reconcile this negation with their belief in the Real Presence by maintaining that the species, or accidents, of bread and wine do not really remain in the Eucharist, but that after Consecration God produces on our senses the impressions corresponding to the natural phenomena. This theory obviously demands a seemingly unnecessary multiplication of miracles and has at present few if any serious advocates.
The unwieldy "multiplication of miracles" required by such a theory can be realized if one starts to imagine the consequences of an "illusion" theory of accidents. For example, if the weight of the the host is only a sensory illusion, then we are in fact lifting the weight of an adult human being in our hand; so God must also be giving us super physical strength, without our knowing. Furthermore, if the size of the host is only a sensory illusion to our sight, then Jesus cannot, in fact, fit in the tabernacle. It must have burst open, and so the continuation of it in its unbroken form must be another illusion. The fact that we can move our hand around the host, when really Christ is much bigger, would have to be another illusion, or else Christ would have to be made non-solid. If we took a picture of the host with a camera (which is not a conscious being) then either God would have to intervene in the film to make sure it didn't record what was really there, or else every time we looked at the photograph, God would have to again deceive our sense of sight. As you can see, a "multiplication of miracles" makes such a theory inelegant and clunky.

In reality, this is not how it works, as the Real Presence article I mentioned above helps to explain:
Another question noted earlier asked whether the accidents are hiding the substance from our gaze, so that their removal would be like drawing back a curtain, allowing us to see Jesus' body. If one is tempted to say yes, a moment's reflection should show that the right answer must be no. A substance can't be seen or tasted or experienced by any of the senses. To think otherwise would reduce substances to the status of accidents, thus making it impossible to see what the dogma of transubstantiation means, and inevitably leading one into bewilderment when trying to explore the teaching.
It is not that Christ is present as He was to the Apostles and that merely some illusion in our senses prevents us from experiencing this. He is actually present in a different manner that, though just as real, is not quite as full. Namely, when He was present on earth 2000 years ago, His accidents were extended, whereas in the Eucharist, though His accidents are still present (inasmuch as they inhere in His substance, which is present), they are unextended; they are present only in the manner of substance, as the same article explains:
But the mode of their existence is conditioned by the fact that Jesus becomes present through transubstantiation. Substance is converted into substance, and the accidents, consequently, are there in the manner of substance.
It is not as if the sensible Jesus is present under some sort of veil or mask and if we removed it, we could see Him exactly like the Apostles did when He was on earth as His own proper accident-extended place 2000 years ago. Rather, He is present only by the association of His substance with the accidents of bread and wine which include the location of the church or wherever. The accident of place which properly inheres in His own substance, however, remains Heaven. His ability to be present in multiple places in the Eucharist comes only from His non-inherent association with numerous sets of accidents that include different locations.

What, then, are accidental properties if not the sense experiences of things? Well, they do include the sense experiences of things, but are not limited to that. In fact, accidents are any relative property of something, whereas substance is the thing objectively and absolutely in itself.

An image that helped me involves a Universe in which only one particle exists. Would this particle have size or mass? Well, in a potential, unextended way, sort of. But without anything else to compare it to...not really. It's hard to say something is a micrometer long without a ruler or some standard against which to compare it. Would it have place? Again, position in space is defined only relative to other objects (ie, there is no absolute Cartesian coordinate system in the universe independent of existing objects). Would it have color in a meaningful sense if there were no photons to bounce off it and no eyes to see those? Would it have age? Not if time is defined in terms of change/motion, as one non-composite particle would not change, and motion is only measured as a change in position relative to other objects. Could it even be said to be the object or subject of any action? Evidently not, as there is no other object to act on it, and it has no other object to act on.

And yet, would we deny the existence of this particle in itself even though it could have no effects or comparison relative to other objects? Would we deny the existence of a potential to relate with other objects in a certain way if it came into contact with them (for example, if there was light, it would affect it in such a way that it would bounce off at a certain wave-length).

Some philosophers would indeed deny the existence of the thing in-itself. The universe, in their minds, is just a collection of relative properties that are only all defined in terms of each other. To them, there is no absolute being in which properties inhere. For some, they are merely phenomena in our consciousness. Or relation is all that exists, one particle could not exist on its own because it needs to be defined in terms of another. What we perceive of as "things" are just bundles of properties, though what causes the "bundling" is a point of contention.

It would actually still be possible to "parse" transubstantiation in some of these philosophical frameworks, but that is not what Catholics are familiar with and recent attempts to do so (ie, "transignification," etc) have been met with suspicion (though I think they can be understood in an orthodox sense, and that this was the sense intended).

Nevertheless, as we can see, accidents are not just properties relative to the senses, but relative to any other external object. Hence, it is not merely a sensory illusion that the host doesn't weigh as much as a whole man, or that it fits in a tabernacle, or that a camera records a piece of bread rather than Jesus, as size and weight and shape and color are accidents even relative to inanimate, non-sensing objects. The fact that it fits in the tabernacle, the relative size, is independent of our senses.

And, even, when it comes to the question of the internal constituent parts relative to each other. Christ, in Himself, remains with His constituent parts arranged correctly situated relative to each other. But under the accidents of the host it is not as if Christ's head corresponds to the top part of the host, his arms to the sides, his legs to the bottom, his trunk to the center, etc. Rather, the entire Christ is related to the the entire host in each part. Which is to say, each particle of the host (even without being broken) and each drop in the chalice is related to the whole Christ in no particular physical orientation, in each of His parts. It is a conversion of whole substance to whole substance, not of specific individual parts to equivalent individual parts.

So when it comes to this misconception about accidents, it is sort of like the question, "If a tree fell in the woods and there was no one around, does it make a sound?" The fact is that accidents are not dependent on our senses or on conscious observers. The locus of the perdurance of the accidents is not our sense knowledge. If a host is sitting on the altar and no one is there...a photon that hits it is going to bounce off at the wavelength of the color of the host, whether there is an eye or conscious observer there to receive that photon or not.

For the accidents are taught to remain inhering in no subject. The relative effects of bread and wine no longer arise from bread and wine in themselves, but are miraculous sustained by God directly, through the instrumentality of either the body or blood of Christ. Aquinas proposes that the accident of quantity is what is directly sustained, and that the other accidents are sustained in that. The accidents sustained do not inhere in Christ however, which is to say, they do not become the proper natural accidents of Christ's own substance; He does not metamorphosize or transfigure or "shape-shift" into bread and wine in His own physical form.

This sustaining of the accidents from collapse is actually the link or association the accidents have with Christ by which He can be said to be "under" them even though they do not inhere in Him (not being His own proper accidents). Namely, that by a miracle of God, His body is made the cause of the accidents of bread not collapsing, and His blood is made the cause of the accidents of wine not collapsing.

In fact, it is this relationship by which the substance of the bread can be said to "become" the substance of the body and the substance of the wine can be said to "become" the substance of the wine. The word "become" (and the word "transubstantiation") implies a continuity. Yet, in reality, we know what is happening is not like the same piece of clay being molded into a different shape (ie, a continuity of matter) but rather we are told God annihilates the substance of bread and wine entirely. What continuity then exists? Why is this said to be one substance "becoming" another, rather than being merely switched or replaced with another? Catholic Encyclopedia explains in its very enlightening article on the Real Presence, "If the act of conversion is not to become a mere process of substitution, as in sleight-of-hand performances, the terminus ad quem must unquestionably in some manner newly exist, just as the terminus a quo must in some manner really cease to exist. Yet as the disappearance of the latter is not attributable to annihilation properly so called, so there is no need of postulating creation, strictly so called, to explain the former's coming into existence." The answer it gives is simply that:
we have the two extremes of conversion, namely, bread and wine as the terminus a quo, and the Body and Blood of Christ as the terminus ad quem. Furthermore, the intimate connection between the cessation of one extreme and the appearance of the other seems to be preserved by the fact, that both events are the results, not of two independent processes, as, e.g. annihilation and creation, but of one single act, since, according to the purpose of the Almighty, the substance of the bread and wine departs in order to make room for the Body and Blood of Christ. Lastly, we have the commune tertium in the unchanged appearances of bread and wine, under which appearances the pre-existent Christ assumes a new, sacramental mode of being, and without which His Body and Blood could not be partaken of by men.
In other words, it is exactly because the body and blood are made the instrumental cause sustaining the enduring accidents from collapse that the substance of bread and wine are annihilated or at least pass out from the realm of a reality that can affect anything external to itself. The continuity of the accidents is thus the continuity (the "commune tertium") by which the "terminus a quo" (the substance bread and wine) can be said to "become" the "terminus ad quem" (the body and blood of Christ) even though the former cease to exist.

Of course, the entire Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, the entire Person (now risen and glorified) Jesus Christ is present by "concomitance" under both species. But it must be understood too that the bread becomes directly the body of Christ, and that the other things are only "along for the ride," as it were, inasmuch as they are inseparable from the body. Likewise, the wine becomes directly only the blood of Christ, and the body, soul, and divinity only "tag along" because they are inseparably one substance of Christ. Aquinas says, however, that on Good Friday, when the body, blood, and soul of Christ really were separated, if the Apostles had consecrated the Eucharist, the bread would have become only body and divinity, the wine only blood and divinity, and the soul (also still hypostatically united to the divinity) would have not been present, as He was sojourning in the afterlife.

This insistence that "by force of words" the bread only directly becomes the body, and the wine only directly becomes the blood (though the entire Christ is present by concomitance) is an important distinction to remember when it comes to the Sacrifice of the Mass and the need for a double consecration. Though the entire Christ is present when either species is consecrated (and thus the reception of Communion only requires one species), it is not the Sacrifice until there has been the double consecration because it is only in presenting the body and blood separately in an absolute way that the original Sacrifice of Calvary is recalled and thus re-presented. The only difference is that on Calvary the body and blood were actually materially separated, whereas in the Mass they are separately presented in an unbloody sacramental manner (through the separate consecration of bread directly into body, and wine directly into blood) even though, by the concomitance of Christ's substance, they do not actually separate any longer. Yet by the separate consecrations there is at least a real tendency towards such a separation (though concomitance prevents it from happening), as can be seen in the Good Friday example.

Hopefully, for those inclined to abstract thinking, this will clear up some common misconceptions about the Real Presence that lead to sloppy speech sometimes.

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