By Christianus van den Eijnden, University of Texas A&M
I submit to you, that what divides the Catholic Church from Protestants is not the structure of the Church, not the Blessed Mother, and not the Papacy, but the Eucharist. Certainly, Catholics and Protestants differ in their views on these other subjects, but none are as divisive as the Most Blessed Sacrament, as I hope this essay will show. So divisive in fact, it is a matter of physical and, more importantly, spiritual life and death, and is an anomaly that all Christians are obligated to consider.
There is no doubt that the Most Blessed Sacrament means a lot to the Catholic Church and her members. It is both the “summit of spiritual life” in and the very “source of life” for the Church, according to the Catechism (CCC 1324). The Catechism furthers states that “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being”, in other words, no Eucharist, no Church (CCC 1325). For Catholics, without the Eucharist, there is no life with and in Christ (Jn 6:55-58).
Moreover, the Catholic Church even adores the Most Blessed Sacrament; no, not adore as in “find cute,” but adore as in from the Latin verb adorare which means “to worship.” Catholics are known to sit or kneel, sometimes for hours, in front of the consecrated host while it’s placed inside of a big, shiny, bedazzled apparatus called a “monstrance” (Google that), and stare or pray in adoration. Catholics even go as far putting the Eucharist while in the monstrance on parade display and carry it around town for display for procession events on special feast days or celebrations. The biggest monstrance in the world is 9-feet wide, features the Blessed Mother and two parallel and praying Seraphim (like on the original Tabernacle), and can be found on display at Church of St. Stanislaus in Kostka, Chicago. If the Protestant has not yet ran in shock and terror from this, please stay and read on to see why lives are out stake here.
How do other denominations, specifically Protestants, view the Eucharist? A spectrum of degree in belief about the Eucharist can be established by looking at a number of views. First, there is the view which outright rejects the sacrament: The Salvation Army, which does in fact claim itself to be a denomination, rejects the Eucharist, following its founder, William Booth (1829-1912), who did not believe the sacraments were necessary for sanctification. Second is the memorial view: Baptists and other “born-again” Christians have a “memorial” view of the Eucharist. According to Baptist Theologian, Russel D. Moore, “the supper functions as proclamation, the presence of Christ in the indwelling Spirit not only assures forgiveness through the Word; he also convicts of umbilical patterns of life and thought” (38).
Lastly, and coming a bit closer to the view of Catholicism, there is the sacramental sign view, held by Lutherans and Anglicans to differing degrees. Lutherans follow Martin Luther in what he called “consubstantiation,” though the term is rejected today as being too philosophical. This view holds that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are present “in, with, and under”, but not “is”, the bread and wine. Luther called this a “sacramental union” (299-300). On the other hand, the view of Anglicans follows the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of the prayer is the law of belief), and by which is found in their Common Prayer Book the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, of which Article XXVIII states, “Transubstantiation… …cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith” (783).
The Catholic Church has held to the view of transubstantiation: the whole body, blood, soul, and divinity is really and truly present, i.e., substantially, in the Most Blessed Sacrament. The Council of Trent (1551) declared, “that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of his blood [my emphasis]” (DS 1652). Even longer than the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Church (not just Catholics) — i.e., the Invisible Church of Christ according to some Protestants — has always believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The early Church Father, and an undoubtedly early Christian, St. Ignatius of Antioch (50[?]-98/118 A.D.) writes, “Take great care to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us by his blood; one sanctuary, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants” (Bettenson 47).
Now you may ask, “We knew all this! So what?” The most interesting and most powerful matter at stake here is that if the Catholic Church should be wrong in their belief – and thereby the Church of Christ that existed for fifteen-hundred years before the Protestant Reformation – should then be, I submit to you, the most arrogant and idolatrous institutional entity that claims to be the “people of God” and should have in fact been reprimanded, or even struck down, long ago by the Holy Spirit for ever holding such a view. Note well, all that is meant by “struck down” is the phrase that denotes God’s act of ending someone’s life or a group of people’s lives.
I follow here the well-known philosopher and Catholic apologist, Dr. Peter Kreeft, in my following argumentation. He explains that for him, the most decisive factor in his conversion to Catholicism was the Eucharist. His basic argument is this: the Catholic Church believes the Most Blessed Sacrament is the very substance of God Incarnate; that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. If they are wrong about this, they are committing grave and mass idolatry. He goes on to add that the Church (in general; not just Catholics), for far longer than most other doctrines, has been unstinting about the Real Presence in the Eucharist for fifteen-hundred years, until a certain Augustinian Monk during the Reformation had a different view. Dr. Kreeft then asks, quite boldly, where was the Holy Spirit in all this? Was he taking a nap? He concludes, by implication of the argument, that it cannot be so: the Catholic Church has the right of it, and everyone else has got the wrong of it; either the Church is committing heinous idolatry, or everyone else is missing out on the most intimate and loving experience you can have with Christ in this life.
But I think we can do better – soup up the argument, if you will. We can get more definitive with these claims and their proofs. For, some protestants may doubt that what’s being done is indeed idolatry, and they may also suggest that being reprimanded or struck down by the Holy Spirit would be far-fetched – the latter of which is not Kreeft’s view, but mine. Lastly, they will certainly reject, perhaps with indignation, the claim that they are missing out on the closest relationship they can have with Christ. However, scripture attests to Dr. Kreeft’s claims, and mine, and rebuts Protestants’ objections.
First, let’s consider idolatry. Let’s first consider that by her own standard, that if the Doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence are false, as she understands it, the Catholic Church may be in grave danger of hypocrisy and committing idolatry, a grave sin, at an unprecedented level, and for two-thousand years at that! The Catechism states, “Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God” and further “an idolater is some one who transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God [my emphasis]” (CCC 2113-4). Certainly, according to the Catholic Church’s own beliefs, one would commit idolatry by believing that the Eucharist, after consecration, becomes, and is, God. And to commit idolatry is to break God’s commandment, which is sin, according to the Catholic Church (CCC 2110).
Furthermore, Holy Scripture is no less clear as well about the nature of idolatry and no less severe about the punishments for idolatry. The Book of Jonah say, “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (2:8). And the Book of Isaiah states, “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame” (44:9). I use these passages because they highlight the act of idolatry as a sort of “confused-creation” on the part of man, who when committing idolatry believes he possesses God as an idol. Furthermore, St. Paul notes that idolatry is to trade God out for a creature (Rom. 1:24-26), and that this is so sinful, St. Paul writes, “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5).
Despite all this, in may still be objected that what the Church believes and does in regard to the Eucharist is not true idolatry because at least they believe it is Jesus, and that because Catholics think it is Jesus, it does not merit a severe punishment, at least not one as bad as being struck down by the Holy Spirit. Here there are actually two objections, but they can be rebutted together. Though I hope it is apparent that the former one is rather weak because it has been shown that by the Catholic Church’s own standard and by the Holy Scripture cited above, belief that the Blessed Sacrament is the substance of Jesus Christ, i.e, God, if it is incorrect, would indeed be idolatry.
Nonetheless, it says in the Book of Psalms “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths (135:15-17). That same phrase “work of men’s hands,” is stated as “the work of human hands” at Mass in reference to the communion bread and wine during the prayer for the Preparation of the Gifts. The Priest consecrating the communion bread and wine believes, along with the parishioners, that the “work of men’s hands” (the bread and wine) is to become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe the Body of Christ has a mouth, eyes, and ears, but the Blessed Sacrament neither speaks, sees, nor hears. If the doctrine of transubstantiation and real presence in the Eucharist is not true, then the Catholic Church is clearly committing idolatry.
Secondly, according to both the Catholic Church and Sacred Scripture, to receive the Eucharist, whatever one’s doctrine regarding the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in a state of none-grace or sin, which is effective while committing idolatry (a sin), is both spiritual and bodily suicide. The Church states that anyone who wants to receive communion is obligated to be in a state of grace through examination of conscience or the sacrament of penance (CCC 1415). The Catechism cites St. Paul’s Apostolic instructions at 1 Corinthians 11:27-28, and St. Paul continues in stronger terms, to say the least: “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). By the Catholic Church’s own teaching, she is in contradiction with herself and hypocritical, if the Doctrine of the Real Presence is false, and therefore idolatrous.
According the 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, the Catholic Church should have incurred “judgment.” Indeed, sickness and even possible death may fall upon anyone who is not “discerning of the body.” Notice the use of the word “body,” or σωμα in Greek. St. Paul urges us to discern whether or not the Body of Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Anyone who would fail to do so and fail to see their act of idolatry would be putting their very soul in danger. There can simply be no room for excuse here; Biblical Christians know that words of St. Paul indicate serious discernment during the Eucharist, otherwise one may think Jesus was not being symbolic when he said the Eucharist is His body and blood. Catholics, then, are in far worse position because they teach, full hardheartedly, that the Blessed Sacrament is Jesus Christ. Furthermore, what is this “judgment” other than God’s judgment?: Certainly is the judgment St. Paul refers to at Ephesians 5:5; but also note how St. Paul says “incurs before judgment” before then explaining “that is why” those Christians were ill and even died. Now, it is clear how the Eucharist is a matter of life and death.
Furthermore, general, Protestant interpretation is in agreement with this reading. Frank S. Thielman, Professor of Dinity at Beeson Divinity School, provides helpful commentary on 1 Corinthians, found in the ESV Study Bible, a collaborative work of “95 evangelical scholars” and of which “the doctrinal perspective … is that of classic evangelical orthodoxy” (9-10). Thielmans comments on v.27, that the phrase an “Unworthy manner” indicates to “believers to examine their own lives and to repent and ask for forgiveness for any unconfessed sin before partaking in the Lord’s Supper” (2208). Furthermore, Thielman comments, the phrase “'[e]ats and drinks judgment on himself’ (v.29) is a sober warning that the Lord will discipline those who dishonor the Lord’s Supper, and therefore it should not be entered into lightly [my emphasis]” (2208). Theilman concludes that v.30 indicates that “the discipline of the Lord sometimes has consequence in real life” which he points out is supported by 1 Cor. 5:5. For protestant who do not celebrate the Eucharist, but still hold to Biblical truth, then it is still clear that if Catholics are wrong, and if the Church in general had been wrong, about the Eucharist for fifteen-hundred years, they were (and still are) St. Paul’s instructions by being idolatrous and should in fact be incurring punishment.
This now raises a burning question: how and why would the Holy Spirit allow the Church of Christ to believe that the bread and wine are Christ, which is no doubt idolatrous if false, for fifteen-hundred years without punishment or without reprimanding Christians? It may still be objected: “how is the Holy Spirit to be accountable for this?” Whether you believe the Church of Christ is visible or invisible, structured with or without authority, if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, then you believe that Jesus Christ did not leave his people as “orphans” (or “desolate”) and that he sent the Holy Spirit to guide them (Jn 14:16-18) and to be their “Counselor” (Jn 15:26). Jesus Christ clearly says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (Jn 16:13). Would Jesus lie about guiding us? Would He have left the Church, whether you believe it was Catholic or not, to believe in the Doctrine of Real Presence since the time of St. Igantius of Antioch and, then, be developed further by the Doctrine of Transubstantiation and thereby commit idolatry for fifteen-hundred years?
We must finally address a still remaining objection: “but The Holy Spirit surely does not guide us by striking down millions of people who are committing adultery.” You are correct. The Holy Spirit would have had no reason to strike anyone down; rather, The Holy Spirit would have never allowed a belief so erroneous to be promulgated among the Church of Christ and then accepted as orthodoxy, just as the Holy Spirit always has. So, a further question is raised: why did the Holy Spirit allow Christ’s Church to hold a view so clearly and consistently for fifteen-hundred years? The Spirit of Truth could not somehow “guide” the early Church and Catholics into falsity, whatever one’s view of the structure of the Church. That would be tantamount to suggesting that God is deceitful and has caused confusion in His Church, which is absurd, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33).
Even then, why cannot God through the Holy Spirit strike down idolaters in His Church en masse? Suppose the structured Church that did identify itself as Catholic, as some may think, that held the Doctrine of Real Presence in the Eucharist, which eventually developed into the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, and that they were wrong about this, thus committing idolatry. And, perhaps, suppose further, as some like to think, this Church became divorced in some way from the true Church (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) – in recent time, some think the Catholic Church is not only wrong, but a total mistake (R.C. Sproul). Who is to say that the God the Father would not strike the Catholic Church down, in whatever way, through the Holy Spirit? St. Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 and the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 already make this a possibility, the former so much more so since it regards the Eucharist. Moreover, much of the Old Testament is about God having to cull, with plague, disease, and political and military disasters, disobedient Israelites because of their idolatry. According to Holy Scripture, then, it is at least possible the Catholic Church, and thereby the Church of Christ, could be and could have been wiped out for its idolatry.
Yet, the stronger reason is, why had the Church of Christ been guided for fifteen-hundred years in believing the Real Presence? Which in turn gets us back to the initial disjunction proposed by Dr. Kreeft: either the the Catholic Church is dead wrong and idolatrous, being lead by the Holy Spirit to be so, and if not lead by the Holy Spirit, then surely in need of serious rebuking by the Holy Spirit, OR the Catholic Church is right, has been led by the Holy Spirit, and is experiencing the most intimate relationship with Christ possible on Earth. The Church that has held to a single consistent belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist fifteen-hundred years before the Reformation cannot at the same time had been led by the Holy Spirit and be wrong, nor be wrong and not be corrected or prevented in its belief; to think it is possible is to seriously put the Lord Jesus Christ to the test when he says He guides His Church, whatever the structure, through the Holy Spirit, which, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, would be absurd.
Allow me to refine this disjunction one last time and to settle the stakes and implications. The Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit to guide his people (Biblically [possibly Theologically, even Philosophically] Indisputable), and either his people for fifteen-hundred years believed, dogmatically and unquestioningly, the Real Presence of Christ until the Reformation, experiencing the closeness of Christ not possible in any other religion nor in any other way, and all without being rebuked, in some way, by the Holy Spirit in their belief, OR the Lord Jesus Christ left his people as “orphans” and did not “guide them in truth” for fifteen-hundred years until the Protestant Reformation, before which his people had been, and still are through Catholicism, committing serious idolatry, serious sin, according to both the standards of the Holy Catholic Church and Holy Scripture.
You would think something as all important as the Eucharist — that last meal Christ shared with his disciples, and of which He said is Himself and is the source of life (Jn. 6; Matt. 26:26-30) — Christ would have not allowed us to be misguided on? You might even say the same about any other doctrine which Protestants deny, but this essay has focused on the Most Blessed Sacrament because of its dividing power and serious implications of idolatry. I submit to you, that it is what makes Protestants and Catholics different.
Either Christ really gives us his body, his blood, his soul, and his divinity, every day at the Celebration of Mass, had done for fifteen-hundred years, and is doing so now, just like he did on The Cross, giving his Life through his Presence, or the Catholic Church is abominably presumptuous about what they believe the Lord Christ has granted her. And, then, if this is so, 1.2 billion people are deeply mistaken and no better than the followers of Moloch. And everyone else? Well, everyone else must realize that Christ is not with us until the end of the age: not substantially at least; not in the temple where the Blessed Mother finds him; not in our Daily Bread which we ask the Father for every day; and not at the altar where we remember Calvary.
The Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a Jesuit Priest, once said that without the Most Blessed Sacrament, then all of Catholicism, all of Christianity, falls apart and loses its basic identity: that God enters into our World and dwells with creation and gives Himself up for us; or, as St. Thomas Aquinas, who would cry at every Mass, once said, “the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s Passion according as a man is made perfect in union with Christ Who suffered. Hence, as Baptism is called the sacrament of Faith, which is the foundation of the spiritual life, so the Eucharist is termed the sacrament of Charity, which is the bond of perfection (Co. 3:14)” (III.Q73.A3).
Anglican Church. The Book of Common Prayers and Administration of The Sacraments. Huntington Beach, Cal.: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. p. 783
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Trans. English Dominican Province, Christian Classics, 1981.
The Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Version with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Edition, 5th ed., Oxford UP, 2018.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019.
ESV Study Bible. English Standard Version. Crossway, 2016.
Henry Bettenson., editor. The Early Christian Fathers. Oxford UP, 2010. p.47
Martin Luther, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper” in Word and Sacrament III, ed. Robert H. Fischer, vol. 37 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961. pp.299 – 300
Russel D. Moore, “Christ’s Presence as Memorial,” Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, ed. John H. Armstrong. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007. p.38