Given the divisions and confusion present in Catholicism today, it boggles the mind that a well-known priest would deem it prudent to make a public argument pushing for a dramatic overhaul of the Catholic lexicon surrounding the Eucharist. And yet last week, Fr. Thomas Reese did just that, rejecting “transubstantiation” — the word used by the Church meaning “that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (CCC 1376).
On Tuesday, Religion News Service published a column by the Jesuit and former America editor that caused a stir on social media and was widely criticized by Catholic commentators. In his article, Fr. Reese lays out his ideas for “an effective Eucharistic revival.”
He recommended that “the bishops need to consult with experts who understand liturgical and theological thinking that has developed since the Second Vatican Council,” and asserts, “Any attempt to return to the piety of the 1950s is bound to fail.” He laments the stifling of “creativity” and “experimentation” during the papacy of John Paul II. More significantly, Fr. Reese seems to think that the long-established Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is bogged down in bad or outdated theology.
There is certainly a kernel of truth in his critique of the state of contemporary liturgy. Nearly every practicing Catholic has experienced liturgy that is bland or banal, with bad or inappropriate music, with homilies that are boring or too political. Sometimes the celebrant of the Mass treats the liturgy as a theatrical performance. At other times, we sense that the priest would rather be anywhere else. In some places, the congregation’s mumbling of responses hardly screams “full and active participation.”
For 40 years in the Anglophone world, we were saddled with a wildly inaccurate translation of the Roman Missal, only to have it replaced with a stilted, awkward, and often inaccessible English Missal that was translated to mimic the phrasing of the original Latin. We hear all too often that the faithful come away from the Mass without any discernable spiritual enrichment whatsoever. Very few of us in the West regularly participate in liturgy that, for example, has the level of participation and inculturation that we witnessed during the pope’s visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo last week.
Fr. Reese is correct that the Eucharistic Revival will be too limited in scope if it does not place the liturgy at the center of the initiative. Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy made a similar point in the final installment of their recent series on the liturgical reform for the Church Life Journal, asserting, “The Eucharistic Revival promoted by the bishops will have limited success if it focuses too narrowly on getting the faithful to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, without grounding it in the liturgy as a whole and in the all-encompassing divine mystery into which the liturgy leads us.”
Reese is also correct that the Church in the West is in desperate need of liturgical renewal and revitalization, and that finding ways to involve diverse voices on the liturgy would greatly benefit the USCCB’s Eucharistic Revival. Church leaders should listen to the guidance of liturgical scholars and ministers, the pastoral wisdom of the clergy, and the on-the-ground feedback of ordinary Catholics. We have liturgical lessons to learn from the Church in other parts of the world. We also cannot forget to listen to the teachings of the Holy Father. In the past few years, Pope Francis has increasingly prioritized liturgical renewal and the implementation of the Vatican II reforms, culminating in his Apostolic Letter on the liturgical formation of the People of God, Desiderio Desideravi.
Unfortunately, the first suggestion Fr. Reese gives is a clunker: “forget transubstantiation.”
He explains, “I just don’t believe in transubstantiation because I don’t believe in prime matter, substantial forms and accidents that are part of Aristotelian metaphysics.”
Although Fr. Reese attempted to couch his assertion by affirming, “I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” his column was not received well — and, I think, deservedly so.
What he seems to be saying
To be fair, Fr. Reese’s explanation of what happens to the bread and wine during the Mass seems to hint (albeit clumsily) towards the approach of some Eastern Orthodox Christians. He writes, “Better to admit that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is an unexplainable mystery that our little minds cannot comprehend.” Catholics consider the sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox to be valid, and despite the insistence of a few overeager traditionalists, we should reject any claims that the Masses celebrated by Fr. Reese himself are invalid (assuming he uses the correct form and matter).
Certainly, the Eucharist is a mystery far beyond human comprehension. And, despite what Fr. Reese says, I don’t think the Church has failed to “admit” that. But it is also true that the basic doctrine — that during the Eucharistic prayer of the liturgy, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus — is something that even young children can grasp. Many of them successfully learn to pronounce (and even spell) the long vocabulary word for the change that takes place on the altar: transubstantiation. You don’t need to be well-schooled in metaphysics to grasp that much.
This is where Fr. Reese errs. He seems to think the word “transubstantiation” is necessarily bound up in highly technical concepts from Greek philosophy. He writes, “Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelianism, the avant-garde philosophy of his time, to explain the Eucharist to his generation. What worked in the 13th century will not work today. If he were alive today, he would not use Aristotelianism because nobody grasps it in the 21st century.”
Fr. Reese disregards the fact that we don’t need advanced degrees in ancient and medieval philosophy in order to grant assent to the Church’s doctrinal formula on transubstantiation as given in the Catechism, as defined at Trent, and as found in countless Magisterial teachings. Transubstantiation is a long word, but with a straightforward meaning. It entered our Magisterium at the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215 (ten years before Aquinas was born).
For more insight into the topic, I reached out to theologian Brett Salkeld, who happens to have written a book entitled Transubstantiation. He agreed that believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation does not require comprehension of all of its theological underpinnings. Salkeld explained, “It is a fairly complex term owing to its history and the specifics of the question it was designed to address. But I think the distinction that might be helpful here is the one between faith and theology. Faith in the Real Presence need not be complex. The theology of transubstantiation that developed to articulate and support that faith is complex because it was trying to answer difficult questions.”
Reese and Catholic terminology
This was not the first time Fr. Reese has used his column to reject the term “transubstantiation.” This seems to be a bit of a hobby horse for him. Back in 2019, he penned a column in which he also criticized the “avant-garde thinking” of the 13th-century theologians who came up with the term transubstantiation, saying that “Using Aristotelian concepts to explain Catholic mysteries in the 21st century is a fool’s errand.”
The use of many common Catholic terms is apparently a long-held pet peeve for Fr. Reese. In 2015 he wrote, “As a young priest, I did make a promise to myself that I would never use words in a homily that did not make sense to me. As a result, I usually avoid phrases like ‘saving souls,’ ‘God’s grace’ and ‘transubstantiation’ because I am not sure what those words mean. They are abstractions that don’t touch me.”
In 2018, Fr. Reese lamented that seminarians learn Aristotelian philosophy prior to their theological studies, saying that it leads to their “spouting unintelligible concepts like ‘transubstantiation’ and ‘consubstantial.’”
In his book, Salkeld points out that the word “transubstantiation” is not essential to the apostolic faith, but the rejection of the concept is not in accord with tradition:
It is certainly true that one can profess the perennial faith of the Christian Church regarding Christ’s eucharistic presence without recourse to the term “transubstantiation.” As many rightly point out, the term did not exist for the first thousand-plus years of Christianity, and Rome recognizes the Church’s eucharistic faith in the Eastern Churches even when they do not make use of it. Nevertheless, it is important to note that neither the Church of the first millennium nor the Churches of the East have a rejection of transubstantiation in their foundational documents or their communal identity.
It would be one thing if Fr. Reese was trying to argue that a different term would be more appropriate. But his contempt is not limited to the term, but to the concept, saying transubstantiation is “unintelligible,” claiming it doesn’t “make sense” and that “nobody grasps it.” It’s as if he wants to scrub the Church of the last 800 years of teaching and doctrinal development on the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Including the teachings of Pope Francis. Perhaps I’m overstating all this, but his article allows for such an interpretation. This is highly problematic.
Also problematic is his claim that we are not to worship Christ at Mass. He writes, “If you want to adore Christ in the Eucharist, go to Benediction, not to Mass.” (For some reason, in both this column and his 2019 column, Fr. Reese seems to conflate “Benediction” and “Eucharistic Adoration.”) But Pope Francis himself has long been an advocate for Eucharistic Adoration — immediately after his election as pope, he stopped to pray in adoration. He has also promoted adoration in the context of Mass. For example, in Desiderio Desideravi, he speaks of the “absolute importance” of silence in the liturgy, because “It disposes us to adore the Body and Blood of Christ.”
Fr. Reese’s column does nothing to help unify the Church. Nor does it help broaden acceptance of synodality. As a Jesuit priest with a large platform, he could use his influence to help Catholics to understand the vision of Pope Francis and to make the Eucharistic faith he professes more accessible. Yet he chose instead to go on a flight of fancy by needlessly denigrating broadly acceptable theological terms (which also appear in authoritative doctrinal formulas) that he surely knew would deepen divisions in the Church.
At the end of his article, he says that his next two columns “will present what I think would be a helpful approach to understanding the Eucharist.”
We shall see about that.
 Salkeld, Brett. Transubstantiation (p. 24). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.