One of the central features of Catholicism is the ritual of Communion in which the participants of the Mass receive “the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” But what does this mean? In the ritual, Catholics ingest a small piece of unleavened bread—the body of Christ, also known as the Host—and (if they wish) drink a bit of sacramental wine—the blood. Let’s just focus on the Host. Is it the body of Christ?
Well, clearly it is not the physical body of Christ. Catholics do not engage in divine cannibalism every Sunday. The bread certainly doesn’t have the consistency, texture, or the taste of human flesh (not that I know what human flesh tastes like). Nor does it normally have actual blood—although I have heard of miracles in which the Host bled. Of course, it is not the doctrine of the Catholic Church that the Host is the physical body of Jesus. Rather, church theologians argue that, according to the tradition of transubstantiation (I think that’s the right word), the Host is the spiritual body of Christ. I believe it was St. Thomas Aquinas who developed that particular concept. Unfortunately, I’ve never studied St. Thomas Aquinas, but I heard once that his philosophy was similar to Aristotle with the addition of the Christian God (a gross oversimplification, I am sure), and I have studied Aristotle, although that was a number of years ago. Anyway, my understanding is this: according to Aristotle every object consists of substance and properties. Properties are, well, properties such as color, shape, weight, etc… Substance is that in which the properties adhere. It has no properties itself and is, therefore, only apprehendable through the intellect which is led to it through contemplation of an object and its properties … or something like that. Now, consider the Host. It has a number of properties: it is small, thin, circular, and usually white in color, to name a few. Its substance, however, is undetectable, yet according to the theory, when the Host is consecrated (kind of a fancy blessing) the substance changes. No longer is it the substratum of a normal object; it becomes the substance of Jesus’ being as the Son of God—a piece of His Substance, His Spirit. Or, that’s the theory, anyway. It’s worth pointing out that, since substance has no properties in itself, it can’t be empirically verified. There is no way to detect it, weigh it, or measure it.
Anyway, Protestants don’t believe in transubstantiation. It is, in fact, a point of contention between the Catholic Church and a variety of Protestant sects. Protestants believe it is merely a symbol of Jesus’ body. In other words, there is nothing spectacular or miraculous involved in the Host, it is still just a piece of unleavened bread. Aristotle’s/Aquinas’ metaphysics are not necessarily accepted, but if they were, Protestants don’t believe the substance of the Host changes. And, of course, neither Protestants nor Catholics believe the properties of the Host change.
Another option—I read about this in one of the growing number of Christian books I’ve read, but I don’t remember who to attribute this view to—is the notion that the Host is a remembrance. That is, Jesus was an important spiritual person, a great friend to His Apostles, and the Founder of the Catholic Church and all Christian religions. And so, He should be remembered for all those things. Indeed, in the Last Supper itself, Jesus gives the command, “Do this in memory of me.” So, the notion that the Host is a remembrance has some Scriptural support.
Finally, there is the position of the atheist: the Host is nothing; just a piece of unleavened bread. The consecration does nothing, changes nothing. It’s all a myth.
What is my position? I think I’m closest to the Catholic view, but I’m not confident enough to say I know that position is true. At the very least, I think the remembrance position passes the test of scrutiny. As for looking at the Host as merely a symbol; that seems to be lacking any meaningful punch. Basically, it is my view that if God wanted to make the Host special, He could. Does He? Philosophically, I don’t know and I know proving it either way would probably be very difficult, if not impossible. Religiously? Yeah, I can believe that. Not sure that makes me a really devout Catholic, but it’s a start.