What is the Eucharist: Substance, Symbol, or Myth?

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.



I have a brother who is very passionate about politics. One of the relationships he often brings up in political debate is the relationship between the individual and society. Personally, I studied analytical philosophy in college. I studied the relationship between the individual and properties (think Plato’s bifurcation), not the relationship between the individual and society.

Anyway, my brother is always arguing that individuals do not exist on their own. They are connected to other individuals; that is, they have a relationship with society. According to my brother, Capitalism suffers from an extreme form of individualism without acknowledging a connection to society, and is, therefore, flawed. On the other hand, Communism is flawed in the other direction by placing too much emphasis on society (i.e. the collective) over the individual. According to my brother, the reality of the situation is something more of a hybrid. People are sometimes drawn toward the collective, and sometimes drawn to be by themselves. According to him, this is the root of the problem with the American way of life.

I’m not sure if the American way of life is any more problematic than it has always been. Capitalism has, I believe, produced more goods for more people, and lifted more people out of poverty than any other system ever tried. But it is not perfect. Indeed, the human condition is probably imperfectable. Regardless, I want to go down on record that I tentatively agree with my brother’s notion of a hybrid-like relationship between the individual and society. To that end, I wish to point out a few examples of things that connect me to others in ways I can’t control. Basically, there are items and practices that are imposed on me because the rest of society accepts them without a second thought.

Health insurance. Once upon a time, when life was much more rugged and doctors made house calls, there was no such thing as health insurance (at least, I don’t think so). Yet, people lived and prospered and thought nothing of it. Now, if you fail to get health insurance you are considered irresponsible. Why? Because everyone else is getting health insurance; they are paying into the health insurance system, and if you skimp, they pay for your care. So, you really are sort-of connected in this regard. Similar arguments can be made for car insurance, home insurance, etc…. My point is not that insurance is a bad idea (in fact, it is a good idea and, currently, I am fully insured), but rather, that the existence of insurance implies a connection between the individual and society such that the individual is compelled to follow the preferences of society.

Smart phones. These really aren’t a luxury; they are becoming a necessary part of our lives and our economy, so much so, that the person who does not own a smart phone will suffer significant disadvantages in our current economy.

My favorite type of cereal no longer exists. In high school, I adored a cereal called “Crispy Wheats and Raisins.” I haven’t had it in years, because, I think, “they” stopped producing it. Basically, the invisible hand of the market determined that my favorite cereal is not profitable enough so it was removed from the marketplace. In other words, the cereal preferences of the majority of other Americans aligned against my own. The collective evaluation of my favorite cereal resulted in that cereal’s disappearance; so, we are kind of connected.

Those are three examples. I’m sure there are more.

I’m not sure I had a central point to this post; it was more of an intellectual exercise analyzing the connection of the individual to society.

Money Is Technology

I want share an insight I had a number of years ago. It’s not a particularly profound insight, it was just a curiosity I noticed. Basically, I realized that money is a form of technology. Very, very old technology. Perhaps I would be able to convince you more easily if I had a clear definition of technology. But I don’t. These days, I usually conjure up images of electrical gadgets and doohickeys when I think of technology. Money, of course, is nothing like that. It’s little more than a substitute for other things of value be it food, labor, or pieces of the other aforementioned technologies.

Long ago, man kept what he killed and that was about the end of it. Then he (and she) advanced a step and began bartering back and forth so as to allow for greater distribution of goods. But the barter system was inefficient. So some genius somewhere invented money. Basically, we took something of value and allowed it to represent something else and we traded it in exchange for goods. Originally, we used gold and silver and similar such stuff. Somewhere along the way we traded the gold in for something almost without value: paper. Now we are transitioning to something truly devoid of value: electrons flowing in circuits. Electronic money is the wave of the future much to my personal chagrin.

Anyway, what is clear is that money is tied to us in a very deep, intricate way. It is like the technology on which all other technologies rely. It is the technology upon which all other technologies are built.

Wow. I was expecting to write maybe one paragraph on this topic and I squeezed out three. Chalk one up on my innate ability to ramble.

Bricks and Stones: Science and the Bible

I listen to Glenn Beck largely because he talks about God without sounding like a lunatic (unlike me). One thing I’ve learned from his many radio programs that I’ve found really interesting is his interpretation of bricks and stones in the Bible. According to Mr. Beck, stones are representative of individuals and bricks are representative of conformity—usually enforced by a political leader like Pharoah or whoever. The story of the Tower of Babel is all about this distinction. The leader wants to change the people from stones into bricks and build a tower into the sky to become like God. Basically, the leader wants the people to conform like bricks, to be yoked by his power, and sacrifice their individuality to serve him (for the record, I never would have understood that unless someone explained it to me). According to the Bible, God in His mercy, came down and confused the languages of the people, thus restoring individuality and bringing an end to the project.

Recently, a man was arrested for killing his wife after he took cough medicine (admittedly too much). The full story is here: http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/07/health/nc-murder-cough-medicine/index.html . It is a tragic story no matter how it resolves because a young woman lost her life. And, maybe, out of respect for the tragedy, I shouldn’t comment on it. But I want to make a point that needs to be made for the sake of the young man who, when he woke up, did the right thing and reported the event to the police. I want to note that the company that made the cough syrup said, “There is no evidence to suggest that Coricidin is associated with violent behavior.” I don’t want to imply that the company is “responsible” for the woman’s death, but it is still possible that the Coricidin is the “cause.”

I’ve never studied statistics and I’m not an expert in science (which means I will probably be ignored), but I think it is clear to me that science, when it is studying human beings, treats us all like bricks. It has no other method available to it. It needs to treat us like bricks in order to generalize and draw conclusions. And to be honest, this is a powerful method for it to use and it has been enormously successful; but as a result of human individuality, some of the detail of being a rock may be missed in such a process.

In the above cough syrup example, it is possible that the man who killed his wife may have been the one individual out of the seven billion or so individuals on this planet who might react that way. If such is the case, where does that leave us? Was the man responsible for killing his wife? Well, not without having mitigating factors—although he did err in taking too much cough syrup. Was the company? I don’t think they are either; they had no way of knowing what might happen as the man’s reaction was basically an outlier. Who is responsible? Maybe neither one; not the man, nor the company. Maybe it is a tragedy that will simply remain unexplained.

Anyway, I hope the point I made is useful. Science studies people as bricks not as stones and we are really stones. As a result, it (science) may miss important information.

The Advantages of Catholic Guilt

Well, I’ve got nothing else to talk about today so I’m going to ramble on about Catholic guilt for a bit. I was raised Catholic, so I am quite familiar with this notion. The Catholic Church has a whole laundry list of sins, both serious and trivial, or, as the church calls them: mortal and venial sins. I’m not a priest or a theologian (despite the fact that I think I’m the antichrist), but here’s kind of how it works as I understand it. The church endorses a rule, like don’t commit adultery; you ignore the rule and commit adultery and you’ve committed a sin. Upon reflection you realize that and start to regret it; you feel shame and guilt at your failure. Metaphysically, the sin is like a stain on your soul that needs to be cleansed. It can only be cleansed through the sacramental rite of Confession in the church.

There is something of a problem, though, with this. The list of sins recognized by the Catholic Church is quite extensive. Adherents to the Faith are sometimes accused of obsessing over such sins so that they are constantly dragging around a great burden of guilt. I’m not a psychologist either, but I’m kind of under the impression that modern psychology treats guilt as bad, an unnecessary psychology burden. But is it?

In this modern world of ours that emphasizes acceptance and non-judgment the question arises: Is there a place for Catholic guilt? Or, rather, does Catholic guilt have an advantage that can validate it in psychological circles. My answer is yes, it does. However, I doubt I can treat the subject with the depth it deserves in the space of a single blog post and, since I am neither a psychologist nor a priest, I won’t be taken seriously anyway.

Nevertheless, here we go:

I guess the crux of the matter comes down to whether or not we wish to encourage “sin” or not. I realize that “sin” is not a psychological term, but religious, but I think it still has value. Too many people today associate morality almost exclusively with sex. Since the Sexual Revolution sexual morals have loosened significantly. Years ago, pre-marital sex was considered immoral—a sin—not so, anymore. I really don’t want to get in a discussion on sex here, I just want to point out that there is more to morality than sex: theft, murder, lying, and maybe even impiety. If we ignore the sex, do we wish to encourage thieves and murderers? No, I think not. Such would be a recipe for moral disaster.

Anyway, to return to the original question, Catholic guilt can be a useful mechanism to improve an individual’s soul. Murderers, through regret and guilt, may put down the gun and learn to live peacefully with their neighbors. Thieves may stop thieving; liars, lying. And what is dark and putrid within, in time, may be replaced with light and kindness. This kind of improvement is only possible through a desire for positive change. And what can stimulate such a desire but a recognition of a shortcoming in one’s own character? Catholic guilt provides this. It can be a powerful tool for spiritual improvement.

At least, that’s what I think.