The Catholic Church’s teaching on the Eucharist is one of the main doctrinal disagreements between the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches. The Catholic Church teaches that, upon consecration, the bread and wine offered at the Mass become the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Higher church Anglicans/Episcopalians agree with this teaching, but other Protestant churches teach that the bread and wine/grape juice presented at their worship services remain bread and wine. The Lutherans teach a hybrid of these called consubstantiation in which the bread and wine coexist with Christ’s body and blood. Finally, some churches claim Jesus is only spiritually present in Communion. This article will focus on the Catholic Church’s teaching and will examine some common Protestant rebuttals.
Catholic Teaching and Protestant Objections
At the Last Supper (Mt 26, Mk 14, Lk 22), Jesus takes the bread and says, “This is my body…” Then he takes the cup and says, “This is my blood…” Unless Jesus was lying, there is no other way to interpret this act other than its literal meaning. Protestants (though not all) often object by saying we are to “do this in remembrance” of Christ and, therefore, believe the Lord’s Supper is symbolic.
Doing something in remembrance, however, is not the same as doing something symbolically. When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he simply means we are to remember him and not someone or something else. In other words, do not commit idolatry or empty the Eucharist of its meaning by thinking of another entity or by not thinking at all while receiving him.
In John 6, Jesus preaches to the 5000 and multiplies the loaves and fish for all to eat. He also preaches about the manna from heaven that the Jews ate in the Old Testament. Then he says in Jn 6:48-51, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
First, Christ says he is the bread of (eternal) life. Second, he talks about how the Old Testament fathers literally ate the manna in the wilderness. Third, Christ says he is the true bread that comes down from heaven. Finally, Christ says the bread he gives is literally his flesh. We know this because Christ gave his actual flesh (his very life) on the Cross. Therefore, if the fathers ate the manna in the desert and the true manna is Christ’s flesh that he gave for the life of the world, then we must truly eat his flesh in order to have eternal life.
Jesus further commands the Jews to eat his flesh and drink his blood five more times in this passage. If they do this, he will abide in them and they in him. After his statements, several of his disciples were repulsed and left him. Jesus then rebuked them as non-believers. He did not say, “Come back and let me explain that everything I just said was symbolic.” If Jesus is the true manna and he can multiply the loaves and fish (not to mention walk on water, change water into wine, and perform numerous other miracles), why can he not multiply his flesh and blood at the Mass?
Furthermore, the early church fathers recognized those who did not believe Jesus’ teaching as heretics. Jesus addresses the problem of unbelief in John 6:65. After many of Jesus’ disciples rejected this teaching, Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” When someone rejects Jesus’ teaching on this matter, the Father has clearly not granted them understanding of Jesus’ words and the ability to come to Jesus in the Eucharist. Those who knowingly and intentionally reject Jesus in the Eucharist cannot see the truth because their hearts have been hardened and their minds dimmed (though a Divine softening could occur at any moment).
St. Paul’s Words
In 1 Corinthians 10:16, St. Paul says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Paul could not be clearer. The Eucharistic bread is Jesus’ body and the cup contains his blood. By eating and drinking the Eucharist, we participate in Jesus Christ himself.
Like the Jews mentioned above, many find this teaching hard and they walk away from Christ. Then, by teaching that Christ did not mean this teaching the way Catholics understand it, they build a new Christ, one who does not teach that the consecrated bread and wine become his body and blood. By building a new Christ in their image and then worshipping him, they commit idolatry.
Additionally, Paul says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11). This is not symbolic language. You cannot profane the original with a symbol. Destroying the Statue of Liberty, for instance, does not destroy liberty itself. These two passages from Corinthians will be examined in the following article.
Some object to the Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist by saying Catholics are cannibals. Please understand that Christ is not reaching down from heaven to give us his arm to eat. He changes bread and wine into his glorified body and blood. Cannibalism not only includes the eating of another person but also a loss to that other person’s body. Christ loses nothing when we eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Eucharist. His entire being is glorified and eternal. He suffers no loss. Thus, consuming Christ in the Eucharist is not cannibalism.
Some may respond by saying the Jews were not allowed to drink the blood of their sacrifice. Although this is true, why were they instructed not to do so? Leviticus 17:10-11 provides the answer: “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood…” The Jews were not allowed to partake of the life (blood) of animals. Why? Because an animal’s life is inferior to a human’s life.
Christ, however, said we are to drink his blood. Why? Because we are to receive his life, a life that is infinitely superior to ours. Furthermore, the Passover meal was not complete until the Jews ate the flesh of the spotless lamb. Similarly, the Passover meal we celebrate at the Mass is not complete until we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ. This is called fulfillment of Scripture. Christ said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt 5:16), which is exactly what he is doing in the Eucharist.
Finally, some say that because Christ states he is the true vine (Jn 15:1) and door (Jn 10:7), he was speaking symbolically about Communion. If this argument were true, one would have to apply it to the entire Bible. If one can arbitrarily use these words to show symbolism in John chapter 6, then the whole Bible becomes a symbol. We know, however, the above words (vine and door) have nothing to do with Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist. Rather, Jesus is truly the vine upon which we must grow, and he is truly the door through which we must enter Heaven. These are metaphors Christ used to illustrate a reality. These verses in no way prove or even allude to Christ speaking metaphorically in John 6 or at the Last Supper.
Historical Note: All churches before Protestantism believed and still believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Nestorians and Eutychians (separated from the Church in the 5th century), as well as the Coptic (5th century), Armenian (5th Century), and Orthodox (11th century) churches all believe in the Real Presence. Check out their websites and notice that they not only teach the Real Presence, they defend it using the same scripture passages and early church writings that the Catholic Church uses. Why? Because the entire early church taught this scriptural and dogmatic teaching.
All churches, from inception to Protestant Reformation, believe in the Real Presence. Since Christ is God the Son, he would have known that millions of Christians would have taken his words literally. If he was merely speaking symbolically, he had every opportunity to clarify his teaching, yet he did not. The Protestant position is, therefore, untenable and results in only one of two conclusions; Christ is not God, or he purposely mislead Christianity for 1500 years knowing that Martin Luther would one day “remedy” this error by creating chaos and contradiction. Neither position is true. The only true teaching is that of the Catholic Church.