Catholicism and Fundamentalism—The Eucharist
Fundamentalist attacks on the Church always come around, as they must,
to the Eucharist.
Fundamentalist attacks on the Church always come around, as they must,
to the Eucharist. Keith Green devoted the first of his Catholic
Chronicles to what he acknowledged to be the core devotional
doctrine of Catholics, and he was smart to do so. Bart Brewer, Donald F.
Maconaghie, Jimmy Swaggart — they all zero in on the Eucharist, and in
doing so they demonstrate that fundamentalists, contrary to popular
belief, are not always literalists. This is shown in their
interpretation of the key scriptural passage, the sixth chapter of
John's Gospel, in which Christ speaks about the sacrament that will be
instituted at the Last Supper.
opens on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee with the feeding of the
five thousand, the only miracle recorded by all four evangelists. After
the people were fed, Jesus withdrew to the hillside to be alone. Night
fell, and the disciples went down to the lake without Him and, embarking
in the only boat available, sailed for Capharnaum, which was on the
western shore. Jesus caught up with them some time later by walking on
the water. The multitude, thinking He still must be with them, stayed
overnight where the miracle was performed. The next morning they
discovered Jesus was nowhere to be found and, when other boats put in
near them, they embarked for Capharnaum, where they found Jesus and
asked Him when (but not how) He had made His way there, apparently
thinking He had set off on foot before dawn for the long walk around the
lake. He did not answer directly, but told them to “work to earn food
which affords, continually, eternal life” (Jn 6:27). He had provided
them their fill of natural bread; now He began to speak of supernatural
With verse 30
begins a colloquy that took place in the synagogue at Capharnaum. The
Jews asked Him what sign He could perform, and, as a challenge, they
noted that “our fathers had manna to eat in the desert” (Jn 6:31). Could
Jesus top that? He told them the real bread from heaven comes from the
Father. “Give us this bread”, they insisted. “But Jesus told them, 'It
is I who am the bread of life'” (Jn 6:34-35). He was getting more
explicit, and the Jews started to complain, but still understood Him to
be speaking metaphorically. Jesus repeated what He said before, then
summarized: “I myself am the bread that has come down from heaven. If
anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever. And now, what is this
bread that I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the
world” (Jn 6:51-52). Then the Jews asked, incredulously, “How can this
man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:53).
Hugh Pope, in
commenting on this chapter, remarked that at last “they had understood
Him literally and were stupefied; but because they had understood Him
correctly, He repeats His words with extraordinary emphasis, so much so
that only now does He introduce the statement about drinking His blood”.1
“You can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son
of Man, and drink his blood. The man who eats my flesh and drinks my
blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My
flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh, and
drinks my blood, lives continually in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:54-57).
There was no
attempt to soften what was said, no attempt to correct
“misunderstandings”, for there were none. His listeners understood Him
quite well. No one any longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If
they had, why no correction? On other occasions, whenever there was
confusion, Christ explained what He meant. Here, where any
misunderstanding would be catastrophic, there was no effort to correct.
Instead, He repeated what He had said.
many of His disciples who said, when they heard it, This is strange
talk, who can be expected to listen to it?” (Jn 6:61). These were His
disciples, people who already were used to His remarkable ways. He
warned them not to think carnally, but spiritually: “Only the spirit
gives life; the flesh is of no avail; and the words I have been speaking
to you are spirit, and life” (Jn 6:64). But He knew some did not
believe, including the one who was to betray Him. (It is here, in the
rejection of the Eucharist, that Judas fell away.) “After this, many of
His disciples went back to their own ways, and walked no more in His
company” (Jn 6:67).
This is the
only record we have of any of Christ's followers forsaking him for
doctrinal reasons. If they merely had misunderstood Him, if they
foolishly had taken a metaphor in a literal sense, why did He not call
them back and straighten things out? Both the Jews, who were suspicious
of Him, and His disciples, who had accepted everything up to this point,
would have remained had He told them He meant no more than a symbol.
But He did
not correct these first protesters, these proto-Protestants. Twelve
times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He
said they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood”. John 6 was an
extended promise of what would be instituted at the Last Supper — and it
was a promise that could not be more explicit. Or so it would seem to a
Catholic. But what do fundamentalists say?
writers identify two approaches to use when “disproving” the Real
Presence. Jimmy Swaggart summarized them this way: “In all honesty we
must repudiate this dogma on two counts: (1) It is opposed to Scripture.
(2) It is contradicted by the evidence of the senses.”2
Fundamentalists concentrate on the first count, the argument from “the
evidence of the senses” being weak since even a rudimentary
understanding of transubstantiation makes one realize that the dogma, by
definition, cannot be refuted through an appeal to sensory perception
since there is not supposed to be any perceptible change to the
eucharistic elements. Besides, an argument based on the senses must be
an argument based on science or philosophy, and fundamentalists prefer
to argue from the Bible.
from Scripture, every fundamentalist says Christ was speaking
metaphorically in John 6 and during the Last Supper. Bart Brewer, head
of Mission to Catholics International, says that “if I were to show
someone a photograph of my son and say, “This is my son', they [sic]
would not take these words literally. The Scripture is written with such
common language that it is obvious to any observant reader that the
Lord's Supper was intended primarily as a memorial and in no sense a
literal sacrifice. In taking Biblical statements literally, we must be
sure that doing so is consistent with the context and not in
contradiction to other clear teaching.” Brewer also argues that “when
Jesus said 'this is my body' or 'blood', He did not change the
substance, but was explaining that He is the one 'represented' by the
passover bread and wine. Jesus did not say touto gignetai, this has
become or is turned into, but touto esti, which can only mean this
represents or stands for.”3 Brewer's Greek is deficient here.
Esti is nothing else than the verb “is”. Its usual meaning is the
literal, although it can be used figuratively, just as in English. If
this crucial term is supposed to be read as “represents”, why was it not
clearly put so in the Greek?
continues: “It is perfectly clear in the Gospels that Christ spoke in
figurative terms, referring to Himself as 'the door', 'the vine', 'the
light', 'the root', 'the rock', 'the bright and morning star', et
cetera.'”4 In this Brewer is seconded by Donald F. Maconaghie
of the Conversion Center: “It is clear that our Lord used a sign or
figure which the Council of Trent would have us cursed for believing
when He said, 'Except ye eat My flesh and drink My blood ye have no life
in you' John 6:53. Was our Lord transubstantiated into a literal door:
He said, 'I am the door' John 10:9. Or into a vine? He said, 'I am the
true vine' John 15:1. Notice we also read: 'The ten horns are ten kings'
Daniel 7:24. 'These great beasts which are four, are four kings' Daniel
7:17. 'The seven kine are seven years' Genesis 41:26.”5
and Charles M. Carty answered this common charge years ago: “There is no
logical parallel between the words 'This is My body' and 'I am the vine'
or 'I am the door.' For the images of the vine and door can have, of
their very nature, a symbolical sense. Christ is like a vine because all
the sap of my spiritual life comes from Him. He is like a door since I
go to heaven through Him. But a piece of bread is in no way like His
flesh. Of its very nature it cannot symbolize the actual body of Christ.
And He excludes that Himself by saying, “The bread that I will give is
My flesh for the life of the world, and My flesh is meat indeed.' That
is, it is to be actually eaten, not merely commemorated in some
surprisingly, Swaggart agrees with Maconaghie and Brewer. He writes,
“This is my body...this is my blood, are accepted literally in Catholic
dogma. On the same basis we should accept without thinking that Jesus
gives us literal living waters which will produce eternal life (John
4:14), or that Jesus is truly a door (John 10:7-9), that He is a lamb
(John 1:29), or that He is a growing vine (John 15:5). If the Catholic
hierarchy is to be consistent, they [sic] should foster adoration of
doors, vines, and lambs. Certainly, these figures of speech are
descriptive and colorful, but they are transparently figurative, just as
are the terms 'my body,' and 'my blood'. The New Testament Church and
the Early Church understood and accepted this just as it was offered, as
a figure of speech.”7
Is that so?
Let us see what the Early Church thought.
the Smyrnaeans around 110 and referring to “those who hold heterodox
opinions”, Ignatius of Antioch said, “They abstain from the Eucharist
and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the
flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and
which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again.”8
later, Justin Martyr wrote, “We call this food Eucharist, and no one
else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching
to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the
remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ
has enjoined. For not a common bread nor common drink do we receive
these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word
of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we
have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the
Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood
and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that
Lyons, in his masterwork, Against Heresies, written toward the close of
the second century, said that Christ “has declared the cup, a part of
creation, to be His own Blood, from which He causes our blood to flow;
and the bread, a part of creation, He has established as His own Body,
from which He gives increase to our bodies.” He asks, “If the Lord were
from other than the Father, how could He rightly take bread, which is of
the same creation as our own, and confess it to be His Body and affirm
that the mixture in the cup is His Blood?”10
writing about 244, demonstrated that reverence is given to the smallest
particle from the host. “I wish to admonish you with examples from your
religion. You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so
you know how, when you have received the Body of the Lord, you
reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall and lest
anything of the consecrated gift perish. You account yourselves guilty,
and rightly do you so believe, if any of it be lost through negligence.”11
bishop of Alexandria, said this in his Sermon to the Newly Baptized,
delivered in 373: “You shall see the Levites bringing loaves and a cup
of wine and placing them on a table. So long as the prayers of
supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and
wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed,
then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord
As a final
example, taken from dozens that could have been used, Cyril of
Jerusalem, in his Cathechetical Lectures, presented in the middle of the
fourth century, told his listeners: “Do not, therefore, regard the Bread
and Wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master's
declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses
suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this
matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith, not doubting that you
have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ.”13
might be said, it is certain that the early Church took John 6 and the
accounts of the Last Supper literally. There is no record in the early
centuries of any Christian doubting the Catholic interpretation. There
exists no documents in which the literal interpretation is opposed and
only the metaphorical accepted. Brewer persists by saying, “The doctrine
of transubstantiation does not date back to the Last Supper as is
supposed... The idea of a corporal presence was vaguely held by some,
such as Ambrose, but it was not until 831 A.D. that Paschasius Radbertus,
a Benedictine monk, published a treatise openly advocating the doctrine
of transubstantiation. Even then, for almost four hundred years,
theological war was waged over this teaching by bishops and people alike
until at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D., it was officially
defined and canonized as a dogma.”14
misleading. First of all, the Real Presence was not “vaguely” held by
Ambrose. In his treatise The Sacraments, composed about 390, he wrote,
“You may perhaps say: 'My bread is ordinary.' But that bread is bread
before the words of the sacraments; where the consecration has entered
in, the bread becomes the flesh of Christ. And let us add this: How can
what is bread be the Body of Christ? By the consecration. The
consecration takes place by certain words, but whose words? Those of the
Lord Jesus... Therefore it is the word of Christ that confects the
sacrament.”15 Nothing vague about that.
about Paschasius Radbertus? Was he the first to believe in
transubstantiation? Radbertus was abbot of Old Corbie Monastery near
Amiens. In 831 he composed a treatise that contained this ambiguous
expression: “This is precisely the same flesh that was born of Mary,
suffered on the Cross, and rose from the tomb.”16 He narrated
some Eucharistic miracles that gave the impression that Christ must be
understood to be sensibly present in the sacrament, and another monk at
his abbey, Ratramus, wrote a counter treatise noting that one must
distinguish between the appearance of Christ in the Eucharist and the
appearance of His body received from Mary, but he used language that
might suggest Christ is only symbolically present in the Eucharist. Both
Radbertus and Ratramus were orthodox; the trouble was that neither was
precise in wording.
between these principals soon became a theological free-for-all”, said
historian Newman Eberhardt.17 Others entered the fray,
sometimes proposing rectifying language that was even more confusing
than what Radbertus and Ratramus wrote.
ended by 860, with no one denying the Real Presence. What should be
noted is that, despite various attempts to phrase the doctrine of the
Real Presence accurately, there was no cry from anyone that this was a
new doctrine. It was taken as a given. Those who inadvertently implied
the Presence might be symbolic only were considered the innovators, not
those who presumed it was Real.
theological world there was no further controversy on the issue until
Berengarius of Tours, who died in 1088. He had studied the dispute that
began with Radbertus and Ratramus and concluded that Christ was indeed
present only symbolically. He repeated signed recantations and then,
safe at home, reiterated his original position. This theological seesaw
went on for decades, until he finally subscribed to an unambiguous
formula. Church historians say he apparently died reconciled.18
Whether or not he did, he is the first Christian, so far as we can tell
from the records, who denied the Real Presence. Paschasius Radbertus and
Berengarius of Tours are remembered to history only because the one
seemed to doubt the Real Presence and the other actually did. What this
tells us is that the accepted belief was the opposite of what they were
understood to hold.
Back to the
words of the text. Keith Green identified in his Catholic Chronicles two
biblical passages as the keys to the Catholic position. The first is
John 6:55-56: “The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys
eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is real
food, my blood is real drink.” Green said that “with just a little study
of the whole passage (verses 27-71), it is clear that Jesus was not
talking about physical, but spiritual food and drink.” He argued that
since Jesus says “he who comes to Me will never be hungry” (Jn 6:35),
“to come to Him is to 'eat'!” Similarly, since Jesus tells us in the
same verse that “he who has faith in Me will never know thirst”, it
follows that “to believe on Him is to 'drink'!”19
concurs. “These verses actually disprove the dogma of
transubstantiation. The ones who took Jesus' words literally were
offended. That is why He clarified their misunderstanding by teaching
them that what He said was to be understood spiritually (see verse
63)... Looking back to verse 47, it is obvious that 'eating' is
equivalent to 'believing.' It is certain that what is meant by eating
this flesh and drinking this blood is neither more nor less than
'believing' in Christ.”20 In short, the command to eat
Christ's flesh and drink His blood must be taken metaphorically.
But there is
a problem with that. As John A. O'Brien put it, “the phrase 'to eat the
flesh and drink the blood', when used figuratively among the Jews, as
among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious
injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the
phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life
everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would
reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense.”21 Christ would
be saying, “He that reviles Me has eternal life.”
scriptural argument is capped, by all fundamentalist writers, with an
appeal to John 6:64: “Only the spirit gives life; the flesh is of no
avail; and the words I have been speaking to you are spirit, and life.”
This is a verse to which fundamentalists always return, and it was, by
the way, the first verse that Jimmy Swaggart threw at Catholic writer
Barbara Nauer when they discussed the interpretation of this chapter.
She was stunned by his use of the line, for the very good reason that in
the context of the narration it can be seen not to relate to the
question they were examining, which was: Is the Real Presence real?
Swaggart thought this verse more than compensated for the apparent (and
literal) meaning of the earlier part of John 6. He interpreted Nauer's
pause as a silent acknowledgment of defeat, when in fact she was trying
to understand what this non sequitur had to do with the issue at hand.22
Did Swaggart think that Christ, who had just commanded His disciples to
eat His flesh, now said their doing so would be pointless? Is that what
“the flesh is of no avail” means? “Eat my flesh, but you'll find it's a
waste of time” — is that how He was to be understood? And were the
disciples to understand the line “the words I have been speaking to you
are spirit, and life” as nothing but a circumlocution, and a fairly
clumsy one at that, for “symbolic”? No one can come up with
interpretations like these unless he first holds to the fundamentalist
position and thinks it necessary to find some rationale, no matter how
tortuous, for discarding the Catholic interpretation.
In John 6:64
the word “flesh” is not used in the same sense as in John 6:53-59. It is
being used more in the Pauline sense, in which it is contrasted with
“spirit”. The contrast is between unaided nature and nature elevated by
grace. Compare John 3:6: “What is born by natural birth is a thing of
nature, what is born of spiritual birth is a thing of spirit.” Christ
detects in some of His listeners an unsupernatural attitude that looks
for earthly rewards and that turns away from His teaching on the
Eucharist. When He says “the flesh is of no avail”, He does not mean “My
flesh” — that would contradict His immediately prior remarks. He means
instead carnal understanding, as distinguished from spiritual.
Keith Green. He examined John 6:55-56, the first of the passages he
identified as key, and then turned to the second, Matthew 26:26, 28:
“This is my body...this is my blood.” He noted that
base their whole religious system on their interpretation of these two
verses. They adamantly teach that right here, Jesus is pronouncing the
first priestly blessing that mysteriously changes the bread and wine
into His body and blood. The absolute folly of such a conclusion is
proved by this one observation: He was literally still there before,
during, and after they had partaken of the bread and cup! He had not
changed into some liquid and bread — His flesh was still on His bones,
and His blood was still in His veins. He had not vanished away to
reappear in the form of a piece of bread or a cup of wine!23
So here we
have the diabolically clever Catholic Church telling us the
transformation was real, yet Jesus was still at the table. Catholic
exegetes through the centuries missed the fact that He was still
present, that He did not disappear in a puff of smoke and end up on the
platter and in the cup. How stupid Catholics have been, to miss the
obvious! (Perhaps this just shows that none of them ever read beyond
John 6:28; if any Catholic had, he could have blown the whistle, and the
Church would not have made such a fool of itself.) This is the loose
thinking fundamentalists end up with if they conclude, as they do, that
the answer to the Catholic position is elementary because the Catholic
position is so clearly erroneous.
The reply to
Green is simple: Christ was present at the Last Supper in two ways. He
was present at the table in a natural way, as were the apostles, and He
was present in the Eucharistic elements in a sacramental way, which is
precisely the way He is present in them today, in Catholic churches
throughout the world. That Christ can be present in two ways
simultaneously is indeed a mystery (a mystery being a religious truth
that cannot be comprehended fully by reason), but it is not an
impossibility. Something does not become impossible simply because we
cannot understand it. After all, God is present everywhere — all
Christians acknowledge that — and that is as much a mystery as Christ's
presence in the Eucharist. Are we to deny God's omnipresence because we
cannot conceive how He pulls it off? If Christ, who was on earth in a
natural body and now reigns in heaven in a glorified body, can make the
world out of nothing, certainly He can make bread and wine into His own
Body and Blood. That should not be hard to accept, no matter how hard it
might be to fathom. There is no good reason to limit God's acts to the
extent of our understanding.
fundamentalists' problem is that theirs is a religion almost entirely
lacking in the mysterious. More precisely, they readily acknowledge only
those mysteries that are purely spiritual, such as the Trinity. They
know the doctrine of the Trinity has been revealed, that something about
the Trinity can be known, that certain deductions can be drawn from what
is known; and they realize the essence of the Trinity lies beyond human
comprehension, and they are happy to leave it at that. When it comes to
mysteries that involve the mixing of spirit and matter, a kind of
fundamentalists the sacraments are out because they necessitate a
spiritual reality, grace, being conveyed by means of matter. This seems
a violation of the divine plan. Matter is not to be used, but overcome
or avoided, and in this lies the unease with which they view the
Incarnation. One suspects that, had they been asked by the Creator their
opinion of how to effect mankind's salvation, they would have advised
Him to adopt an approach that would have appealed to Mary Baker Eddy.
How much cleaner things would be if spirit never dirtied itself with
matter! But God, quite literally, loves matter, and He loves it so much
that He comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine. There is no
contradiction in Christ being both physically and sacramentally present.
fundamentalists have the hardest time with are I Corinthians 11:26-30:
“So it is the Lord's death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this
bread and drink this cup, until He comes. And therefore, if anyone eats
this bread and drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held
to account for the Lord's body and blood. [Douay-Rheims translation:
“... shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord”.] A man must
examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup;
he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks
unworthily, not recognizing the Lord's body for what it is.” And what
should it be recognized as? A mere metaphor? Then how can receiving
unworthily be equated with being “guilty of the body and blood of the
simple reason”, observed Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman more than a century
ago in his Lectures on the Real Presence, “seems to tell us that the
presence of Christ's body is necessary for an offense committed against
it. A man cannot be 'guilty of majesty' unless the majesty exists in the
object against which his crime is committed. In like manner, an offender
against the Blessed Eucharist cannot be described as guilty of Christ's
Body and Blood, if these be not present in the Sacrament.”24
'How could a
person be guilty, if he had merely eaten a little bread and drunk a
little wine, as a picture or representation or reminder of the Last
Supper?” asked Rumble and Carty more recently. “No one is guilty of
homicide if he merely does violence to the picture or statue of a man
without touching the man in person. St. Paul's words are meaningless
without the dogma of the Real Presence.”25 They may indeed
then be meaningless, but fundamentalists would rather live with a
meaningless Real Absence than a meaning-full Real Presence.
Pope, The Layman's New Testament (London: Sheed and Ward,
Swaggart, “The Mass—The Holy Eucharist”, The Evangelist,
October 1985, 35.
tracts The Roman Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass and The Mystery
of the Eucharist.
Sacrifice and Mystery.
and Carty, Replies, 186.
Epistula ad Smyrnaeos 6, 2.
Martyr, Apologia prima pro Christanis 65.
Adversus haereses 5, 2, 2; 4, 33, 7.
in Exodum homiliae 13, 3.
Athanasius, Sermo ad nuper baptizatos.
Jerusalem, Catecheses 22, 6.
tract The Mystery of the Eucharist.
De sacramentis libri sex 4, 4, 14.
Paschasius Radbertus, De corpore et sanguine Domini.
Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History (St. Louis: Herder,
tract The Holy Eucharist: Eating the Flesh of Deity.
Challenger, October/November 1984.
correspondence to the author from Barbara Nauer.
Wiseman, Lectures on the Real Presence, 319.
Rumble and Charles M. Carty, Eucharist Quizzes to a Street
Preacher (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books, 1976), 7-8.
Karl. “The Eucharist.” Chapter 19 in Catholicism and Fundamentalism:
The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians (San Francisco: Ignatius
Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press. To
Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on
Romanism by Bible Christians ISBN
0-89870-177-5 (SB) call 800-651-1531.
Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers
and edits its magazine,
Keating is the author of
Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on
"Romanism" by "Bible Christians",
What Catholics Really Believe-Setting the Record
Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,
Controversies: High-Level Catholic Apologetics,
The Usual Suspects: Answering Anti-Catholic
Fundamentalists. He also engages
in public debates with leading anti-Catholics, and publishes This
Rock magazine. Karl Keating is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic
Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988