This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Comment

← Dawkins calls for 'Catholic' honesty

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 73 by Cartomancer

Right, first of all there is a bit of incredibly pedantic housekeeping that needs doing. I dont expect anyone (least of all the catholics) to actually care about this, but I did do a bloody doctorate in this sort of stuff so I claim the crabby academic's universal right to butt in on a specialist subject and tell people what's what:

One problem with this question being viewed as a shibboleth is that most people misunderstand what the doctrine means. It is based on Aristotelian categories which distinguish the substance of something (its essence independent of all physical properties) from its accidents (all its physical properties). Transubstantiation means that the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance (spiritual presence is probably the best way to put this in contemporary terms) of Christ but the accidents remain the same i.e the physical properties of bread and wine remain the same and the physical properties of the body and blood of Christ are not involved, but Christ's essence i.e spiritual presence is.

This gets the Medieval Aristotelian metaphysics terminology somewhat wrong. It's a valid effort, but not quite what the scholastics meant.

"essence independent of physical properties" and "spiritual presence" are not good definitions of substance (substantia) in the context of transubstantiation, for several reasons. First of all the word "substance" (substantia) in Medieval Latin most usually means what we use it to mean in English today - stuff, a thing that exists with certain properties. What transubstantiation deals with is a specialised, distinct, technical use of the word substance, more properly expressed as substantial form (forma substantialis). Scholastic writers did use substantia on its own as a shorthand to mean substantial form, but it was usually clear from the context what they meant. In the same way modern evolutionary scientists might use "fitness" as a shorthand for "Hamiltonian inclusive fitness" or some such.

Anyway, "substantial form" is not "essence independent of physical properties" and "accidental form" is not a synonym for "physical properties". "Essence" (essentia) is a technical scholastic term in its own right, which means something like "the specific properties, characteristics or attributes of a thing that characterise it as that thing". Basically it's the metaphysical spec sheet. This is contrasted with being (esse) which simply means the property of actually existing in reality. The essence of a triangle, for example, is to be a closed plane shape that has three sides and three corners. That's true whether there are any actual triangles in the world or not, each actual example of a real triangle having esse on top of its abstract defining essentia.

Substantial and Accidental forms are components of a thing's essentia - what makes it what it is. A substantial form is a form it has to have to be the kind of thing it is, an accidental form is a form it may or may not have and yet still be that thing - an optional extra. For example, being alive would be considered an essential property of a man, because a dead man isn't a man, he's a corpse. But having white skin or blond hair is an accidental property of a man, because he could have black skin or brown hair and still be a man. Both substantial and accidental forms could be physical or non-physical in nature. You could quite easily talk about having the form of kindness or chastity or holiness for instance, as well as the form of redness or sharpness or being on fire. There is a term in the scholastic Latin vocabulary for the underlying substrate of the real world divorced from all form and characteristic, but that term is Prime Matter (materia primalis). Substantial and accidental forms are imprinted onto Prime Matter in order to make it into mundane things, and thereby imbue those collections of forms, those essentiae, with being, with esse. Prime Matter is thus not substantial form.

As for "spiritual presence", that doesn't get to the heart of substance under transubstantiation either. "Spiritual", to the Scholastics, was generally either a mode of existence lacking corporeal matter (i.e. not deriving its esse from union of form with Prime Matter but from something else) or a mode of existence with matter but matter so rarefied and fine that it flowed and behaved in completely different ways from normal matter. Neither of these describes the substantial form of the christ-bread on the altar - which most definitely did have corporeal matter and most definitely did behave in the usual way of solid stuff. Christ's body and blood weren't spiritual substances, they were corporeal substances. They did not have spiritual presence, they had actual corporeal presence. That's what the whole explanation was concocted to explain. Saying that the body and blood were there "spiritually" is pretty much saying that they weren't really and actually there at all.

What transubstantiation means is that you're eating real flesh and drinking real blood, they just happen to look and taste like bread and wine. They're flesh and blood in every way that matters to their being flesh and blood, it's merely the way they affect human senses that's different. Their sensory emanations, on this model, are not essential and necessary to their fundamental nature as flesh and blood.

Sat, 09 Jun 2012 00:12:12 UTC | #946475