Transubstantiation: Faith, Science, and the Public Square

“Catholics are crazy.”

Why don’t we hear people saying that?  Richard Dawkins accused anyone disbelieving evolution of being “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Does he accuse Catholics of the same thing?  Or why don’t we hear skeptics comparing the Catholic liturgy to a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

After all, one of the central features of Catholic liturgical tradition and theology is at least as radically anti-science as any kind of young-earth creationism.  But nobody seems to mind.

For purposes of full disclosure, I must note: I’m a big fan of Catholicism.  As the saying goes, ‘Some of my best friends . . .”  But even close friends must acknowledge the elephant at the altar, the rigid anti-science that lurks uncomfortably at the heart of the Catholic Eucharist.

We’re talking here about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.  In Catholic doctrine, when a priest completes a special ceremony over bread and wine, the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  Not symbolically, but substantially changed.  Of course, to all outward appearances, the bread and wine maintain their accidental attributes.  The senses, and even the most careful scientific detection, will see/hear/taste them only as bread or wine.  But in substance they have been transformed into the Real Presence, the living body and blood of the Christ.  I’m no theologian, and I invite correction on this subject, but as I understand the doctrine, the substance changes while the accidental outward properties do not.  Thus, for example, my body has two hands.  But the substance of my body does not change if I cut off one hand.  It is still my body, though the accidental properties change.  With the bread and wine, the substance transforms into the actual substance of blood and flesh.  But the accidental properties remain the same.  It will not taste like blood or flesh.  (If it did, I imagine this issue might be a little more controversial.)  It will continue to have all the outward appearances, down to the microscopic level, of bread and wine.  Yet it will not be.

This is a profoundly antiscientific notion at the heart of Catholic belief.  Instead of believing in the clear evidence of their senses, Catholics are supposed to believe that they are eating and drinking real flesh and real blood.  This notion is at least as antiscientific as more controversial doctrines such as young-earth creationism.  After all, creationists are not asked to disbelieve their own senses.  They are not required to contest the scientific measurements of things.  Instead, young-earth creationists are told that they have a superior science worked out, a true science that accords with the version of creation described in the Bible.  Catholics, on the other hand, officially believe that bread tastes like bread, smells like bread, looks like bread, has all the chemical properties of bread, and yet is not bread.  That must be difficult to swallow, pardon the pun.  Yet we don’t hear any complaints against it or attacks upon it from skeptics and anti-fundamentalists.  Why not?

There are two obvious reasons.  First, this doctrine doesn’t impinge on the public sphere the way creationism does.  After all, if it somehow mattered what public schools taught about the nature of bread, wine, and liturgical practice, then we could expect the notion of transubstantiation to become more controversial.  When the nature of the substance of the Eucharist was part of a public debate, as in the time of Martin Luther, then the doctrine of transubstantiation was indeed intensely controversial.  These days, in subjects such as contraception and abortion, where Catholic doctrine impacts public policy, we do hear a great deal about the nature of Catholic belief.  Since the doctrine of transubstantiation remains important only within the religion itself, skeptics may feel no need to challenge its inherent antiscientific nature.  After all, much religious belief is antiscientific.

Second, even many Catholics don’t embrace this doctrine enthusiastically or aggressively.  Catholics are not forced to defend the anti-science of transubstantiation the way creationists are forced to defend their Bible-based anti-science.  Catholics are assumed to agree with this foundational theological premise, but they are not put in a position to defend it publicly.  Allow me to give one example.  At the Catholic Church I attend, during harsh flu seasons parishioners are asked not to drink from the communal chalice if they have symptoms.  That makes great scientific sense, but little liturgical sense.  If the wine had actually been transformed into the substance of Christ’s blood, it doesn’t seem right that the H1N1 virus could attach itself.  Perhaps a Catholic apologist would reply that such things as viruses are only part of the “accidental” features of the wine.  The point here, though, is that to many Catholic parishioners, at least at my church, the transubstantiated blood is still regarded as very similar to wine.

So are Catholics crazy?  Do they cling to anti-scientific notions?  Does the core belief of Catholicism mean that ideas taken on nothing but faith must trump all evidence of the senses?  And if so, why don’t anti-fundamentalists seem to mind?


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  1. Hi, Adam: Correct if I am wrong, but I do think that Catholics believe in Darwinism. I do believe that a Pope did state that it is an acceptable explanation of human evolution. Could this explanation address why Catholic beliefs do not come under the same scrutiny by the mainstream society as do those of creationists? Cheers!! Jon

    • @ Jon, Right–JPII famously came out in support of theistic evolution in the mid 1990s. If I remember right, he did not agree on a purely materialistic source for the mind, and he rejected the evolution of the human soul. But he accepted in principle the notion of evolution. However, earlier in the century some of the leading anti-evolution writers were Catholic and writing as Catholics. Ron Numbers has noted this in The Creationists; I talk a little bit about the 1920s Catholics who led the rhetorical anti-evolution charge in my Fundamentalism and Education book. But despite this, there have always been significant differences between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants about evolution. For one thing, Catholics had their own school system to worry about, so the teaching in public schools never really mussed their fur as much as it did Protestants’. Also, the Catholic emphasis on tradition in theology, in addition to scripture, limited Catholics’ need to decide on the import of Genesis.

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