Monday, January 22, 2024

Schmemann’s Critique of the West (Part 2): Placing the Lateran Council in Context

The Fourth Lateran Council, from Johannes de Columna o.p., “Mare historiarum” (source)
Last week I summarized Schmemann’s fundamental critique of Western sacramental and liturgical theology. Today I address the question: Did the Fourth Lateran Council give a bad and unpatristic definition of “real” as opposed to “mystical”?

A helpful historical resource for these questions is Fr James O’Connor’s book The Hidden Manna (which will be cited as HM). Although the Fathers did not contrast “reality” with “symbol” using exactly those words, they did contrast the “true” with the “figure.” For example, St Ambrose says:

Now consider which is more excellent, the bread of angels or the Flesh of Christ which is indeed the body of life. That manna was from heaven; this is from above the heavens. … The former was given in umbra; the latter is given in veritate. (HM 37–38)
This is similar to the contrast St. Cyril of Jerusalem draws regarding the “truth” of the oil of Chrismation and the “type” that its Old Testament precursors were. This contrast did not prevent St. Cyril from referring to the Eucharist as a “type” of the body of Christ; it was a helpful contrast, but not a carefully demarcated system of words.

It was Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 868) who first set out a stark opposition between “figure” and “truth,” and on that basis said some rather unclear things about the Eucharist. For example:
Figure is a kind of hiding … of what is meant to be shown. For example, … when Christ in the Gospel says, “I am the living Bread who have come down from heaven”, or when he calls himself the vine and his disciples the branches … all these things say one thing but imply another. Truth is the manifest setting forth of a reality such that it is not hidden by any images or shadows, or, to speak more clearly, it is the setting forth of things in their pure, open, and natural signification, as is the case when one says that Christ was born of the Virgin, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried. In these cases nothing is hidden by figures that are obscure; the truth of the reality is set forth by the significance of the natural words; nothing other than what is said is to be understood. But in the cases mentioned above [when speaking of “figure”] it is not thus. Substantially the bread is not Christ or the vine Christ or the branches Apostles. Therefore these are a figure. (HM 92)
Berengarius took up the writings of Ratramnus and spoke unclearly in turn. The “Berengarians” were a diverse group according to contemporary report, and one Guitmund, Bishop of Aversa, avers that some of the Berengarians said “there is nothing at all of the Body and Blood of the Lord present in these Sacraments but that they are only umbras et figuras (HM 105). By this point, the original language used to affirm our faith in the Eucharist—the contrast between truth and figure—was being used to deny our faith in the Eucharist.

Lazzaro Baldi, “St Bruno defending the Sacraments against Berengar of Tours at the Council of 1079,” c. 1684 (source)

The East never endured a crisis around the Eucharist parallel to the Western Berengarian crisis (even as the West never endured a crisis around the divinity of the Holy Spirit parallel to the Eastern Macedonian crisis that prompted the insertion of a consecratory epiklesis in the Byzantine rite). Consequently, the East never experienced the weaponization of the venerable patristic “truth”/“figure” contrast. In the West, however, the faith had to be reasserted in terms of a denial that the Eucharist is merely a figure: for if it were, the New Testament Eucharist would not exceed the Old Testament figures of the Eucharist.

To complete the response, however, this simple reassertion of the Patristic contrast was not enough. There is indeed something symbolic about the Eucharist, as St. Cyril seems to indicate. So the West borrowed language from Augustine, language familiar from On Christian Doctrine: the distinction between (mere) “sign” and (full) “reality.” Again, it is worth noting that this distinction hails from one of the great Fathers—even if from a Father held in suspicion by (some in) the East.

In Book IV, Distinction X of his Sentences, Peter Lombard takes up the heresy of those who say that the body of Christ is on the altar in sacramento, id est, in signo, et tantum in signo manducari a nobis (in sacrament, that is, in sign, and only in sign is it eaten by us). Here “figure” has been replaced by “sign,” but it’s the same position we saw in the Berengarians. In response Lombard asserts the Catholic belief that “the true body of Christ is in the sacrament of the altar,” still staying close to the Patristic phrasing, but he also leverages the Augustinian distinction to distinguish between the sacramentum and the res sacramenti (often translated as the “reality of the sacrament”) and says that the res is the body of Christ. Also following Augustine, he says that “the bread is thus called the body of Christ, since it is truly the sacrament of the body of Christ which was placed on the cross.” Here we have “reality” [res] contrasted with “sign,” but (nota bene) in such a way that the Eucharist includes both, in different respects.

At the time of Lombard, no one has yet used the phrase “real presence” in reference to the Eucharist. In fact, the phrase “real presence” does not occur even in the works of St Thomas Aquinas! We’re getting close to that phrase with the res et sacramentum distinction, but we’re not there yet.

So what language does St. Thomas use? In the Summa, he raises the question: “It seems that the body of Christ is not in this sacrament secundum veritatem (according to truth, i.e., in truth), but only secundum figuram or as in signo (according to figure or as [meaning is] in a sign).” As we have seen, this is exactly the language the heretics have used to deny the faith.
The Angelic and Eucharistic Doctor (detail from an embroidered banner of St Dominic’s, Newcastle) Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew (source)
In his reply, St. Thomas first goes back to the old Patristic contrast between the Old Law and the New: since the Old Law already contained Christ’s passion in figura, it was necessary that the New Law should have something more, “namely, that it should contain Christ himself, the one who suffered, not only in signification or in figure, but also in the truth of the thing [in rei veritate].” Here we have the Patristic “truth” but with the addition of the word rei [“thing” or “reality”], seemingly to distinguish this “truth” from other ways in which the sacrament could be “true.” St. Thomas goes on to add a more medieval meditation:
Second, this belongs to Christ’s love, out of which for our salvation he assumed a true body of our nature. And because it is the special feature of friendship to live together with friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix), he promises us His bodily presence as a reward, saying (Matt. 24, 28): Where the body is, there shall the eagles be gathered together. Yet meanwhile in our pilgrimage he does not deprive us of his bodily presence; but unites us with himself in this sacrament through the truth of His body and blood. Hence (John 6, 57) he says: He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, abides in me, and I in him. Hence this sacrament is the sign of supreme charity, and the uplifter of our hope, from such familiar union of Christ with us.
Notice that St. Thomas uses the word “presence,” which is not a major word in the Church Fathers, and we find this word in the phrase “bodily presence.” Taken by itself, “bodily presence” could lead to misunderstanding, but Aquinas rephrases it as a union of Christ with us “through the truth of His body,” thus going back to traditional wording as the final explanation.

Aquinas’ use of “bodily presence” brings us close to what O’Connor claims is the first use of “real presence” in history, namely, Pope Urban IV’s bull Transiturus of 1264, extending the feast of Corpus Christi to the entire Western church. Urban IV says:
This is the memorial most sweet and salvific in which we gratefully recall the memory of our redemption, in which we are drawn from evil, strengthened in good, and secure an increase in virtues and graces, the memorial in which we attain the corporeal presence [corporali praesentia] of the Savior himself. Other things whose memory we keep we embrace spiritually and mentally [spiritu menteque complectimus]: we do not thereby obtain their real presence [realem praesentiam]. However, in this sacramental commemoration of Christ, Jesus Christ is present with us in his proper substance [propria substantia], although under another form. (HM 194)
What does “real presence” mean here? In this text, the term “real presence” is used in parallel with “bodily presence” and with the phrase “present in his proper substance,” in contrast with things present to us in such a way that we can (only) embrace them with our mind or spirit. His point lines up with the second argument quoted above from Aquinas, because Aquinas is speaking in the context of friendship and Urban is speaking in terms of what we “embrace” in a memorial. When we commemorate other things, we embrace them in mind or in spirit, but when we commemorate Christ’s death we embrace Him with the body. (As we know, Urban entrusted Aquinas with composing the office for the feast of Corpus Christi, so he may even have relied on him for some of the text of Transiturus—this possibility cannot be ruled out.)

It seems that the Augustinian res / sacramentum distinction may have prepared the way for Urban’s use of realis praesentia. The obvious meaning of realis praesentia would be a presence “through the res,” and Urban puts this in parallel with corporali praesentia, which seems to be presence through the body itself. Perhaps we are supposed to see this against the background of the common view, expressed by Lombard in the text I quoted above, that the body is the res of the Eucharist. But since the contrast with realis here is not sacramentalis but memories embraced by the mind, the Augustinian language does not completely cover Urban’s usage.

To pull this all together, it seems that the contrast between Old Testament “figure” and New Testament “truth” was a normal way to speak about Christ in the Eucharist from Patristic times through the High Middle Ages. Heretics took up the contrast to say that the Eucharist is but a figure and not the true body, and in response, orthodox thinkers reasserted that the New Testament has the truth and not just a figure; they also worked out new distinctions, including the distinction between “res” and “sacramentum” (“reality” and “sacrament”). The word “presence” does not come up much prior to Urban, although St. Thomas’s reference to “bodily presence” does bring the word in, and his wording is reflected in Urban’s bull. Urban first uses the phrase “real presence” to indicate that Christ’s presence in the sacrament of the altar goes beyond the presence of other things or persons we commemorate in other commemorations, which he characterizes as embraced in mind and spirit. In short: “real” is not contrasted with “fake” but with “mental” or “spiritual.” (He does not use the term “real presence” in the context of the old contrast of figure/sign and truth, so it is hard to know whether he saw the term as helpful for that context.)

Nevertheless, the phrase “real presence” later became the dominant name for this mystery in the West. So dominant is the phrase “real presence” in later theology that translations tend to import it. For example, the Catechism of the Council of Trent quotes St. Hilary, who says, “There is no room for doubt regarding the truth of Christ’s body and blood,” but the TAN translation of the Catechism renders that “regarding the real presence of Christ’s body and blood.” Countless times I have found translations of older texts replacing “truly” with “really.”
Aristotle (source)
As an aside, Schmemann is mistaken to attribute a definition of “real” to the Lateran Council. Perhaps there is a concept of reality behind the language of the council, but neither the word “real” nor the word “mystical” come up in the council. I think what Schmemann is objecting to is the very notion of transubstantiation. And how ironic that would be, considering that the Eastern Orthodox Church’s 1672 Synod of Jerusalem clearly taught the doctrine of Eucharistic metaousiosis (that is, change of substance or change of being), which was already taught more commonly under the equally telling expression metastoicheiosis or “change of elements.”

Nor is it legitimate to say one is “merely rejecting” the Aristotelian physics behind the term, for, as Paul VI pointed out, Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident (whatever you wish to name them—the underlying thing and its logically posterior incidental or changeable features) is an inescapable concept in any realist philosophy whatsoever. The only alternatives are the philosophical systems of materialism and idealism. The former is patently absurd, since it can make no room for and give no account of the very concept of itself; and the latter, while defensible on its own terms, is impossible to reconcile either with an orthodox theology of creation or with an orthodox Christology, since it would obliterate the distinction between spirit and flesh, and thus give the lie to (among other things) the constant insistence of St John that the Word was made flesh.

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