William of Ockham is the Least of Rome’s Apologists’ Worries

Historians and apologists for Rome heap a lot of blame on William of Ockham for philosophical and theological ideas that unleashed Protestantism and produced the West’s decadence and Walmart. Why Christendom itself doesn’t receive the blame for Ockham is one of those chicken-and-egg questions, I guess.

Now it turns out that Ockham was not the only one who challenged Aquinas, the theologian Jesus founded. Duns Scotus has his own explaining to do.

It turns out he may explain the Mass better than Aquinas because transubstantiation makes Christ’s presence dependent on the location of the bread (sort of like “bread presence” rather than “real presence”):

It concerns the claim of St. Thomas Aquinas that Christ’s body is present on the altar because something that was there before, the substance of bread, has been converted into that body. The “accidents” of the bread—for example, its whiteness and roundness—remain, but these do not belong to the body of Christ; otherwise that body would have to be white and round, which it is not. So far, so good.

Among the other accidents of the bread, however, is its location, there on the altar. For what a thing is, its substance, is no more the same as where it is than it is the same as how it looks (round and white). But in that case, how can we say that Christ’s body is there on the altar—since, ex hypothesi, it cannot get its “where” from the “where” of the consecrated bread? The doctrine of transubstantiation, as explained by Aquinas, thus fails to secure the real presence of Christ’s body on the altar. “I do not know of any satisfactory answer to this problem,” Kenny continued. “If I did, I would give it. Since I do not, I must leave it, as the writers of textbooks say, as an exercise for the reader” (A Path from Rome, 1986, 167–168).

These questions may seem abstruse, perhaps even improper, since the sacrament is rather to be adored than quibbled over. But the question of Christ’s presence now on the altar is a genuine one, and central to the consecration and adoration of the Eucharist. It is a question that many others besides Thomas Aquinas sought to answer, and a seriously inquiring intellect might rightly be disturbed, even scandalized, if forbidden to ask it. But for a long time Thomas’s answer was accepted just because it was his. This was an unnecessary constriction of Catholic thought. Unfortunately, some Catholic intellectuals seem still to be constricting themselves in this way. One might call their position “exclusivist Thomism.”

According to Scotus:

The subtle Scot distinguishes between presence and transubstantiation, claiming that one can exist without the other (Ordinatio IV d.10 q.1). Christ could be there on the altar now without transubstantiation, and the bread could be transubstantiated without Christ being there on the altar. Christ’s presence on the altar is not a matter of his appropriating the “where” of the transubstantiated bread, or of his retaining this particular accident and not others.

It turns out that Scotus also differed with Aquinas on the immaculate conception in ways that may make Roman Catholics and their nostalgia for Christendom perk up:

The most famous difference between Scotus and Thomas is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Scotus got right and Thomas got wrong. But surely, one might say, we no longer need Scotus to tell us about the Immaculate Conception. Didn’t Blessed Pius IX tell us all we need to know in his dogmatic pronouncement? Perhaps. Note, though, that Thomas was not alone in failing to defend the Immaculate Conception. Every Scholastic theologian before Scotus, including fellow Franciscans like St. Bonaventure, failed in the same way. None was able to give a defense of it that would avoid creating a serious theological problem somewhere else.

Consider in this regard one of the arguments that Thomas himself gives against the Immaculate Conception (Summa Theologica III q27 a2). If the Virgin Mary had in no way incurred the stain of sin, she would not have needed Christ as her savior and so Christ would not be the savior of all men and women. Scotus’s answer is that Christ is indeed Mary’s savior, for he saved her in advance of her incurring the original sin that, as a natural descendant of Adam, she would have incurred otherwise (Ordinatio III d.3 q.1). Christ is thus her savior, as he is the savior of everyone else. Moreover, he is her savior in the most excellent way possible, for he saved her from ever having had sin, including original sin, while everyone else is saved only after incurring at least original sin.

And then there’s Scotus’ view of pets which has some appeal in this corner of Christ’s spiritual kingdom:

Can animals go to heaven or be resurrected? Pope Francis was recently reported to have said that they can—but inaccurately, as it turns out. Still, the pope said enough in his encyclical Laudato si’ to suggest the thought that it’s at least possible. Section 243 of the encyclical reads: “At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God, and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude…. Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all” (emphasis added).

Does this remark mean that animals can or will be in heaven, not indeed as sharing the beatific vision, but as sharing resurrected life with beatified human beings? Thomists will say no because the sense-souls of animals, unlike the rational souls of humans, perish at death, and what has altogether perished cannot be brought back numerically the same. Scotus thinks this view false and argues, in his usual subtle and involved way, that the numerically same thing could in principle be recreated after having ceased to exist. He appeals in defense not only to divine omnipotence but to reported miracles of saints actually bringing animals back to life (Ordinatio IV d.44 q.1 n.19). Let those, then, who want to think of their pets being with them in heaven be consoled with Scotus, and perhaps with Pope Francis, for assuredly they cannot be consoled with Thomas. But then, if Thomas is not the unique measure of orthodoxy, there can be no harm or fear in leaving him for Scotus and Pope Francis—and one’s favorite pet.

I have no dog in this fight other than reminding western Christians that the medieval church, let alone the ancient one, was hardly as unified and regulated as contemporary Roman Catholics make it seem. By the nineteenth century, Rome may have achieved the sort of market share in Roman Catholic dioceses that on the eve of Vatican II AT&T had in the phone business. But that consolidation and coherence took awhile and came with a price.


Sola Scriptura?

Don’t listen to the polls but only to Jesus except when he teaches about what will become of Jerusalem:

Q. Recent polls indicate that some 70 percent of Catholics in the United States (and 66 percent in Ireland) do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but rather a symbolic presence.

I happen to be one of them. I am Jesuit-educated, and I have written to my pastor with my question but have been greeted with stone silence. If these polls are even halfway true, why is this elephant in the room never addressed or even mentioned in church? Are we all condemned to hell for this belief? (Duxbury, Massachusetts)

A. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are not determined by plebiscite. That is to say, what is fundamental in determining the core content of the Catholic faith is not how people feel, but what Jesus said. And for that, we go to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Jesus has just multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed 5,000 people, and the crowds are in awe. The very next day, Jesus says something that turns out to be very controversial (Jn 6:35, 51): “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” People are shocked and ask: “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).

Even his followers are horrified. Christ has every opportunity to pull back and explain. “Wait,” he might have said, “I was only speaking figuratively.”

Instead, he presses the point, watching as people start to drift away: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:54-56).

Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus reaffirms this teaching in language that is virtually identical.

Polling data varies widely regarding this teaching. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, found in a 2011 survey that 63 percent of adult Catholics believe that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

But as I said at the start, polling data is largely irrelevant, except to this extent (as your question suggests): If a fair number of Catholics do not subscribe to a long-held and central article of faith, the Church should doubtless do more to proclaim and explain that teaching.

As to your last line, about the consequences of not believing, one thing is certain: No one is going to hell who sincerely follows the dictates of his own properly formed conscience. So why worry about that? Why not focus instead on determining what Jesus taught?

So bishops should teach what the Bible teaches or church members should follow their consciences? No wonder the polls’ results and authority.