Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 What Is Transubstantiation?
  • 1:54 Brief History of…
  • 3:17 Transubstantiation in Practice
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will define the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in detail, provide a brief history of the term, and discuss transubstantiation in practice.

What is Transubstantiation

Transubstantiation is the process by which the bread and wine of the Eucharist is transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe that through transubstantiation, the risen Jesus becomes truly present in the Eucharist. The word transubstantiation is made up of two parts: 'trans' and 'substantiation.' The first part is a prefix that means 'across', 'beyond', or 'through'. It suggests that some kind of change has taken place.

The second part of the word, 'substantiation,' refers to the philosophical term substance. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, substance is a thing's deepest being, what it is, in and of itself. The substance of a thing is what it really and truly is beyond all appearances. Aristotle calls those appearances accidents. An object's accidents are its external characteristics, what we can see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. Those accidents can help us identify and describe an object, but they do not necessarily capture the inner essence of a thing, its substance.

Let's look at an example. A teenager decides to dress up as a zombie for Halloween. His costume is highly realistic, complete with torn clothing, heavy makeup, and lots of fake blood. He groans like a zombie and even has an earthy, musty smell. To all appearances, in his accidents, this young man seems like a zombie, but deep down, in his substance, he is, of course, a human teenager.

In transubstantiation, then, the substance of the bread and wine changes into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The accidents of the bread and wine, their taste, smell, and appearance, remain the same, but deep down, the bread and wine no longer exist. They are completely Jesus Christ.

Brief History of Transubstantiation

Catholics have always believed that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, that the bread and wine really become his body and blood. Jesus Himself said so at the Last Supper, when He took bread and said, 'This is my body,' and wine and said, 'This is my blood.' Catholics take Jesus at His word.

The earliest Christians did so, too. St. Paul made that clear in his first letter to the Corinthians when he referred to the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the 'body and blood of the Lord,' Jesus Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch in a letter to the Roman Church about 110 A.D., says, 'I desire the Bread of God, the heavenly Bread, the Bread of Life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ...; I wish the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.'

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