Ask a silly question

Originally Appeared in : 9920-9/26/19

The Catholic News Service (CNS) reported a few weeks ago that “a Pew Research Center survey released Aug. 5 found that nearly 70% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine used for Communion during Mass are ‘symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ,’ while about 30% believe that the bread and wine ‘actually become’ Christ’s body and blood.”


The question as asked by Pew presupposes a false dichotomy between “symbol” and “actuality” (reality?), neither of which the survey defines. Are these two categories, properly understood, mutually exclusive? Are the bread and wine at Mass either “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ” or do they “actually become Christ’s body and blood?” Is there perhaps a deeper sense in which they are both symbols and the reality symbolized? If the question presupposes a classically Protestant either/or dualism and excludes the possibility of a classically Catholic both/and perspective, then it is a silly question that could not help but provoke silly answers from Catholics. Let me explain.


In the CNS story, Mark Gray from the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) is rightly quoted to the effect “that replacing the word ‘actually’ with ‘really’ might have led to different results.” I would concur and note as well that for over 50 years, Catholic theologians, led by Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) have undertaken to “rehabilitate” the category “symbol,” which they understand not in the weak sense of an empty sign, as taught by Ulrich Zwingli and other reformers in the 16th Century, but as a signum efficax gratiae — a sign or full symbol that effects and carries with it the grace it signifies, as taught by Saint Augustine.


In his masterpiece, “Introduction to Christianity,” Joseph Ratzinger analyzes the Greek noun symbolon (or xymbolon), which is derived from the verb symbállein syn = “with” + ballein = “to throw,” hence, “to throw together, to compare”). The noun symbolon referred to half of a broken die used as a token of hospitality; the host broke a die in half, giving half to his guest and retaining the other. A half-die that fit its other half served as an emissary’s credentials: For example, if two kings make a pact or covenant, they might cut or break a token (a, ring, coin or tablet) in two, with each keeping half as a symbol of the covenant. If the first king’s emissary (ambassador) came to the second king with his master’s half token (it matches the second king’s token when the two are ‘thrown together’), then the emissary would be received as a partner, a friend, one deserving of hospitality. Each symbol “points to its complementary half and thus creates mutual recognition and unity. It is the expression and means of unity.” As Karl Rahner points out, a certain identity between the symbol and the one who stands behind it — the symbolizer—is implicit.


For Karl Rahner, in the “highest, most primordial or fundamental sense”, a “symbol” is one reality that” expresses or embodies the person or thing so strongly, is so charged with meaning, that it renders the other present. Indeed, a certain identity between the symbol and the one who stands behind it — the symbolizer—is implicit.


In the celebration of the Eucharist, the bread taken, blessed, broken and given, and the wine taken, blessed and given, symbolize Christ’s body taken, blessed broken and given on the cross for the life of the world and his blood, taken, blessed and poured out for us and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Through “the power and working of the Holy Spirit,” the elements of bread and wine become what Jesus through his words spoken by his priest, who acts in persona Christi capitis, says they are: his body and his blood. Christ then is “really, truly, wholly and substantially present in the Eucharist,” the sacrament of his one saving sacrifice. The symbol becomes the reality.


The sacraments of the Catholic Church “do not merely signify divine grace, but in virtue of their divine institution,” they make that grace present in the souls of believers.


By greater precision in our use of theological terms, such as “symbol,” which can be furthered by attentive reading of such masterpieces as “Introduction to Christianity,” we can do a better job of transmitting the Catholic faith to others.


But asking “silly questions,” and panicking when they provoke “silly answers,” helps no one.


Father Douglas K. Clark is the retired pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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