Anscombe on Transubstantiation


G.E.M. Anscombe

It is easiest to tell what transubstantiation is by saying this: little children should be taught about it as early as possible. Not of course using the word “transubstantiation”, because it is not a little child’s word. But the thing can be taught, and it is best taught at mass at the consecration, the one part where a small child should be got to fix its attention on what is going on. I mean a child that is beginning to speak, one that understands enough language to be told and to tell you things that have happened and to follow a simple story. Such a child can be taught then by whispering to it such things as: “Look! Look what the priest is doing … He is saying Jesus’ words that change the bread into Jesus’ body. Now he’s lifting it up. Look! Now bow your head and say ‘My Lord and my God’,” and then “Look, now he’s taken hold of the cup. He’s saying the words that change the wine into Jesus’ blood. Look up at the cup. Now bow your head and say ‘We believe, we adore your precious blood, O Christ of God’.” [The cry of the Ethiopians at the consecration of the chalice.] This need not be disturbing to the surrounding people.

If the person who takes a young child to mass always does this (not otherwise troubling it), the child thereby learns a great deal. Afterwards, or sometimes then (if for example it asks), it can be told what the words are which the priest says and how Jesus said them at the Last Supper. How he was offering himself up to the Father, the body that was going to be crucified and the blood that was going to be shed. So he showed that on the next day, when he was crucified, his death was an offering, a sacrifice. You can tell an older child how from the beginning priests have offered sacrifices to God (and to other, false, gods too) bringing animals, the best that people had, and offering them on altars: that this was how gods were worshipped, for sacrifice is the principal sign that something is being worshipped as a god. Jesus was a priest offering himself and what he did at the Last Supper showed that that was what was happening the next day on the cross. You can tell the child how he told the Apostles to do what he did at the Last Supper, and made them priests; and that that is why his words when used by a priest have the same power as they did when he said them at the Last Supper.

The worship that we learn to give at the consecration carries with it implicitly the belief in the divinity and the resurrection of the Lord. And if we do believe in his divinity and in his resurrection then we must worship what is now there on the altar.

Thus by this sort of instruction the little child learns a great deal of the faith. And it learns in the best possible way: as part of an action; as concerning something going on before it; as actually unifying and connecting beliefs, which is clearer and more vivifying than being taught only later, in a classroom perhaps, that we have all these beliefs.

One might not even think of mentioning our Lord’s resurrection explicitly in this connection. But it is there implicitly for it is no part of the Catholic consciousness, no part of our way of speaking of or to our Lord, to think he only comes to be, as it were intermittently, upon our altars. No, we speak of the risen man as always a living man in heaven and say that the bread and wine are changed into him. And because he is alive and not dead, his flesh is not separated from his blood, and anyone who receives any of either, receives the whole of him. So, in learning this, children learn afresh that he is alive.

I have spoken of teaching little children, both because it is important in itself and because it is the clearest way of bringing out what “transubstantiation” means. That word was devised (first in Greek and then in Latin by translation) to insist precisely upon this: that there is a change of what is there, totally into something else. A conversion of one physical reality into another which already exists. So it is not a coming to be of a new substance out of the stuff of an old one, as when we have a chemical change of the matter in a retort from being one kind of substance into another. Nor is it like digestion in which what you eat turns into you. For these are both changes of matter, which can assume a variety of forms. When one says “transubstantiation” one is saying exactly what one teaches the child, in teaching it that Christ’s words, by the divine power given to the priest who uses them in his place, have changed the bread so that it isn’t there any more (nor the stuff of which it was made) but instead there is the body of Christ. The little child can grasp this and it is implicit in the act of worship that follows the teaching. I knew a child, close upon three years old and only then beginning to talk, but taught as I have described, who was in the free space at the back of the church when the mother went to communion. “Is he in you?” the child asked when the mother came back. “Yes,” she said, and to her amazement the child prostrated itself before her. I can testify to this, for I saw it happen. I once told the story to one of those theologians who unhappily (as it seems) strive to alter and water down our faith, and he deplored it: he wished to say, and hoped that the Vatican Council would say, something that would show the child’s idea to be wrong. 1 guessed then that the poor wretch was losing the faith and indeed so, sadly, did it turn out.

“But the thing is impossible, contradictory: it cannot be believed! It has to be only a figure of speech!” Well, indeed it cannot be really understood how it is possible. But if it is claimed it is impossible, then a definite contradiction must be pointed to, and if you believe in it, you will believe that each claim to disprove it as contradictory can be answered. For example, someone says: how can a man who is, say, six foot tall be wholly in this small space? Well, indeed not by the coincidence of his dimensions with the hole in space defined by the dimensions of the remaining appearance of bread: let us call this the “dimensive” way of being in a place. “But that is the only way for a body to be in a place! “How do you know? We believe that something is true of That which is there, which contradicts its being there dimensively. And certainly the division and separation from one another of all these places where That is, does not mean a division and separation of It from itself. So, considered dimensively, a thousand such diverse places can be compared to a thousand pieces of mirror each of which reflects one whole body, itself much bigger than any of them and itself not dimensively displaced. But when we consider That which the bread has become, the place where we are looking has become (though not dimensively) the place where it is: a place in heaven.

It would be wrong to think, however, that the thing can be understood, sorted out, expounded as a possibility with nothing mysterious about it. That is, that it can be understood in such a way as is perhaps demanded by those who attack it on the ground of the obvious difficulties. It was perhaps a fault of the old exposition in terms of a distinction between the substance of a thing (supposed to be unascertainable) and its accidents, that this exposition was sometimes offered as if it were supposed to make everything intelligible. Greater learning would indeed remove that impression. For in the philosophy of scholastic Aristotelianism in which those distinctions were drawn, transubstantiation is as difficult, as “impossible”, as it seems to any ordinary reflection. And it is right that it should be so. When we call something a mystery, we mean that we cannot iron out the difficulties about understanding it and demonstrate once for all that it is perfectly possible. Nevertheless we do not believe that contradictions and absurdities can be true, or that anything logically demonstrable from things known can be false. And so we believe that there are answers to supposed proofs of absurdity, whether or not we are clever enough to find them.


Why do we do this – why do we celebrate the Eucharist? Because the Lord told us to. That is reason enough. But we can reflect that it is his way of being present with us in his physical* reality until the end of this age; until he comes again to be dimensively and visibly present on earth. We can also reflect on the mysterious fact that he wanted to nourish us with himself.

This to my mind is the greatest mystery of all about the Eucharistic sacrifice, a greater mystery than transubstantiation itself, though it must be an essential part of the significance of transubstantiation. To try to get some understanding of this, let us first ask ourselves what our Lord was doing at the Last Supper. If you ask an orthodox Jew to say grace at your table, he will take a piece of bread in his hands, will pray and break the bread and distribute a piece to each person present. So our Lord was then saying grace and on a special occasion. He was celebrating the Passover; this supper was the first, highly ceremonial meal of the days during which Jews celebrate the passage of the angel of the Lord over Egypt when they were about to escape from their Egyptian slavery. Then they had to sacrifice a lamb, in groups large enough to eat it up, they were to smear their doorposts with its blood; the angel of the Lord passed over their houses, destroying the first-born children of all other houses. The Jews ate their sacrifice, being commanded on this occasion to eat all up and leave nothing behind; they stood ready to go on their journey, ready to leave Egypt. This meal in preparation for the journey out of bondage has ever since been memorialized in the supper – the Seder as present-day Jews call it – which was celebrated by our Lord with his disciples. But to the grace our Lord adds the words “This is my body” and after the rest of the celebration, he takes the cup of wine and says it is “my blood which will be shed for you”. We have seen how this showed that his coming death was a sacrifice of which he was the priest. (For his death was voluntary; no one could take his life from him if he would not give it up.) His actions showed that for us he himself replaced the Passover lamb, which was originally both a sacrifice and the meal in preparation for the journey of escape from slavery, and also provided the sign of difference between the escaping Jews and those who would have detained them.

There are two sorts of sacrifice, the holocaust, or “wholeburning” in which the whole of the sacrificed victim is destroyed in the sacrifice, and the kind in which the people eat what is sacrificed.

Christ made of himself the second kind; his first command in his gracesaying was to eat; it subsequently emerges that he is making a sacrificial offering and that he is superseding the paschal lamb, assuming its place. Catholics believe that we cannot cat and drink what he commanded without having the same bread and the same cup to eat and drink of; and that we can only do by reproducing his own offering. This, then, is why we identify the offering of the Last Supper with the sacrifice on the cross and with every mass.

So his flesh and blood are given us for food, and this is surely a great mystery. It is clearly a symbol: we are not physically nourished by Christ’s flesh and blood as the Jews were by the paschal lamb.

We Christians are so much accustomed to the idea of holy communion that we tend not to notice how mysterious an idea it is. There is the now old dispute between Catholics and Protestants whether we eat what only symbolizes, or really is, the flesh of the saviour when we eat the bread consecrated in the Eucharist; drink his blood only symbolically or really. Because of this dispute, it appeared as if only the Catholic belief were extravagant – the Protestants having the perfectly reasonable procedure of symbolically eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood! The staggering strangeness of doing such a thing even only symbolically slipped out of notice in the disputes about transubstantiation. But let us realize it now.

For why should anyone want to eat someone’s flesh or drink his blood? “I will drink your blood” might be a vow made against an enemy. Indeed in Old Testament language eating a man’s flesh and drinking his blood is an idea expressive of just such deadly enmity. Or savage peoples have wanted to eat the flesh of a brave enemy to acquire his virtue. Someone puzzled at the Christian Eucharist, whether celebrated under Catholic or Protestant conceptions, might wonder if that was the idea; but he would be far off the mark. Are Christians then like savage tribes, which on special occasions may eat the animals that are taboo at other times? No, that is not it.

It is surely clear that the reason why Christians have this sacrifice is obedience to the injunction of the saviour. He told his disciples to do this as his reminder (sc. to the Father), and said that what they ate and drank was his body and blood. And they might claim not to understand the matter, not to know any more about it than that he told them to do it and said it was a means to eternal life. I mean: it is not necessarily as it were a natural or intelligible gesture for them to make. To see this, imagine that there were a ceremony called “kissing the feet of the saviour” or “binding oneself to him”. These would be intelligible gestures, one would understand the thought of which they were the expression. But eating him?

Certainly this eating and drinking are themselves symbolic. I mean that, whether this is itself a literal or is a purely symbolical eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, that is in turn symbolical of something else. So if we only symbolically (and not really) eat his flesh, our action is the symbol of a symbol. If we literally eat his flesh our action is a direct symbol. The reason why the action is in any case strange and arcane is this: it is not a natural or easily intelligible symbol. How, and what, it symbolizes – that is deeply mysterious.

In modern times some theologians have tried to explain transubstantiation as trans-signification. The “substance” of some things is the meaning they have in human life. This is certainly true of some things, like money, and they have wished to say it is true of bread and wine: these aren’t chemical substances, but mean human food and drink. Well, as to the first point (that they aren’t single substances) that’s true enough; but the bread and wine that are fit to use at the Eucharist are defined by the natural kinds they are made from, by wheat and grape. For the rest, what is said may be very true – but the odd thing, which apparently is not noticed, is that what gets trans-signified in the Eucharist is not the bread and wine, but the body and blood of the Lord, which are trans-signified into food and drink. And that is the mystery.

When Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven”, his words were a metaphor for the same thing, The metaphor is that of saying “I myself will be the nourishment of the life of which I speak.” The saying is dark, like his saying “I am the way”, “I am the truth” and “I am the life” or again “I am the door”. Not “My way is the way” or “I show you the truth”, but “I am the way and the truth”. Similarly not “I have nourishment for you” but “I am the bread”. The commanded action of eating his flesh creates the very same metaphor as the words – whether we take the description of the action literally or symbolically. For, even if the words “I am the bread (i.e. the food) that came down from heaven” are to be taken literally, still that which they say, and which on that understanding is literally so, symbolizes something else.

The clearest of his metaphors is that of the vine. We can say unmetaphorically what that says – that the life he speaks of is his own; as the life of the branches is that of the vine. So this is the teaching that disciples are not merely disciples (taught) but are to share in the divine life, the divine nature itself. But here again understanding stops. Except that if it is so, we get an inkling why he does not merely say that he shows the way, the truth, a life, and can supply what is needed for that life (as a teacher can give studies that will nourish the pupil), but that he is the way, is the truth, is the life. But no one can know what it means for us to live with the life of God himself. That is why 1 say that what is symbolized by that symbol, the eating of that flesh and drinking of that blood (whether that is done literally or in turn only in symbol) is deeply mysterious. No wonder the early Christians were accused of some weird orgy in their Eucharist, and answered only with denials that any abomination took place.

“He gives us his body”, so Augustine wrote, “to make us into his body.” This brings out how the sacrament symbolizes and effects the unity of the people who join together to celebrate the Eucharist and to receive communion. The “mystical body of Christ” which we call the church, is a body in figure or metaphor. The unity of mankind is already spoken of in the metaphor by which we are considered to be born all “members of Adam”. Calling this one body, as if all men constituted one big man, is of course a figure or metaphor; the unity of life that is pointed to in the metaphor is itself no metaphor, for we are all, all the races of men, of one stock and one blood. Now by baptism we are said to be grafted into the body of a new Adam, and here again we have the metaphor of being the members – which means the limbs and other bodily parts – of the body of one man. Once again, the unity of the life that is pointed to in the figure of speech is no metaphor. Of this life Christ called himself the food. It is the food of the divine life which is promised and started in us: the viaticum of our perpetual flight from Egypt which is the bondage of sin; the sacrificial offering by which we were reconciled; the sign of our unity with one another in him. It is the mystery of the faith which is the same for the simple and the learned. For they believe the same, and what is grasped by the simple is not better understood by the learned: their service is to clear away the rubbish which the human reason so often throws in the way to create obstacles.

This paper is copyright Dr M C Gormally, and is reproduced by Second Spring with the necessary permission from The Collected Philosophical papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, Vol. III, Ethics, Politics and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp. 107-12.

* Theologians have not been accustomed to say that our Lord is “physically” present in the Eucharist. I think this is because to them “physically” means “naturally”, as the word comes from the Greek for nature – and of course our Lord is not present in a natural manner! But to a modern man to deny that he is physically present is to deny the doctrine of the Catholic Church – for meanings of words change. Pope Paul VI tells us in the Encyclical Mysterium Fidei that “Christ is present whole and entire, bodily present, in his physical reality”.

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