Challengers help Catholics, other faith communities stay vibrant

Almost 20 years ago, a Catholic priest friend and I co-taught a week-long seminar called “Doctrines that Divide.” Much of our focus was on the Eucharist.

Like Catholics, we Presbyterians are “Real Presence” people. Which is to say we believe (even if many Presbyterians can’t articulate this) that somehow Christ is really present in the sacrament of Holy Communion. But we don’t use “transubstantiation” as an explanation of how that happens. We use no word for it at all, except perhaps mystery.

Since co-teaching that class I’ve concluded that one of my differences with Catholic sacramental theology has to do with transubstantiation. For me, one problem is that it’s rooted in Aristotelian science, which divides the world into “accidents” (the taste, texture, color, etc., of things) and “substance” (the core essence of things). So the substances of bread and wine get changed to the substances of the body and blood of Christ, though the accidents of the elements remain.

Aristotelian science has been replaced by Newtonian science, which in large measure has been replaced by Einsteinian science, which is being replaced by post-Einsteinian science. To tie a central church belief to an outdated science strikes me as odd.

Now comes Joseph Martos, a retired professor of philosophy and theology, with a new book that argues this: Nearly the whole of Catholic sacramental theology “is intellectually bankrupt.”

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Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual says that in creating its sacramental theology over the centuries (especially through the work of the Scholastics), the church has misinterpreted scripture and patristic writing and wound up with doctrines in bad need of being pulled apart and put back together in ways that would be much more meaningful to the church today.

Martos told me the following: “The question I try to ask, and which most scholars do not ask is: What in the author’s experience is the author trying to talk about when language is being used metaphorically? For example, I believe that ‘new life’ probably refers to a visibly new lifestyle rather than to an invisible injection of divine grace. … I think justification by faith refers to getting one's life straightened out by trusting in the teachings of Christ rather than to being seen as just in the eyes of God even though one is still a sinner, as Luther proposed. If ideas do not come from nowhere, what in Paul’s experience could he have been talking about when he spoke of being justified by faith?”

In the book, Martos adds this: “Although the Second Vatican Council opened a door to change, real change has not occurred because of the hierarchy’s belief that the way things looked in the thirteenth century is the way they still look -- or at least ought to look.”

Well, I’m not a Catholic theologian, nor am I meant to be one. So I’m not the right person to do a critical analysis of the author’s many arguments in this 300-page volume.

The reason I bring it to your attention is that I think all faith communities need challengers.

People who raise difficult questions, who question foundational assumptions -- especially if they do it in a constructive spirit and not out of anger or bitterness -- help faith communities remain vibrant and worth taking seriously.

Using search techniques on ancient texts now available in electronic databases, Martos has formulated arguments to which the Catholic church should feel compelled to respond. That response may be a dismissal of his arguments, but to ignore them will create the impression that he’s right and that the church has no answer.

Not every critic carries the same weight, of course, and the church will have to decide whether Martos, author of, among other books, Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church, deserves a hearing.

If my job were defending Catholic sacramental theology, I’d be careful about saying no.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian ChurchE-mail him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]


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