The Propriety of Eucharistic Devotions

In the history of sacramental theology, those who dissent against the Catholic Church's teaching on the question of transubstantiation but do not want to give up the idea of a Real Presence entirely have sometimes defaulted to a middle position that acknowledges a Real Presence but denies the logical consequences of affirming that Presence.  Sometimes the Presence affirmed is even described as a physical or bodily Presence, in order to find conformity with the Scriptural tradition of referring to the sacrament as the "Body of Christ", yet the ramifications of what the Presence of Our Lord's Body in the sacrament means are denied, especially the devotions that are proper to the sacramental presence of Our Lord's Body, such as reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, Eucharistic Adoration, and Corpus Christi processions. Many Christian denominations teach a "Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament, but only the Catholic Church retains the aforementioned devotions.

The early Protestants were divided on the question of the propriety of Adoration. Some, like Martin Luther, believed it was appropriate to some degree; Luther apparently did not mind Eucharistic Adoration although he disapproved of Corpus Christi processions. However, Luther was always in the minority here, and the vast majority of Lutherans followed the lead of Philip Melanchthon, who categorically rejected reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, Adoration and any sort of Eucharistic processions. Thus, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, attempting to appease both parties, offers a compromise formula:

"Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise." [1]

The substance of the formula was accepted by the Catholic disputants who examined the confession, who were primarily concerned with the problem of Utraquism and the affirmation of the Catholic teaching that the substance of the bread and wine is actually replaced by the substance of our Lord's Body and Blood (transubstantiation). Hence, they did not seem to note the qualifier added by the Reformers. After noting that Christ's body and blood are "truly present", the Augsburg Confession goes on to say that the Body and Blood of our Lord are "distributed to those who eat the supper of the Lord." This qualifier was invoked by those who did not approved of Eucharistic Adoration, as it could be taken to mean that our Lord is present only in the act of distributing communion to the faithful, the position later adopted by most Lutheran assemblies. According to this belief, Christ is truly present, but His presence arises after the consecration, endures throughout the act of distributing communion to the faithful, and then kind of goes away after the liturgy is ended. In this way, if there are any left-over hosts, it can be safely denied that our Lord is present in them, and thus any grounds for Eucharistic Adoration are removed.

To those who insisted on a more Catholic understanding of the article, the Lutherans could always say that the article did not specifically condemn the practice. Thus both parties are appeased, although the anti-Adoration party would prove to be dominant in the subsequent development of Lutheran theology.

The Anglicans were much less concerned about preserving the sensibilities of their Catholic brethren. The Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), state:

"The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them." [2]

Though Henry VIII himself was ambivalent on the question of transubstantiation - at one time he had laws passed which simultaneously criminalized the affirmation of transubstantiation as well as its denial - and though he personally participated in Eucharistic processions even after his break from Rome, the Church of England ultimately came out strongly against these sorts of Eucharistic devotions because it was clear that they were intimately linked with the power of the priest to confect the sacrament, and hence to the sacrament of Holy Orders, which was the sacrament most fiercely attacked under Henry's reform. The prohibition against gazing upon the sacrament refers to Eucharistic Adoration, and carrying them about to the processions. Note also the Anglican statement that "we should duly use" the sacraments; this focus on the use of the sacraments will be standard parlance in Protestant terminology, as contrasted with veneration or exhibition of the sacraments, as is common in Catholicism. This is also related with the ideas of the Lutherans that Christ was present in the sacrament only so long as it was being "used."

The Westminster Confession of the English Presbyterians (1646) comes out very strong against Eucharistic devotions. In Chapter XXIX, we see two separate articles warning against Eucharistic piety:

"The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation." [3]

The phrase at the end of the statement that communion should not be reserved or given to any who "are not then present in the congregation" again focuses the sacrament on the moment of its use, as only those then present for the liturgy would be able to receive. But lest anyone be inclined to misinterpret the Confession, and to avoid the ambiguities present in the Lutheran confessions, the following article goes on most explicitly to state:

"Worshipping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ." [4]

These devotions arise due to belief in transubstantiation, which is "the cause of manifold superstitions; yes, of gross idolatries" [5]

Hence we see that while some Reformers (Anglicans and Lutherans) affirm a sort of Real Presence and others do not (Presbyterians, Melanchthon), all Protestants universally deny the propriety of Eucharistic devotions such as Adoration and Processions. This is easily understandable for those who deny any sort of presence of our Lord in the sacrament, but it is more perplexing in those denominations that do admit of a Real Presence. What argument could they have against veneration or exposition of the Lord's Body when they admit it truly is the Lord's Body?

We have seen the evolution of the argument from use; namely, that while the Body of our Lord is truly present in the sacred species, our Lord only commanded the celebration of the Eucharist for the purpose that it be consumed by the faithful. Hence, there is one and only one permitted "use" of the sacrament - the consumption of it during the liturgy - and any other uses are not permitted. Some Reformers will allege other uses are simply inappropriate; others that the Presence of our Lord actually vanishes after the liturgy has ended.

The Protestant objections to the enduring nature of the Real Presence are based largely on their discomfort with the implications of belief in the Real Presence. If our Lord truly is present in this sacrament, then of course the consecrated Host is due the reverence that is due to the Body of our Lord Himself. But if this is admitted, then Adoration , Processions, and all the trappings of "popery" must be admitted as well, for they all flow from this one point - the perpetual and enduring nature of Christ's Presence in the sacrament.

Hence the necessity of confining our Lord's Presence to the moment of reception or to the strict "use" of the sacrament. Unfortunately for the Protestants, no sect that maintained any sort of Real Presence was able to give a satisfactory explanation to how the Real Presence of Christ vanishes when the sacrament is not being used. They teach it, presume upon it, and attack opinions to the contrary, but none give an explanation as to how exactly the Presence of Christ leaves when it is no longer wanted by the Reformers. In fact, they arrive at the conclusion of its absence by a reversal of logic. Instead of starting with the fact of the Real Presence and deducing the propriety of Eucharistic devotions from it, as Catholics do, they begin with the premise that Eucharistic devotions are not permissible and then reason backward to get to the point of stating that our Lord's Presence in the Eucharist vanishes when the sacrament is no longer in "use."

This is an admittedly awkward position. Hence, from a Protestant point of view, it is easier to simply deny any sort of Real Presence than to try to simultaneously admit one while denying Eucharistic devotions.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers us a fundamental truth that clarifies the entire matter. Thomas returns to the question of how Christ becomes present in the sacrament to begin with, and notes that anything less than a substantial presence cannot be said to be the "Real Presence" in any meaningful sense. This Real Presence comes about by a real change in substance:

"And consequently it remains that Christ's body cannot begin to be anew in this sacrament except by change of the substance of bread into itself. But what is changed into another thing, no longer remains after such change. Hence the conclusion is that, saving the truth of this sacrament, the substance of the bread cannot remain after the consecration." [6]

The change in substance from bread and wine to the Body and Blood means that the former substances are no longer found; they have been entirely transformed. This arises due to the rite of the Church. The rite brings forth a positive change, one that is real and substantial and cannot be undone. Just as it would be impossible for the substance of the bread and wine to remain after transubstantiation, so would it be impossible for the substance of Christ to no longer remain after reception of Holy Communion. The prayers of consecration bring about the real change in substance called transubstantiation, but no such transformation is attached to the act of receiving Holy Communion, or any other point in the liturgy.

Hence, for St. Thomas, the fact that the substance has been truly transubstantiated means it is as enduring and permanent as human nature in a human being; we do not cease being humans when we cease using the faculties proper to human nature. Neither does the sacrament cease becoming the Body and Blood of Christ when it ceases to be "used." The Protestant rejection of the classical notion of "natures" and the Aristotelian concept of substances greatly obscures their thinking in these points.

If the change in substance results in the presence of the divine nature, then every form of piety and reverence that man owes God becomes proper in the presence of this divinity. Thus, Eucharistic Adoration, Eucharistic processions and the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament are proper. We could also note the symbolism of the ancient Israelites, who were accustomed to reserve the Holy Bread within the Tabernacle as a sign of God's enduring presence among them. In fact, this bread's technical name was "The Bread of the Presence." [7] If the Bread of the Presence was symbolic of God's continued presence among His people in the Old Covenant, would not His presence in the sacramental bread of the New Covenant be just as enduring? For these reasons and many others, the Catholic Church has always defended the propriety of these Eucharistic Devotions that flow from the truth of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence.

Pange lingua gloriosi
Corporis mysterium,
Sanguinisque pretiosi,
Quem in mundi pretium
Fructus ventris generosi,
Rex effudit gentium.

See also: Berengar and His Importance


[1] Augsburg Confession, Article X
[2] Thirty-Nine Articles, XXV
[3] Westminster Confession Ch. XXIX, Art. 3
[4] Ibid., (XXIX, 4)
[5] Ibid., (XXIX, 6)
[6] STh, III, Q. 75 Art. 2
[7] See Ex. 25:30, Lev. 24:5-6, 24:7-9