In the years before Vatican II a young man named Anthony Kenny entered the priesthood after studies in England and Rome. Some years later—but still before Vatican II—increasing doubts induced him to leave the priesthood. His doubts were about various things, but he relates a particular doubt in a talk he gave on theology and philosophy. It concerns the claim of St. Thomas Aquinas that Christ’s body is present on the altar because something that was there before, the substance of bread, has been converted into that body. The “accidents” of the bread—for example, its whiteness and roundness—remain, but these do not belong to the body of Christ; otherwise that body would have to be white and round, which it is not. So far, so good.
Among the other accidents of the bread, however, is its location, there on the altar. For what a thing is, its substance, is no more the same as where it is than it is the same as how it looks (round and white). But in that case, how can we say that Christ’s body is there on the altar—since, ex hypothesi, it cannot get its “where” from the “where” of the consecrated bread? The doctrine of transubstantiation, as explained by Aquinas, thus fails to secure the real presence of Christ’s body on the altar. “I do not know of any satisfactory answer to this problem,” Kenny continued. “If I did, I would give it. Since I do not, I must leave it, as the writers of textbooks say, as an exercise for the reader” (A Path from Rome, 1986, 167–168).
These questions may seem abstruse, perhaps even improper, since the sacrament is rather to be adored than quibbled over. But the question of Christ’s presence now on the altar is a genuine one, and central to the consecration and adoration of the Eucharist. It is a question that many others besides Thomas Aquinas sought to answer, and a seriously inquiring intellect might rightly be disturbed, even scandalized, if forbidden to ask it. But for a long time Thomas’s answer was accepted just because it was his. This was an unnecessary constriction of Catholic thought. Unfortunately, some Catholic intellectuals seem still to be constricting themselves in this way. One might call their position “exclusivist Thomism.”
Thomas’s answer to Kenny’s question can, in fact, be found in other Scholastics who variously adopt the principle that “that into which something is converted is where the converted thing was before.” This principle is dubious and was not universally accepted. Since transubstantiation converts only the substance of the bread into Christ’s body and not also the accidents, why should any of the accidents of the bread be kept by Christ’s body if, according to the doctrine, the accidents are not part of the transubstantiation?
In fact, there is another way to answer the question that troubled Kenny, but you will not find it in Thomas. It is in the work of Blessed John Duns Scotus, an author that a young pre-Vatican II seminarian would likely have been discouraged, if not forbidden, to read. The subtle Scot distinguishes between presence and transubstantiation, claiming that one can exist without the other (Ordinatio IV d.10 q.1). Christ could be there on the altar now without transubstantiation, and the bread could be transubstantiated without Christ being there on the altar. Christ’s presence on the altar is not a matter of his appropriating the “where” of the transubstantiated bread, or of his retaining this particular accident and not others. The presence of Christ’s body on the altar is a distinct fact, distinctly caused. Transubstantiation does not explain it and is not meant to explain it. The significance of transubstantiation nevertheless remains—that Christ’s body is there under the species of bread, to be received as spiritual food.
The further details of Scotus’s exposition of Christ’s presence on the altar are not important here. What is important is that Scotus did have an answer to Kenny’s question. But that answer was not offered to Kenny, and one doubts that his teachers would have known of it, or mentioned it if they had. In his studies the young Kenny was taught, in good pre–Vatican II fashion, out of Thomistic manuals. Thomas’s original texts were not used, nor were seminarians encouraged to read them. Not that this would have helped, because, again, Thomas’s work does not have the answer to Kenny’s question.
Perhaps Scotus’s answer isn’t the only or best answer. Perhaps Thomas’s position too could be finessed or developed in order to produce another answer. The key point remains: an answer needs to be found, and if one possibility is ignored simply because it is not from the work of Thomas, how could that not hinder the church’s theological training? An exclusivist Thomism, which foreswears the teaching of non-Thomist theologizing, is a problem the church still needs to confront.
Indeed if, as seems true, there was something deficient about pre–Vatican II theological training, even in Rome, the deficiency will not be made up by a return to an exclusivist Thomism, much less to the old Thomistic manuals. A return to Thomas read and studied in the original texts would doubtless help. But such a return would not have helped the young Kenny with his question. For the theologian who had a good answer, Duns Scotus, is barely studied, if studied at all. His very name raises hackles or eyebrows or both. The man is accused by some of causing the theological decline of the West. It is said that he precipitated the destruction of a magnificent and glorious edifice with his falsely subtle distinctions, his flattening metaphysics of univocity, his skeptical undermining of rational proofs for the faith, his tortuous Latin.