Transubstantiation and the Real Presence

A PEW survey made public in August 2019 reported that only 63% of Catholics who attend Mass weekly believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ and only 58% know the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation.[i] The use of the term “actual” presence, rather than the common term “real” presence, likely resulted in the low number of those who claimed belief in Christ’s special presence in the Communion bread and wine. A CARA poll in 2008 had found that 91% of weekly Mass-going Catholics believed in the real presence.[ii]

The PEW survey elicited diverse responses in the Catholic media.[iii] Some decried the lack of understanding of the real presence and transubstantiation, equating the two. Others saw no cause for alarm in the response of Church-going Catholics. The Second Vatican Council, while discussing the Eucharist and our relationship to Christ, never used the terms real presence or transubstantiation. A review of the history of describing the special presence of Christ in the Communion bread clarifies the reason for current differences.

Historical Developments

In the institution narratives, Jesus referred to his body “which is given for you” and “the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you . . . for the forgiveness of sins.” Paul in his epistles would see an important effect of receiving the Communion bread as forming worshippers into one body in Christ (1 Cor 10:17; Rom 12:5). From the start there was no separation of the fact of the real presence in the bread and the reason for this presence. But the term transubstantiation focuses only on the fact, and it helps to understand the history of the term.

Throughout the centuries there has been an awareness that Christ’s presence in the Communion bread is more real than in the other sacraments, and there have been various ways of describing the change in the bread. Words used in the early centuries to describe the change included trans-elementation, transformation, transposing, and alteration of the bread into the body of Christ. There were also efforts to emphasize the primary purpose of the presence, as by Pope St. Leo, who is quoted in Vatican II: “The partaking of the body and blood of Christ does nothing other than make us be transformed into that which we consume” (Lumen Gentium, no. 26; cf. also 3, 7, 11).

The earliest evidence of the use of the term transubstantiation is in the 11th century, and it was in widespread use in the Western church by the 12th century. The Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 included a brief reference to transubstantiation. Then a new element entered into the use of the term, with the attempt of Thomas Aquinas to partially explain the presence through the Aristotelian distinction of substance and accidents. This led to increased emphasis on the notion of substance, and how substance might be transformed without affecting the appearance, or “accidents,” of the bread. There followed many disputes, especially at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation. The Council of Trent responded with the statement that “by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.”[iv] No philosophical explanation of transubstantiation was endorsed and accidents were never mentioned. But this statement of Trent has been a reference point for later teaching, and is included in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1376).

The results of conversations with Lutheran theologians in 1967, as reported on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website,[v] regards the churches as no longer divided on the question of the Lord’s presence in his supper. But “when Lutheran theologians read contemporary Catholic expositions,[vi] it becomes clear to them that the dogma of transubstantiation intends to affirm the fact of Christ’s presence and of the change which takes place, and is not an attempt to explain how Christ becomes present.” The Lutheran theologians acknowledged that transubstantiation is “a legitimate way of attempting to express the mystery.”[vii]

Attempts are being made to explain the real presence in ways more agreeable to modern science and to other Christian churches. One such attempt is in terms of a “subsidiary form” that has its distinct existence but cannot exist apart from another substance.[viii] This is close to the Lutheran conception that the body and blood of Christ are presented “in, with, and under” the forms of bread and wine. “The bread, while not ceasing to be (chemically) bread has come to inhere, exist, and be held in being within another substance, the risen and glorified body of the Lord.”[ix]

Present and Future

The term transubstantiation has remained contentious in inter-church relations, and never occurs in the documents of Vatican II, which sought to remove unnecessary obstacles to ecumenism. The Council also largely passed over scholastic philosophy and returned to Biblical sources, focusing on the purpose of Christ’s presence in the bread. It emphasized Pauline teaching on the church as the body of Christ, and on our transformation into that body. Its decree on the liturgy observed that “devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 13). The more personal, worshipful reality of Christ’s presence in the bread is recognized in most parishes though holy hours, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and prayer before the tabernacle. But the reality of our being Christ to the world remains the primary purpose of the change in the bread, that we be strengthened by Christ’s self-sacrificing love to become other Christs, “members of his body” (Lumen Gentium, no. 7); “missionary disciples,” as described by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, where he adds, including a quote from Pope John Paul II:

The prayerful reading of God’s word and the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life. Even so, “we must reject the temptation to offer a privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the incarnation.” There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.[x]

The Second Vatican Council is seen as a definitive end to the Counter-Reformation and an effort to bring together all peoples as the new people of God: “Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ, they then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the people of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament” (Lumen Gentium, no. 11). The Council goes on to describe this as the “sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are gloriously changed into His Body and Blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 38). In such statements as these, along with our ongoing transformation into other Christs as noted above, we find the biblical and ecumenical emphasis recommended by the Second Vatican Council of bishops.


[i]             Gregory A. Smith, “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ,” Fact Tank,,

[ii]             Mark M. Gray, Paul M. Perl, “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” (Wash., DC: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 2008),

[iii]         “The Real Presence: What do Catholics believe and how Church can respond.”;  “Survey on Catholic belief in the Eucharist prompts calls for better catechesis.”

[iv]             Council of Trent, Thirteenth Session, Chapter Four;

[v]              “The Eucharist,” USCCB, 1967;

[vi]             Cf. K. Rahner, “The Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” Theological Investigations 4 (Baltimore, 1966): 287–311; E. Schillebeeckx, “Christus tegenwoordigheid in de Eucharistie,” Tijdschrift voor Theologie 5 (1965): 136–72.

[vii]  “The Eucharist,” USCCB, 1967.

[viii]           Terence Nichols, “This is My Body,” Commonweal (October 3, 2005); He explains: “Aquinas argued that there can be only one substance in a unified body, like an organism. I have argued elsewhere . . . that Aquinas’s thought could be creatively completed by the notion of subsidiary form; that is, a form which is not an accident but also is not a substance, because it does not exist independently. Examples might be a molecule of protein, a blood cell, or the heart, existing in a human body. These have their own formal unity — a unity of both properties and action. They also exist within a larger substance — a body — and cannot exist by themselves apart from it. They are not substances themselves, because they do not exist independently, but exist in another.”

[ix]             Terence Nichols, “This is My Body.”

[x]              Evangelii Gaudium, 262; Millennio Ineunte, 52;

Fr. John Zupez, SJ About Fr. John Zupez, SJ

Father Zupez was born in St. Louis and entered the Society of Jesus in 1954. He was ordained a priest in 1967 by Bishop George Gottwald at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church in St. Louis. He received a master's degree in mathematics from St. Louis University in 1962. Father Zupez taught mathematics and religion at De Smet Jesuit High School from 1970-78 and mathematics and social studies at St. Louis University High School from 1981-82. Father Zupez taught mathematics and physics at Regis Jesuit High School in Denver and mathematics and religion at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo. He taught at Georgetown Prep in Rockville, Md., Scranton Prep in Pennsylvania, and Fairfield Prep in Connecticut. He taught mathematics and theology at St. John's College in Belize City, Belize, from 1989-97. From 1997-2006, Father Zupez taught theology and Scripture in several schools in Africa, including Arrupe College and Regional Major Seminary, both in Harare, Zimbabwe. He served as pastor at a parish in Oklahoma City from 2009-2013. He recently began prison ministry in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.


  1. Avatar Paul Turnley says:

    Thank you…a thought provoking article which will take time to digest, particularly in light of Synod’s statement: “The Eucharist must be the source and summit of the New Evangelization.”
    The emphasis on The Eucharist in the New Evangelization is two-fold: as the source of Evangelization and as the summit of Evangelization.

    It must be the source of our Evangelization, that nourishment which enlivens us, energizes us, gives us the strength to do this in memory of Him, to take and receive all power in heaven and on earth that has been given to Christ within me and to, THEREFORE [an oft neglected transition which ties our mission to the source of our mission, the power of Christ], go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit. teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
    need to emphasize the Eucharist as the source more directly, simply because Jesus did: I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst…I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. Jn 6:35,51. Without that bread, we can do nothing; we need this bread ourselves before we can offer it to others.

    Therefore, you need to emphasize both the head and the heart: first, belief that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, body and blood, soul and divinity, that by being in our Churches, He is, in the most profound and incredible way, with us always. Urge us to show our belief and our love by forming our lives around the Eucharist at Mass, at Adoration, Divine Radiation Therapy, as Sherry Weddell puts it, and as we are sent forth, Go, Ite, missa est, “Go, it has been sent.” and what is “it” but Christ in you, the Spirit in you, being sent forth to carry Him into the world in us.

    However, what most Catholic evangelization programs totally neglect is that the Eucharist is also the SUMMIT, the endpoint, the culmination, the epitome of truly Catholic Evangelization as opposed to a generalized Christian, albeit with deference to the Catholic Church as an institution, Evangelization.

    Our Protestant brothers and sisters would gladly accompany us through these courses entire course and praise God, at the end, for finally bringing us Catholics to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ. This is most evident in the ALPHA program which is used in both Protestant and Catholic Churches with the same enthusiastic result. If we were not to preach Christ in the Eucharist, what then
    truly differentiates us from the “estimated 35,496 independent or non
    denominational churches…scattered throughout Protestant America.”8
    A hierarchy, denominational churchesscattered throughout Protestant America”A hierarchy
    religious orders…other churches have these also. What is missing from all the
    assemblies of our Christian brothers, what one misses upon entering their impressive
    assemblies of our Christian brotherswhat one misses upon entering their impressive
    Word made flesh and dwelling here and now among us. Without it, we have nothing
    “New” to Evangelize.

    This sine qua non is stated clearly by Jesus himself: Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you….this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.

    And we should not shy away from preaching the Eucharist just because “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” If Jesus himself stated it and, as a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him, we can expect the same. We must be willing to stand with Peter and say: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”