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The Real Presence Controversy: A Clash of Theologies in the 9th Century

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In my previous essay, How the Carolingian Liturgy Promoted and Preserved Frankish Culture, I presented a brief history of how the Carolingian rulers used liturgical reform as a means to build, reinforce, and export Frankish around the Roman rite. This history of liturgical reform is that it is messy at times, and some regions and cultures vehemently resist it, but most interestingly, changes in words and/or form of how the essence of the liturgy is delivered oftentimes stirred up debates about details of dogmas that were previously assumed. These debates – the flushing out of false from truth is the fabric of the development of doctrine. Such was the instance about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharinist and the proper way to celebrate Easter during the Carolingian liturgy reform.

The debate concerning the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist during the Carolingian liturgical reforms was complex and multifaceted, involving theological, liturgical, political, and cultural aspects. In this essay, I will try to give an overview of the main positions and arguments that were involved in this debate, as well as some of the historical and ecclesiastical contexts that shaped it.

The Carolingian Debates on the Real Presence: Evidence of Development of Doctrine and the Doctrine of Indefectibility

One of the most controversial and debated topics in Carolingian theology was the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, that is, how Jesus Christ, both truly and fully human (the procreated son of Mary) and divine (the begotten Son of God), is present in the bread and wine that are consecrated and consumed by the faithful in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist is the centrality of Christian worship, the source of grace, unity, and sanctification for the Church, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11), and the most unique of all Christian truths – that God not only became man so that man could become like that but that God becomes bread and wine so that man can become like God. However, during the time of the Carolingian Renaissance, there was no clear or unanimous consensus on how to explain or articulate the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence at the Holy Eucharist.

To wit, different theologians and authors proposed different views and arguments based on their interpretation of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Of these propositions, the one that would have aided the most in the development of doctrine was the debate between Pashasius Trabertus and two other Benedictine monks from the monastery of Corbie, named Ratramnus and Rabanus Maurus (a friend and teacher of both Paschasius and Ratramnus).

The Carolingian Debate on the Real Presence

In his treatise entitled, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini (Concern Christ’s Body and Blood), circa 831, Paschasius Radbertus argued that the bread and wine of the eucharist are literally transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ, and that the partakers of the eucharist receive a direct, personal, and physical union with Christ by joining their flesh with his. He based his argument on Biblical passages, such as John 6:51-58 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, and on the writings of the church fathers, such as Ambrose and Augustine. He also appealed to the authority of Pope Gregory I and the miracles reported at various churches.

Being the Abbey of Corbie was influential, as was Paschasius Rabertus (who served as Abbot of Corbie from 843 to 851 – also a future Blessed of the Church) was as influential as he was, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini did not pass without a significant amount of notice throughout Europe, including from the grandson of Charlemagne and the youngest son of Louis the Pious, who was King of West Francia (843–877), King of Italy (875–877) and emperor of the Carolingian Empire (875–877). Charles the Bald did not agree with Paschauius’ teaching that there was a literal and physical presence of Christ Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and imposed upon Ratramnus to argue a counterposition.

In his treatise under the same title as Paschasius’, Ratramnus argued that the Holy Eucharist is merely a symbolic representation of Christ’s Body and Blood, and that the partakers of the Holy Eucharist receive a spiritual union with Christ by faith. He also used Biblical passages and patristic sources to support his view but interpreted them differently from Paschasius. He also criticized Paschasius for relying too much on human reason and sensory perception, which he considered unreliable.

In summary, Ratramnus; counter-position was:

  • He denied that the Eucharist was identical to Christ’s historical body (the flesh of the son of Mary), but rather affirmed that it was a spiritual representation or figure of his body.
  • He maintained that the Eucharist did not undergo any physical change, but only acquired a sacramental character by the words of consecration.
  • He argued that Christ’s body in the Eucharist was not visible to any sense, but only to the mind enlightened by grace.
  • He distinguished between Christ’s body as it was in his earthly life and as it is in his heavenly glory, and asserted that only the latter was present in the Eucharist1.

For his part, Rabanus Marus took a mediating position between his friends and students. While he agreed with Paschasius that the Eucharist was a real presence of Christ, he also agreed with Ratramnus that it was not a physical presence. He suggested that the Eucharist was a sacramental presence of Christ, which meant that it was a sign that conveyed his grace and power. He also tried to reconcile the different interpretations of Scripture and tradition that Paschasius and Ratramnus used to support their arguments.

Some examples of how he tried to reconcile the Paschasius and Ratramnus:

  • He used the analogy of fire and iron to explain how Christ’s Body and Blood are present in the bread and wine, without changing their substance. He said that just as fire penetrates iron and makes it glow, so Christ penetrates the bread and wine and makes them His Body and Blood.
  • He used the concept of tropology, or moral interpretation, to show how the Holy Eucharist affects the spiritual life of the believers. He said that just as the bread and wine are broken and poured out, so Christ’s Body and Blood are offered for the salvation of the world. And just as the bread and wine are consumed by the faithful, so Christ’s Body and Blood nourish their souls.
  • He used the authority of the Church Fathers, such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, to support his view of the Eucharist. He quoted their writings extensively and showed how they agreed with his sacramental understanding. He also criticized Paschasius for misinterpreting some of their passages.

The debate between Paschasius and Ratramnus was not only a theological one, but also a liturgical one. Paschasius’ view implied that the Holy Eucharist is truly sacred, and therefore, a greater reverence and devotion for the Eucharistic elements, as well as a stricter discipline for their administration and reception. Ratramnus’ view implied a more symbolic and participatory understanding of the Eucharist, as well as a more flexible approach to its celebration and distribution. It is this logical consequence of the positions between Pashasius and Ratramnus that could have destroyed the Catholic Church if not for Holy Spirit, and the evidence of His mercy who allows us to discover truth and to debate up until the point of magisterial error (which indefectiblity makes impossible).

The Resolution of the Carolingian Debate on the Real Presence

The debate between Paschasius and Ratramnus was not immediatley resolved by any official or authoritative decision by the Church or by any council or synod. Rather, as most doctrines develop over time, it continued to be discussed and developed by other carolingian theologians and authors, such as Hincmar of Reims, Gottschalk of Orbais, John Scotus Eriugena and Walafrid Strabo. Each one of them offered their own perspective and contribution to the debate, drawing from different sources and arguments, and addressing different aspects and implications of the Eucharistic mystery.

It would not be until the 16th century and after the Protestant reformulators took up the position of Ratramnus when the Council of Trent decreed at its thirteenth session, held on October 11, 1551:

First of all, the holy council teaches and openly and plainly professes that after the consecration of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained in the august sacrament of the Holy Eucharist under the appearance of those sensible things.

For there is no repugnance in this that our Savior sits always at the right hand of the Father in heaven [Cf. Sess. III, the Symbol] according to the natural mode of existing, and yet is in many other places sacramentally present to us in His own substance by a manner of existence which, though we can scarcely express in words, yet with our understanding illumined by faith, we can conceive and ought most firmly to believe is possible to God [Matt. 19:26; Luke 18:27].

For thus all our forefathers, as many as were in the true Church of Christ and who treated of this most holy sacrament, have most openly professed that our Redeemer instituted this wonderful sacrament at the last supper, when, after blessing the bread and wine, He testified in clear and definite words that He gives them His own body and His own blood. Since these words, recorded by the holy Evangelists [Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14: 22-24; Luke 22:19 f] and afterwards repeated by St. Paul, [Cf. I Cor. 11:24f] embody that proper and clearest meaning in which they were understood by the Fathers, it is a most contemptible action on the part of some contentious and wicked men to twist them into fictitious and imaginary tropes by which the truth of the flesh and blood of Christ is denied, contrary to the universal sense of the Church, which, as the pillar and ground of truth, [Cf. I Tim. 3:15] recognizing with a mind ever grateful and unforgetting this most excellent favor of Christ, has detested as satanical these untruths devised by impious men.

The Fruit of the Carolingian Debate on the Real Presence

The debate concerning the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist during the Carolingian liturgical reforms was a significant and influential one, not only for the history of theology and liturgy, but also for the history of culture and society. It reflected the intellectual and spiritual vitality of the Carolingian era, as well as its challenges and tensions. It also anticipated some of the issues and controversies that would arise in later periods of Christian history, such as the scholastic debates on transubstantiation, the Protestant reformulation debates on sacramental theology, and the ecumenical dialogues on Eucharistic doctrine.

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