The Concept of Catholic Unity in the Doctrine of the Eucharist at the time of Trent


The last time I posted here I examined Bryan Cross’s claim for unity in the Roman Catholic Church.  It was my intention to apply Bryan’s guidelines to a specific case that he mentioned – i.e. abortion – to show that his claim, in at least that instance, did not meet the “visibility” standard he required for unity to exist.  I hope to have been fair in my examination and believe that said examination disproved Bryan’s thesis on his own grounds.

But that exercise caused me to reflect more broadly on the Roman claim to unity as it might apply to other aspects of the Roman Catholic Church so that Bryan’s claim might be either resurrected or, in the alternative, my findings might find a broader foundation.  And it then occurred to me that it might be well to start at the top, or the summit of the Roman Catholic faith, the Eucharist.[i]  And in keeping with the theme of John Bugay’s blog, special emphasis will be given to this topic during the time of the Reformation, specifically the Council of Trent.  The question before us then is: Can we discern a visible unity in the Roman Catholic Church concerning their doctrine of the Eucharist at the time of Trent?  And secondly, did Trent create the foundation for unity into the future on this one doctrine or did it not?  Let’s begin.


The background leading to The Council of Trent is an intricate patchwork of political maneuvering, self-interest and preservation.  The fact that the north German princes had adopted Lutheranism in their territories was an irritant to Emperor Charles for it provided them a club with which to keep him at bay.  And this was a vexing annoyance because the Emperor’s attention was drawn continually to the threat of Islam to the east.  The more he had to deal with intransigent Lutherans, the less he could focus on the march of the Saracens.

The growth of Protestantism was also a concern for Rome because the more territories that became Protestant the less cash flowed to the Vatican and the more doubt was cast on Rome’s claim to universalism.  Additionally, Rome had been selling bishoprics to the highest bidder as a standard practice for a long time.  Rich bishops, having procured multiple sees, were simply absent from their dioceses; a situation which caused the locals to wonder what, in the end, they were really paying for. This was another practice badly in need of reform.

Doctrinal problems abounded, too.  The Protestants were developing competing doctrines which Rome viewed as confusions for the faithful.  Chief among these were the contending doctrines of church authority, the justification of sinners and the Eucharist.  It was time for reform and the Fathers at Trent had their hands full.


Trent and the Eucharist


Trent dealt with the doctrine of the Eucharist in two of its sessions: XIII and XXII.  In the former it formalized the doctrine of transubstantiation; in the latter it asserted the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.  Transubstantiation was one of several competing doctrines of the age.  It “was never made official in the medieval Church, but got weighty backing even before Aquinas’s time when it was used in documents of the Lateran Council of the Church in 1215.”[ii]  And this fact, that of competing Eucharistic doctrines, goes to the heart of our investigation.  At the time of Trent, there was a lack of unity from Rome on this crucial matter.  And transubstantiation itself required a foundation in the pagan philosophy of Aristotle, a philosophy that was not universally accepted even within the fold of Rome:

From the fourteenth century, most philosophers and theologians, particularly in northern Europe, did not in fact believe this (Thomistic doctrine). They were nominalists, who rejected Aristotle’s categories… Nominalists could only say of transubstantiation as a theory of the Mass that it was supported by the weight of opinion among very many holy men in the Church, and therefore it ought not to be approached through the Thomist paths of reason, but must be accepted as a matter of faith.  Once that faith in the Church’s medieval authorities was challenged, as it was in the sixteenth century, the basis for belief in transubstantiation was gone, unless one returned to Thomism, the thought of Aquinas.  Those who remained in the Roman obedience generally did this; but in sixteenth-century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burnt at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.[iii]

The purpose of the Tridentine declaration on transubstantiation was almost certainly motivated by politics and not strictly theology.    The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, for example, that this doctrine of transubstantiation was proclaimed principally as a stand against the Reformers.  It specifically says that Trent’s proclamations were aimed at the “widely divergent errors” of Zwingli, Œcolampadius and Calvin.[iv]  In other words, the proclamation of Trent was intended to stake out one opinion from among many so as to maintain a divided Christendom against the Protestants.  And it certainly left the Catholic nominalists out in the cold.  This motivation of the Council is confirmed by the Roman Catholic scholar, Fr. Robert Bireley:

Moreover, the council fathers followed the policy of not discussing theological differences among Catholics; their full thrust was toward delineating clearly the Catholic stance vis-à-vis the Protestants.[v]

There are a couple of things here that run counter to a claim to unity.  First, if Rome was to manifest its intent to be the “universal” (i.e. catholic) church, why would it stake out one position which further divided Christendom?  If the goal was ecclesiological, would not it have found a way of restoring unity?  Secondly, the position taken by the Magisterium at Trent did nothing to reconcile the internal divisions within the Roman Catholic communion.  Its canons were therefore not an exercise in unity but rather of power.

But perhaps more interesting to our discussion of the unity of Rome vis-à-vis the Eucharistic doctrines of Trent is what that council did with the principle of sacrifice.   Canon I of the Session XXII has this to say:

If any one saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given us to eat; let him be anathema.

The idea of sacrifice relative to the Eucharist is of long standing in the Christian tradition.  J.N.D. Kelly tells that the Didache used the term “sacrifice” in the context of the Eucharist as early as the end of the first century.  With regard to the specific nature of the sacrifice, the Didache, however, “provides no clear answer.”[vi]  Justin Martyr viewed sacrifice as the “prayers and thanksgivings” offered to God.  Irenaeus believed the “bread and wine offered to God…[are] first-fruits of the earth which Christ has instructed us to offer.”[vii]  And only first with Ignatius do we find the correlation between the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the flesh of Christ.  Ignatius was responding to the Docetists who held that Christ had no physical presence but merely “appeared” human.  All of this is intended to show how variegated was the idea of the Eucharist in general, and the idea of a “sacrifice” in particular leading up to Trent.  This is confirmed by Fr. Robert J. Daly, writing in the context of the notion of sacrifice promulgated at Trent:

Catholic eucharistic theology on the eve of Trent was much broader and much more in continuity with earlier traditions than it was at the end of the sixteenth century…  Reacting against the Reformers, Trent defined the Mass as a “true and proper sacrifice…but left it to the theologians…to argue over what sacrifice is.[viii]

And argue they did!  In fact, Daly outlines four competing theories of “sacrifice” that resulted from the Tridentine proclamation in the fifty years following Trent; all with notable Roman Catholic theologians in support and none which received magisterial approbation or rejection.  Think of it, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church at the time of Trent and thereafter, could not produce a “unity” with regard to the “sum of their faith”, the Eucharist.

Daly attributes the continuance of the discord to what he calls a “massive methodological mistake” on the part of the theologians.

They approached the matter backward.  Instead of looking first to the Christ-event and letting that define their thinking, both Protestants and Catholics first defined sacrifice phenomenologically and then applied that definition to the Mass…This massive methodological mistake was then matched by a mistake in content that apparently no one thought to question: namely, the idea, increasingly accepted by almost all involved, that a real sacrifice requires a real change or destruction of the victim, and then the application of this idea to the Mass.  There was no clear awareness that the Christ-event had done away with sacrifice in the history-of-religions sense of the term.  Theologians still dealt with the Old and New Testaments in a relatively undifferentiated way, that is, without any historicizing or differentiating hermeneutic, applying to the Mass ideas of sacrifice taken from the Old Testament almost as if Christ never existed.[ix] (Emphasis in the original)

We can clearly see that the doctrine of “sacrifice” as imposed by the Council of Trent resulted in more diversity of opinion, and not less.  And rather than clarifying what had gone before, the Magisterium simply allowed theologians to “work it out”.  When the theologians produced more diversity in doctrine Rome did not correct them or create any unity at all.   And that these “methodological mistakes” have been allowed to perpetuate creating even more disunity in the Roman communion.



We began this investigation with two questions.  First, “Can we discern a visible unity in the Roman Catholic Church concerning their doctrine of the Eucharist at the time of Trent?” And secondly, “did Trent create the foundation for unity into the future on this one doctrine or did it not?”

The answer to the first question is clearly “no”.  With regard to the doctrine of transubstantiation, Trent took a position for political reasons while disregarding a significant number its own theologians.  Because “unity” requires participation of an organization as a whole, Rome exhibited disunity in this regard.  The Council’s imposition of this doctrine on the Roman Catholic Church is not an example of unity, but rather a political tyranny.

And we must likewise answer the second question in the negative.   The failure of Rome to define the parameters of a “true and proper” sacrifice left the matter to theologians.  We have seen that Rome did nothing to unify this doctrine but rather left it to be haggled over by theologians.  So not only did Rome not produce unity in this doctrine, it showed no interest in doing so.

We must conclude that at the time of Trent the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church was unable to create or manifest the “unity” about which Bryan Cross maintains it has always had.  And we further conclude that in matters relating to the very pinnacle of the Roman faith, Trent was a force for disunity. Finally, we observe that Bryan’s claim is not rehabilitated in this process and we maintain that the Church of Rome and its Magisterium did not display the requisite visible evidence for unity as required by him.

Soli Deo Gloria.

[i] The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Eucharist as “the sum and summary of our faith”. (paragraph 1327)

[ii] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  P. 25

[iii] MacCulloch, op. cit.  p. 26

[v] Bireley, Robert, S.J. The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation.  Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999.  P. 49

[vi] Kelly, J.N.D.  Early Christian Doctrines.  Fifth ed.  New York:  Continuum, 2008. P. 196

[vii] Kelly, op. cit. p. 197

[viii] Daly, Robert J., S.J.  “Robert Bellarmine and Post-Tridentine Eucharistic Theology”, in From Trent to Vatican II: Historical and Theological Investigations. Ed. Raymond F. Bulman and Frederick J. Parrella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.  P. 96

[ix] Daly, op. cit. pp. 96-97

6 thoughts on “The Concept of Catholic Unity in the Doctrine of the Eucharist at the time of Trent

  1. An eye-opening post! My first foray over to john’s blog in a long time.

    I have participated in discussions about Communion before, not so much anymore, actually not at all, because of the intense emotional heat that it generates from RC’, EO’s, and some Lutherans and Anglicans. I think it’s fair to say that they have a dismissive disdain for (Zwingli) memorialism.

    3 things. One, I found it fascinating that the author turned Bryan Cross’s argument of visible unity on it’s head upon the most cherished doctrine of Catholicism, the Eucharist, or at least one of the most cherished doctrines. Two, this post is a fatal dagger, at least I think it’s a mortal blow to Bryan’s argument as well as to some aspects of the RC doctrine on the Eucharist that I have never seen before. Third, as a parenthetical, while I’m pleased that you reverse swam the Tiber, it pains me that you ended up in LibProt PCUSA. While all denominations/churches have its flaws, PCUSA is arguably to some degree in apostasy. My hope is that you are part of a renewal movement within PCUSA.

    Anyways, I found this article instructive.


  2. Just curious what the four “sacrificial” views of the Eucharist are? Does Daly go into any detail about what they were, and if they still remain? After having read the Catholic Catechism on this subject, and various Prot. and RC opinions on it, I am still baffled by what it means.

    Great post, I learn a great deal from the information presented on this site and many other Reformed sites about the explosion of grace at the time of the Reformation. Keep up the good work.


  3. Hi TUAD,
    Thank you very much for your feedback – I do appreciate it. While I appreciate what Bryan is trying to do, it seems to me that the whole story is something larger. As a former RC, I would just like that “whole story” to be available to those who might be looking for it.

    Alas, yes I am in a PCUSA church and it does provide some very interesting opportunities for me. Over the last year or so, I have been battling a strong, avowed Armininian influence in our congregation and seem to be making some headway. Please pray for my efforts here.

    Thank you, again and please let me wish you a most blessed New Year!



  4. Hi Scot,

    Thanks very much for stopping by. As luck would have it, I am out of town and won’t be back until week after next. I didn’t bring the book with Fr. Daly’s essay in it, but I will be happy to post those four competing doctrines when I return.

    In the interim, if you can find that book in a library, you can certainly find them there, as well. (I believe I cited the book in my piece.)

    Thank you again, for participating with us.

    I pray that God will bless you abundantly in this New Year!



  5. I found a PDF of the chapter in question on line. Thanks once again for the article; it is refreshing and reassuring to know that Roman Catholicism has changed.


Comments are closed.