What do you see when you look at the person in front of you?
You see height, the color of his face, maybe his smiling expression. But you also see him, you see the individual. Now if someone asked you where the items we have just listed are, you might notice something.
The answer to where height, color, and facial expression are, is the man. But where the man is, is different.
Here is this difference: The first group (height, color, smiling expression) all exist in or on the man. The second, the man himself, does not exist in or on things (like color does) but in a more independent way.
For that reason, we can rightly distinguish two categories within our list. The first, are things that exist in others (i.e color); the second, are things that exist in themselves (i.e. the man).
The technical term for the first group (colors, height, smiling) is accident1, and the term for the second group (the man) is substance (Cf. Clarke, The One and the Many, Chpt. VIII).
Applying the technical terms to what we have said, accidents exist in substances, and substances exist in their own right.
We never actually “see” a thing’s substance. Why? Because color is itself an accident. If the man is sunburned, he may look red, but the color is not the man, just one of his features.
Yet, if we don’t see substance, are we even sure it exists?
At first glance, it seems that it doesn’t because substance is not sensible. Everything we can see, touch, smell, etc., about the man are only the changeable, accidental features of him, not his enduring substance. So, from the fact that we can only see a man’s accidental features, one can be easily led to conclude that that’s all there really is about him.
Yet, common sense and science presuppose substance as something very real.
Common sense does so by assuming that the “Jake” we knew in preschool and high school and college is the same person. Science does so by assuming that the “scientist John” who draws the hypotheses, conducts the experiments, and writes the concluding theory, is the same person throughout.
Even if some rogue scientist claimed to be doubtful about substance, he would also have to be doubtful about his doubt. For, without a persisting substance, to hold and connect his own observations to their conclusions, his conclusions might be completely unrelated to such observations, and therefore unfounded.
Thus, irrespective of passing time, bodily or psychological change, common and scientific sense presume man’s substance, which holds and persists throughout his various, changing features.
Now, what can all this tell us about what Catholics call “Transubstantiation.” Here is the dogma itself, explained by the Council of Trent:
If anyone says, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema (Session XIII, Canon II).
The common objection to transubstantiation is that if a real change truly occurs when the priest prays over the bread and the wine, then why don’t we see it? The answer is, as we have noted above, because color is, itself, an accident.
If the Catholic teaching was called “Trans-accidation,” then we would have reason to be concerned because neither the shape, color, or texture of the host changes during the Mass. However, if what is changing is its substance, with the accidents of bread persisting, by Divine power, then we shouldn’t expect to see a change.
That’s how the Eucharist can be truly and substantially the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ and yet accidently, round, bread-tasting, and wheat colored.
A great mystery indeed, yet, not so mysterious to science and common sense as we might have supposed.
1. The term has no similarity with the common use of the word. Philosophically, “accident” does not mean happenstance.