The Church’s Eucharistic Doctrine from the Sixteenth Century into Modern Times

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Week 2
Reading 2 of 3

We have been concentrating on the Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist, with special emphasis on the Real Presence. Our first reflection focused on the Church’s teaching up to the sixteenth century. Then, we looked at what the Church taught about the Eucharist in the sixteenth century itself — the most divisive century of the Church’s existence. But we saw how the Council of Trent made it absolutely clear that “the whole Jesus” is “truly,” “really,” and “substantially” present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Now we turn to the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist from the sixteenth century up to modern times. Let me point out that one of the marvelous effects of the Council of Trent was to stabilize the Church’s magisterial authority in countries that separated from the unity of the Church during the so called Reformation. The Council also strengthened the Church’s faith in the Holy Eucharist, with emphasis on the Real Presence. In fact, one of the least publicized results of the Council of Trent was the tremendous growth in Eucharistic devotion on a scale quite unknown in previous centuries. We can call it a renaissance of Eucharistic piety in the Catholic world. In this era, new religious institutes came into existence with the expressed purpose of adoring the Blessed Sacrament and with an apostolate of promoting Eucharistic adoration among the faithful.

However, from the Council of Trent to the Modern Age is a long time. And the evil spirit was active. As always happens when the evil spirit sees the Church flourishing, he redoubles his effort to break down the holiness and fidelity of believing Christians. By the late eighteenth century, throughout the nineteenth century and especially in our own twentieth century, forces hostile to Catholic Christianity became more organized, more effective, and more devastating than ever before. I believe these forces can be reduced to two: modernism and secularism.

Our purpose now is not to analyze these alien forces in themselves, but rather to see how the Church, under divine guidance, defended and deepened our understanding of Catholic Eucharistic doctrine as it was being attacked by modernism and secularism. After examining this era, you might agree with me that the twentieth century will go down in history as the time when Adoration and worship of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist began a new era in Eucharistic Theology and Eucharistic piety.


First, we will look at modernism and Pope St. Pius X. A simple way to describe modernism is to call it “subjective Christianity.” Pius X called modernism the collection of all the heresies of Christian history. And it was. At its root, modernism is basing one’s faith on one’s own inner mind and feelings rather than conforming the mind to God and His objective truth.

With the growth of rationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, every mystery of divine revelation soon became subjected to human scrutiny. Every truth of the Christian faith was reduced to each person’s private, subjective judgment, such that each person could take an element of the Christian faith and decide for themselves whether it should be fully accepted, conditionally accepted, or smilingly rejected.

The law of rationalism put God’s revelation at the mercy of man’s reason. Rationalism could really be called “reasonism.” The final source of so-called “truth” was no longer revelation by God to which the mind conforms, but one’s own human reason. Unless, and only insofar as each person could explain a revealed mystery, nothing was to be accepted as true. Man was standing judgment on God.

As rationalism penetrated into some learned Catholic quarters, it became known as “modernism.” Pope St. Pius X realized modernism’s threat to the very foundations of Christianity. He also realized the main target of modernism was the Church’s faith in two mysteries: the Incarnation and the Holy Eucharist. That is why in 1907, Pius X condemned a series of modernist errors, especially those regarding the Incarnation and Christ’s institution of the Sacraments, including the Holy Eucharist.

Every condemned modernist error had its roots in a reinterpretation of Sacred Scripture. Modernists used isogesis when approaching scripture. (In previous meditations, I explained the difference between exegesis — drawing the truth out of scripture — and isogesis — reading into scripture what is not there.) In other words, modernists went back to the Sacred Scriptures and said, “For too long, Christians have taken the Scriptures at face value, naïvely claiming there are no errors in the Bible. And like little children, Christians have refused to ‘de-mythologize’ the Scriptures and scrape off the heavy layer of mythology in order to get down to the roots of what the New Testament is really teaching.”

So what is the New Testament “really teaching,” according to the modernists? Whatever the modernist said… whatever they, in their own subjective, peewee minds, said was there in the New Testament. God’s revelation through Sacred Scripture was put at the mercy of man’s reason.

The basic face of modernism condemned by Pius X was the belief that Scriptures are not objective history, but the subjective creation of fervent believers who added to the Scriptures and simply projected their own pious imagination about Jesus Christ. Thus, Pius X condemned the following propositions:

  1. The divinity of Christ is not proved from the Gospels, but it is a dogma that the Christian consciousness deduced from its notion of the Messiah.
  2. It is impossible to reconcile the obvious meaning of the Gospel text with the teaching of our theologians about the consciousness and infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Given these premises, it is no wonder the modernists undermined all the Sacraments and with special learned virulence, undermined Christ’s “alleged” institution of the Holy Eucharist. Also, along with denying the institution of the Eucharist, they had to logically deny Christ’s instituting the priesthood. But Pope Pius X condemned these beliefs as inconsistent with Catholic teaching: “The opinions on the origin of the sacraments which the Fathers of the Council of Trent held are far different from those which are not correctly held by research historians of Christianity.”

I know the lingo of these big Church historians of Christianity. I know the language, and I know where they got their ideas — from their own little heads bloated by their academic education. How then did Pius X react to these devastating errors of modernism? He did so in two ways. Firstly, he identified these errors and declared they were subversive to Catholic Christianity. There is nothing a heretic fears more than to be identified as a heretic.

But secondly, Pius X reacted to this virus of modernism by promoting devotion to the Holy Eucharist as had never been done before in the Church’s history. He realized no human efforts are a match for the demonic forces at work in modernism. Thus, he restored after 1500 years the practice of frequent communion.

In the age of martyrs of the early Church, Christians went to Mass and Holy Communion every day. They felt they had to because at that time, to become a Christian was to become a potential martyr. With the rise of modernism along with atheistic Marxism and atheistic determinism, Pius X foresaw the rise of opposition to the teachings of Christ in such a way the world has not experienced since Calvary. Thus, he realized the dawn of the twentieth century was the dawn of another age of martyrs. So he restored frequent reception of Holy Communion, and he gave for all times the interpretation of the invocation in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Pius X said this invocation mainly means, “give us this day our supernatural bread of the Holy Eucharist to sustain us in our supernatural life.”

He also restored the early reception of Holy Communion by children because he foresaw that children in the twentieth century must be brought up from childhood to prepare to live a martyr’s life and maybe even die a martyr’s death. And let me tell you, St. Pius X lived a martyr’s life. You don’t challenge the learned academic world without paying for it.

And finally, realizing the Church was entering a new age, a modern age of martyrs, he opened up the practice of Eucharistic Adoration like never before as he restored the practice of adoring the Eucharist in exposition or in the tabernacle. Pope St. Pius X did all this because he understood the necessity of drawing on the supernatural power of Christ present in the Eucharist in order to combat the modernism which had infiltrated the Church.


Our second area of reflection focuses on secularism and Pope Paul VI. Remember what we’ve been doing. We’ve traced the development of Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, which is mainly occasioned by the rise of one erroneous teaching after another. From Pius X to Paul VI is less than 100 years. In fact, it’s less than two full generations. Since so much happened in this small period of time, we need to look closely at the marvelous development of Eucharistic doctrine in this era which has been occasioned by the phenomenal growth of secularism in the modern world. Secularism is a faith believing that only the saeculum — this world of space and time — exists. Only this world matters. The growth of secularism in our day has no counterpart in world history. Entire nations, especially the materially developed countries, have made “this worldly” values the norm in their culture. That’s why children — unborn children — are being murdered on a scale never before known since the dawn of man’s existence. As a result, the Church herself has been deeply affected, and the future of Catholicism in more than one country is in jeopardy.

What is the remedy? Pope Paul VI realized secularism within the Catholic Church cannot be overcome by mortal efforts but only by drawing on the power of the God who became man to work moral miracles. And the Pope realized that that God is still on earth in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

He spent his Pontificate pointing out, urging and stressing the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And he published the only Papal Encyclical exclusively devoted to defending the Real Presence. In the Encyclical Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith), Pope Paul VI urged the Catholic faithful to worship Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as their principle source of life and strength on earth to cope with the demonic powers of secularism unleashed in our day.

So how did Paul VI promote worship of Our Lord in the Eucharist? Of course, through the sacrifice of the Mass and by receiving communion. But he also did so in a way no Pope in history made so plain with emphasis: through the devotion to Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

This devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is a key part of two documents by Paul VI which go together: Mysterium Fidei (1965) and Humanae Vitae (1968). In Humanae Vitae, use of contraception was condemned. Yet, secularism had so deeply infected the prosperous and educated countries that before the end of 1968, Bishops in one country after another held emergency conferences: “How are we going to cope with Humanae Vitae?” Sadly, in one nation after another, their Excellencies left the practice of contraception to the consciences of each individual Catholic. But of course, even without the Church’s Magisterial infallible teaching, contraception has always been a grave sin of the moral law. Humanae Vitae simply recalled the Catholic world to the basic moral principles in the practice of chastity. In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI pointed out the virtue of chastity must be practiced if marriage and the family as well as the priesthood and religious life are even to survive.

But how can we remain chaste in a sex-mad world? We can ask: Where, Dear God, can the world (beginning with the Catholic world) protect itself from the inroads of secularism in the moral order? From whom can we get the strength to maintain ourselves in chastity before marriage, in marriage or in the priesthood and religious life? Where can we get the strength? In Mysterium Fidei, Paul VI gives us the answer: “Only from Jesus Christ who is on earth to provide us with the miraculous power we need to remain pure in His eyes so we may be chaste in our lives.” Approaching Christ in the Eucharist, we can be successful in begging for the strength this world needs to come back to its chaste common sense, and thus, in God’s providence, be saved.

I recommend all of you to read Mysterium Fidei. In one paragraph after another, the Pope emphasizes the need for Catholics not only to assist and participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass and receive Holy Communion frequently or daily. The Pope also emphasizes the daily practice of worshipping Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist by adoring Him and evoking His help. While reminding the Catholic world of the foundational faith of Christianity in the Real Presence, he quoted the entire confession of faith of Berengarius (remember him from our earlier meditation?). Having then spelled out that “Jesus Christ is on earth,” the Pope went on to tell everyone — bishops, priests, and religious; the married and the single; the young and the old — to cultivate as they had never done before, a greater devotion to the Holy Eucharist, either the Eucharist exposed on the altar or reserved in the tabernacles of all the Catholic churches around the world.

This had never been done at such length and with such depth and clarity by any sovereign Pontiff in Catholic history. The Pope knew so well that no one but Jesus Christ — the miracle worker of Palestine then and the miracle worker on earth today — can overcome the powers of evil that have been unleashed by the powers of Hell in today’s world.

Addressing the bishops directly, the Pope reminds them the Eucharist is to be reserved in Churches and Oratories. And Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament should be the center of every parish and the epicenter of every religious community. Indeed, the Eucharist is to be the center of the Universal Church and of all humanity. Why? As Paul VI says: “because beneath the veil of the Eucharistic elements is contained the Invisible Head of the Church, the Redeemer of the world, the center of all hearts, through whom all things are and through whom we exist.” Never before have we had such need of invigorating our faith in the Real Presence and putting that faith into practice. Only Christ on earth can overcome the powers of evil that God in His mysterious providence has allowed to penetrate our day.

Closing Observations

The phenomenal growth of Eucharistic devotion and worship in the Catholic Church stands to reason — reason enlightened by faith. Once we realize on faith Who is on earth — no less than He was in first century Asia Minor — it is no wonder that those who believe will flock to be in His presence… to honor and thank Him as their God, with weeping emphasis to beg Him for the graces they so desperately need today.

Experience has shown that as a parish or a diocese or a country or religious institute grows, it is due to the worship of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. As a Bishop in Ireland told me, “We’ve had more vocations than ever before in modern history in those dioceses and from those parishes where the Holy Eucharist is exposed and worshipped, even day and night by the faithful.” You might say, “of course!” It is the same Jesus who promised to work miracles. Even greater miracles, the Vicar of Christ tells us, through the Blessed Sacrament. But on one condition: provided we believe. Amen

Used with permission from Inter Mirifica.