The Church’s Eucharistic Doctrine up to the Sixteenth Century

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Week 1
Reading 3 of 3

Our first meditation covers the first 1500 years of the Catholic Church. During this millennium and a half, there were three major Eucharistic heresies of which the Church not only took account, but also carefully refuted and explained her refutation. In the process, Her teaching became more clear, more meaningful and more precise. All of these erroneous teachings came from once professedly Catholic circles.

The names of the originators or propagators of erroneous Eucharistic Doctrine are standard in Catholic theology, although not so well known to the average believing Catholic. They are Berengarius, Durandus and Wycliffe. Their theories were condemned by the Church, and in each case, we see evidence of what we call “development of Eucharistic Doctrine,” which means a growth in the Church’s penetration into the meaning of what Christ revealed when He instituted the Blessed Sacrament. Let us examine each case.

Berengarius and the Council of Rome

There is no need to go into a detailed analysis of Berengarius’ teaching on the Eucharist. It is enough to say that for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there was no serious challenge to the accepted doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. What immediately provoked a controversy was the ninth century publication of a work entitled, On the Body and Blood of the Lord. The author, Paschasius by name, was uncomfortable with the loose language some Christians were using to explain the Holy Eucharist. So he said, “after consecration [the bread and wine] are nothing else than the Body and Blood of Christ.”

This stirred up a violent controversy, especially among the Benedictine monks. By the middle of the eleventh century, a monk by the name of Berengar (or Berengarius) became the champion of those who denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was condemned by the Church in 1050 but refused to retract. So in 1059 he was to subscribe to a statement drawn up by Pope Nicholas II which said: “The bread and wine placed on the Altar are, after consecration, not only a sacrament, but also the true Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But Berengar still would not give in. Finally, 20 years later, he signed a formal profession of faith approved by Pope Gregory VII at the Sixth Council of Rome in 1079. This profession of faith is basic to the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Real Presence:

I …believe interiorly and profess publicly that the bread and wine, which are placed on the altar, through the mystery of the Sacred Prayer and the words of our Redeemer are substantially changed into the true, proper, and life-giving flesh and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. After the consecration it is the true body of Christ, which was born to the Virgin, and which hung on the Cross as an offering for the salvation of the world, and which sits at the right hand of the Father. And it is the true blood of Christ which was poured forth from His side. And Christ is present not merely by virtue of the sign and power of the sacrament but in his proper nature and true substance. This I believe, and I will not teach any more against this faith… So help me God and this Holy Gospel of God!

Unfortunately, Berengar relapsed into his previous errors. Yet history tells us that before he died at the age of 88, he was finally reconciled with the Church and repudiated the errors he had been teaching and propagating for more than 40 years.

Durandus and Pope Innocent III

About 100 years after Berengar, there arose a cult called the Waldenses. A man named Durandus joined the Church as a convert from the Waldenses. Prior to conversion, Durandus was very heterodox. The problem was that the Waldenses identified priestly powers with holiness. Once you identify authority in the Church or powers for conferring the Sacraments with holiness, you break down Christ’s institution of the ordained priesthood. Consequently, even though Pope Innocent III knew Durandus was a convert to the faith, the Pope wanted to make sure this convert’s teaching was orthodox. Consequently, he required Durandus to sign the following profession of faith in 1208:

We, with a sincere heart, firmly and unhesitatingly believe and loyally affirm that in the Sacrament of the Eucharist those things which before the consecration are bread and wine, are the true body and true blood of Our Lord Jesus after the consecration. And of the sacrifice, we believe, that a good Priest does nothing more than this and a bad Priest does nothing less, because it is not by the merit of the one consecrating that the sacrifice is accomplished, but by the word of the Creator and by the power of the Holy Spirit; consequently, we firmly believe and confess, no matter how upright, how religious, how holy or how prudent someone may be, he cannot and should not consecrate the Eucharist nor perform the sacrifice of the Altar unless he is a Priest rightly ordained by a Bishop who can be seen and can be felt and so we firmly believe and profess that whoever believes and maintains that he can perform the sacrifice of the Eucharist without previously being ordained by a Bishop is a heretic. That is to be instituted from the entire holy Roman Church.

It is impossible to think of a more timely need for such a profession of faith in the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood than today. This profession of faith makes clear what today is being so widely challenged. Only Priests can offer Mass. Only Priests can change bread and wine into the living Body and Blood of Christ. Moreover, this profession of faith teaches it is not the holiness of a person that confers the power of Eucharistic consecration but rather the sacrament of Holy Orders conferred on men who are ordained by a Bishop who is a successor of the Apostles.

John Wycliffe and the Council of Constance

The third major pre-sixteenth century Eucharistic heresy which provoked marvelous development of doctrine was led by the priest John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had been a leading scholar at the University of Oxford in England. His teaching had a great influence on John Hus in Bohemia, and Wycliffe is considered one of the major forerunners of Protestantism. He paved the way for the erroneous teaching that hit the Church in the sixteenth century.

Although Wycliffe died in 1384, his ideas on the Eucharist were not condemned until 1418 by the general Council of Constance. One reason for the long delay was the rise of the Western Schism during which the unity of the Church was under trial. Prior to this Council, errors about the Eucharist spread throughout Christendom, and Wycliffe was one of the leading propagators.

The best way to see what the Church teaches on what happens at Mass is to identify and explain the errors of John Wycliffe. There is a mysterious sense in which we can thank God for drawing so much depth of truth from the errors propagated by those who denied a mystery of the faith. Wycliffe maintained four propositions about he Eucharist, and all four were formally condemned by the Council of Constance. These propositions are:

  1. The material substance of bread and the material substance of wine remain in the Sacrament of the Altar.
  2. The physical properties of bread and wine do not remain without a substance in the said Sacrament.
  3. Christ is not in the sacrament essentially and really in His own bodily presence.
  4. If a bishop or priest is in mortal sin, he does not consecrate.

It is obvious what Wycliffe denied. It’s also clear what the Church in solemn Council affirmed. We can list these affirmations in counter-distinction to Wycliffe’s propositions:

  1. By the consecration of the Mass, the substance of bread and wine no longer remain on the altar.
  2. By the Eucharistic consecration, the species or physical properties of bread and wine remain, but without their substance. The outward appearance of bread and wine — color, taste, texture — remain, but not the substance of bread and wine. Under the appearance of bread and wine is Christ’s Body and Blood in His humanity, united with His Divinity.
  3. By the consecration at Mass, Christ becomes essentially and really present. Essence is what makes a thing what it is; reality is what actually exists and is not a mere figment of the imagination.
  4. The sanctity of a priest or bishop does not affect his ability to validly offer Mass or change bread and wine into the Living Christ. If he offers Mass in mortal sin, he commits another sin of sacrilege, but his Mass is valid and Christ is really there.

The Constancy of Catholic Doctrine

But whatever else we have learned by now, it ought to be the constancy and stability of Catholic doctrine on the Real Presence. We should also begin to see how any tampering with the Church’s Eucharistic doctrine is tampering with the foundations of Catholic Christianity. The Church’s strength lies in her consistency of teaching on the Real Presence. Yet as we saw, and will continue to see, this constancy of doctrine in teaching what Christ had revealed at the Last Supper and the never waning faith in the Real Presence is a single principle reason for the stability and unity of the Catholic Church. Amen.

Used with permission from Inter Mirifica.