The Catholic Tradition of Eucharistic Theology: Towards the Third Millennium

By Kilmartin, Edward John | Theological Studies, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Catholic Tradition of Eucharistic Theology: Towards the Third Millennium


Kilmartin, Edward John, Theological Studies


THE THESIS of this article is that the prevailing official Catholic eucharistic theology that has its roots in the synthesis that began to take on characteristic traits in the 12th and 13th centuries no longer does justice to this central Christian mystery. Part 1 describes the key historical stages of the development of this synthesis from the 12th to the 20th century. Part 2 identifies the characteristic traits of the resulting eucharistic theology along with the more significant weaknesses imposed by these traits. Part 3 consists of a brief assessment, in which our demonstration of the insufficiencies of this prevailing Catholic synthesis makes it clear that it is incapable of providing the starting point for a truly comprehensive theology of the Eucharist.

Part 4 will take up the question: What path opens the way to the formulation of a genuine systematic eucharistic theology? Our response outlines the salient features of a systematic theology of eucharistic sacrifice which would be more consistent with the Church's liturgical life of prayer, more consistent with the various aspects and elements of the eucharistic mystery itself, and more consistent with the way Catholics understand that in the Eucharist they are present to Christ's salvific acts and participate in the mystery of God in Christ.

HISTORY OF THE PREVAILING SYNTHESIS

The average modern Catholic synthesis of eucharistic theology, the one that receives support in the official teaching of the Roman magisterium, is a product of the Thomistic tradition but certainly not equated with the eucharistic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Elements of the eucharistic theology of John Duns Scotus are included in this average synthesis to the extent that they could be harmonized with the so-called Thomistic approach.

From Scotus-Biel to the Thomistic Synthesis

The Western scholastic synthesis, inaugurated in the 12th and 13th centuries, is a splinter tradition related especially to the first-millennium eucharistic theologies of the Western churches, but clearly distinguished from them in virtue of the process of reception in a new historical and cultural context. Furthermore this new synthesis never existed in a pure state. From the outset it gave birth to several distinctive theological approaches. Especially noteworthy is the eucharistic theology of the 13th- century John Duns Scotus which was renewed by Gabriel Biel at the end of the 15th century. This synthesis dominated the field well into the 16th century. Since that time it has been discarded in favor of a 16th- and 17th-century Thomistic elaboration.

The basic difference between the Scotus-Biel synthesis and the Thomistic variation derives from the different ways in which the Christological and ecclesiological dimensions are integrated with one another. In the Scotus-Biel version the consecration of the elements of bread and wine is attributed to the action of Christ which is mediated by the presiding priest when he recites the ipsissima verba Christi contained in the liturgical narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. On the other hand the offering of the eucharistic sacrifice is attributed to the presiding priest insofar as he represents the Church, the principal offerer (offerens principalis). Thus the presiding priest is said to represent Christ exclusively when he consecrates the bread and wine, and to represent the Church, the "principal offerer," when he offers the body and blood of Christ in the anamnesis-offering prayer.(1) On the contrary the later Thomistic synthesis explains that the moment of consecration of the eucharistic elements by the priest acting as representative of Christ is also the moment in which the priest offers the eucharistic sacrifice under the same formality, that is, in persona Christi.

Thomas's Synthesis and the Later Thomistic Synthesis

The position of the later Thomistic school, which is explained at length below, should not be confused with the original teaching of Thomas Aquinas.

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