What Is the Meaning of Transubstantiation?

Explore the Roman Catholic doctrine of the consecration of bread and wine

Transubstantiation bread and wine
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Transubstantiation is the official Roman Catholic teaching referring to a change that takes place during the sacrament of Holy Communion (Eucharist). This change involves the whole substance of the bread and wine being turned miraculously into the whole substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ himself.

During the Catholic Mass, when the Eucharistic elements -- the bread and the wine -- are consecrated by the priest, they are believed to be transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, while keeping only the appearance of bread and wine.

Transubstantiation was defined by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent:

"... By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation."

(Session XIII, chapter IV)

The Mysterious 'Real Presence'

The term "real presence" refers to Christ's actual presence in the bread and the wine. The underlying essence of the bread and wine are believed to be changed, while they retain only the appearance, taste, odor, and texture of bread and wine. Catholic doctrine holds that the Godhead is indivisible, so every particle or drop that is changed is wholly identical in substance with the divinity, body, and blood of the Savior:

By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity (Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651).

The Roman Catholic Church does not explain how transubstantiation takes place but affirms that it happens mysteriously, "in a way surpassing understanding."

Literal Interpretation of Scripture

The doctrine of transubstantiation is based on a literal interpretation of Scripture. At the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-20), Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal with the disciples:

As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, "Take this and eat it, for this is my body."

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, "Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom." (Matthew 26:26-29, NLT)

Earlier in John's Gospel, Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum:

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh."

Then the people began arguing with each other about what he meant. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" they asked.

So Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. I live because of the living Father who sent me; in the same way, anyone who feeds on me will live because of me. I am the true bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will not die as your ancestors did (even though they ate the manna) but will live forever." (John 6:51-58, NLT)

Protestants Reject Transubstantiation

Protestant churches reject the doctrine of transubstantiation, believing the bread and the wine are unchanged elements used only as symbols to represent Christ's body and blood. The Lord's command regarding Communion in Luke 22:19 was to "do this in remembrance of me" as a memorial of his enduring sacrifice, which was once and for all.

Christians who deny transubstantiation believe Jesus was using figurative language to teach spiritual truth. Feeding on Jesus’ body and drinking his blood are symbolic actions. They speak of someone receiving Christ wholeheartedly into their lives, not holding anything back. 

While Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and some Anglicans hold only to a form of the real presence doctrine, transubstantiation is held exclusively by Roman Catholics. Reformed churches of the Calvinist view, believe in a real spiritual presence, but not one of substance.

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Fairchild, Mary. "What Is the Meaning of Transubstantiation?" Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/meaning-of-transubstantiation-700728. Fairchild, Mary. (2020, August 26). What Is the Meaning of Transubstantiation? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/meaning-of-transubstantiation-700728 Fairchild, Mary. "What Is the Meaning of Transubstantiation?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/meaning-of-transubstantiation-700728 (accessed May 29, 2023).