Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Critique of William Webster’s article: The Eucharist

Steve Ray here: I have tangled with William Webster often in the past. You can read my debates with him at under the heading “My Books, Talks & DVDs: Reviews and Defense. Go to the end of the list.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 3.16.44 PMBut this article, response and critique of William Webster was written by my good friend and apologist Gary Michuta. If you don’t him, it would be smart to get to know him. He is a great guy and a marvelous defender of the Catholic Faith.

William Webster, in his article “the Eucharist” attempts to pit the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Eucharist (among others) against the teaching of the early Church Fathers in regards to the substantial Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Eucharist as a sacrifice, two doctrines that Webster rightly sees has interdependent.

This is not light reading but it is thorough and detailed. If you are interested in the foundations of our beliefs on the Eucharist as found in Scripture and the Early Church– and how Protestants try to twist the writings of the Fathers — you will thoroughly enjoy Gary’s defense.

(For more about Gary Michuta, his radio show, his books and his excellent apologetics, visit his website Hands On Apologetics)


Webster says that:

“The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when the priest utters the words of consecration, the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. He is then offered to God on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin.

The Council of Trent explicitly states that ‘in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross’. There are thus two aspects of the Roman doctrine: transubstantiation, which guarantees the ‘real presence’ of Christ; and the mass, in which Christ, thus present bodily, is re-offered to God as a sacrifice.”

Before continuing, it’s important to correct Mr. Webster in that we do not believe that the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ, but rather that their substance is changed into the substance of Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Hence the name “transubstantiation.” If Mr. Webster’s description were accurate, we would have flesh and blood on our altars after consecration.

My correction may seem like nit-picking, but as we will soon see the theology concerning the Eucharist is complex and at points very subtle. We are describing a supernatural reality and it requires us to use precise language. Otherwise, confusion results. Unfortunately, this is not the only time Mr. Webster fails to speak with the precision necessary for this topic.

Mr. Webster continues by arguing that since transubstantiation “is not the only view which has been expressed in a consistent way throughout the history of the Church” the Catholic position cannot be said to be that of the early Church because “the Fathers of the first four centuries reveal…[a] diversity of opinion.”

To his credit, Webster does concede that there were early Church fathers who “maintained that the elements are changed into Christ’s body and blood and that his presence is physical.” In other words, they affirmed what Trent taught. However, he argues that this was only one of several (contradictory?) opinions.

The main difficulty in Webster’s argument is that he has over-simplified what the Catholic Church actually does teach about the Eucharist, which is considerably more complex and fuller than mere Transubstantiation. The same can be said about the Eucharistic sacrifice. By presenting a stick-figure presentation of the Church’s position, he is able to present quotes from the Early Church fathers that supposedly express other views than that of the bare notion of Transubstantiation. Therefore, he wrongly concludes, the early Church did not fully agree with the Catholic position.

The best way to refute this argument is to present a fuller and more comprehensive summary of what the Church does believe about the Eucharist. Once this is done the tension that some of these quotes seem to have with Catholic teaching will disappear.


First, the Church teaches that the Eucharist is one of the seven Sacraments. What is a Sacrament? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC 1131, emphasis added).

What’s important here is that all the Sacraments are visible signs (or symbols, if you will) instituted by Christ to give grace (his divine life). Although they are all signs or symbols, they are not merely signs or symbols; they are “efficacious signs” in that they both “signify and make present the graces” they signify. For example, the efficacious sign of Baptism is water. That is the outward sign of that Sacrament. The sign or symbol of Baptism, the washing of water, points to what the Sacrament does, namely, it cleanses us from sin.

There are two aspects to every sacrament, the outward visible sign and the inward invisible reality accomplishes. The sign or symbolic aspect of a Sacrament is very important since it points the graces that are proper to the sacrament.

This is not a new idea. The older Catechism of the Council of Trent (or the Roman Catechism) says:

“But of the many definitions, each of them sufficiently appropriate, which may serve to explain the nature of a Sacrament, there is none more comprehensive, none more perspicuous, than the definition given by St. Augustine and adopted by all scholastic writers. A Sacrament, he says, is a sign of a sacred thing; or, as it has been expressed in other words of the same import: A Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, instituted for our justification” (RC, Part II)(emphasis mine).

Here again, a Sacrament as a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” In regards to the Eucharist, the Catechism of the Council of Trent says:

“Besides the different significations already mentioned, a Sacrament also not infrequently indicates and marks the presence of more than one thing. This we readily perceive when we reflect that the Holy Eucharist at once signifies the presence of the real body and blood of Christ and the grace which it imparts to the worthy receiver of the sacred mysteries…”

Here the Roman Catechism spells out the two things signified by the Eucharistic elements, namely (1) the presence of the real body and blood of Christ and (2) the grace which it imparts. Webster focuses on the first part (the substantial presence), but completely ignores the second part – what the grace does or imparts to the recipient.

Therefore, we can break the teaching down into various elements:

Outward Sign Bread and Wine Signifies physical nourishment
Signifies Christ’s body and blood (death) [1]
Invisible Reality The whole Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. Spiritual nourishment
The substantial Presence of Christ


As you can see, the Eucharist is much more complex than mere Transubstantiation. We can speak about it in terms of its elements (bread and wine), their signification (food and drink, signs of figures of Christ’s body and blood), their invisible reality (Christ), and the graces that the Sacrament brings about (spiritual nourishment and the substantial presence).

Since there are many distinctions here the Church wisely adopted a more precise way of referring to the Eucharist by using the philosophical terminology of Aristotle. The outward appearances are called accidents. That which stands under the accidences is the substance. How Christ gives us his flesh and blood is called the species. The change that occurs at consecration is called transubstantiation.

By using this terminology, it is very easy to understand what is being spoken about. The problem is, however, before this terminology became standardized in the Church, the early Church fathers made use of imprecise language in which it is not always easy to understand exactly what is being referenced. It is here that Mr. Webster focuses the bulk of his attention.

[1] The separate consecration of the bread and wine signify the separation of blood from the body, namely death. This is what is meant by “proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again” (1 Cor. 11:26) and perhaps Galatians 3:1.

For the whole article, click here.