SDG here, belatedly responding to a number of requests I received a few months back when Jimmy mentioned on the air that I had once corresponded with anti-Catholic apologist James McCarthy.
Here’s the background: In 1992, James McCarthy’s video “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith” was first coming out under the banner of a group called Lumen Productions (read a short critique of the video from Catholic Answers).
In November 1992 I contacted McCarthy to express my objections to this project. (This was only a few months after I was received into the Church, though I had been researching and reading about the Faith for years, and had just begun my graduate work at St. Charles Borromeo.)
McCarthy sent me a free official transcript pamphlet based on the video, and we subsequently exchanged a series of letters. During the course of this exchange McCarthy sent me his pamphlet “The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning” as well as manuscript drafts from The Gospel According to Rome, which he asked me to critique from a Catholic perspective. (Just last night Jimmy mentioned to me that he had recently run across a text I wrote in those days in which I critiqued The Gospel According to Rome. I had forgotten all about writing that critique, so I’ll be looking over that in the (hopefully near) future, and perhaps posting here any points worth making public.)
In my first letter, I quoted the words of Martin Luther: “One thing I ask, that neither truth nor error be condemned unheard and unrefuted.” I wrote that I appreciated the research that went into the project, and commended them for turning to good Catholic apologetical and catechetical works as well as ecumenical councils as sources. On the other hand, I added, “precisely because your sources were so good, I fail to understand how this pamphlet could contain some of the simple factual errors that it does.” After pointing out numerous instances of misstatements and distortions of Catholic teaching in Lumen’s video project “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith,” I concluded in my closing paragraph:
In short, the video appears to be aimed at Catholics whose faith is shallow, ill-informed, and unstable, who will not realize that there is anything more to the issues than you have presented here. It seems to seek to make a case that will appear unanswerable and unarguable to those who have never heard the arguments and answers. It looks like its purpose is to prey on the weak and sick of the flock … with promises of greener pastures: but it seems unwilling to admit to its prey that their flock may have healthier sheep (not to mention shepherds) who might withstand the attack; or that there may be greener pastures within the very fold which they have never known.
McCarthy’s reply was courteous and irenic. He thanked me for the “loving tone” and reasonable approach of my letter (which he contrasted favorably with the “enraged” tone of a Lutheran woman who had also written that week to take exception of the film). In subsequent correspondence he expressed appreciation for my “good writing style and patient reasoning.” (Alas, looking back at those early letters, I cringe at some of my stylistic quirks in those days.)
The following is a summary of salient points of our exchange, organized topically and generally moving from shorter and less consequential exchanges to longer and more substantial ones.
A few notes: I have made minor typographical corrections and such both to McCarthy’s letters and to mine. At times I have expanded upon comments from my original emails with additional analysis (it should be fairly clear where this has been done). Third, while I believe I have the complete correspondence before me, and while I’ve tried to be as complete as possible, I can’t be sure I haven’t lost or missed something. Finally, this exchange took place over fifteen years ago; I expect that neither McCarthy nor I would necessarily approach all of the issues below exactly as we did at the time. That said, I offer the following highlights of our exchange for whatever light it may shed on works that are still offered by McCarthy.
- In some cases, “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith” includes accurate characterizations of Catholic teaching, especially from interviews with Catholics, but then goes on to offer canards aimed at a caricature of the true teaching. For example, “Catholicism: Crisis” features an ex-priest correctly stating that the Immaculate Conception means that “Mary was saved already … at the point of conception” (pp. 19-20; page numbers from transcript booklet), but shortly afterward attempts to refute the doctrine by appealing to Mary’s line in the Magnificat, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior,” adding, “Mary herself said that she needed a savior.” What does this prove? The video itself has just admitted that the Catholic doctrine doesn’t say otherwise.
I can find no response to this in any of McCarthy’s letters to me.
- “Catholicism: Crisis” claims that “Catholic tradition confuses [Mary’s] position with that of Christ” (pp 22-23). Evidence of this charge? “Catholicism: Crisis” cites the apparitions at Fatima, in which the Blessed Virgin says, e.g., “My immaculate heart will be your refuge and the way to lead you to God.”
If nothing else, I pointed out, Fatima is a private revelation, not a matter of “Catholic tradition.” Responding, McCarthy acknowledged that Fatima was not part of public revelation, but said, “The point we were seeking to make is that the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church have so confused the role of Mary and Jesus that heretical concepts can easily find a place in Catholicism. The claims of Fatima concerning Mary’s heart should have been condemned by the Church. They were not condemned because Tradition had made room for them.”
This reply does not address the central issue that Fatima is treated is if it were Catholic Tradition. Furthermore, I argued that the statements from Fatima that “Catholicism: Crisis” attacked were compatible with sound Christian teaching. For example, the description of Mary’s heart as a “refuge” does not usurp a role belonging to Christ alone; servants of God also can be “refuges,” as Isaiah 32:1 illustrates: “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.”
I can find no further discussion on this point.
- “Catholicism: Crisis” claims that during the “hundred years preceding the Second Vatican Council … the Catholic Church developed many new doctrines concerning Mary” (p. 19). Concerning the Assumption, “Catholicism: Crisis” states, “Everyone wanted to know [whether Mary had been bodily assumed into Heaven], but both the Scriptures and Catholic tradition were silent” (p. 21).
This is plain historical falsehood. The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary (the two doctrines McCarthy had in mind; “many” is an exaggeration) were not dogmatically defined until the century preceding Vatican II, but the claim that these were “new doctrines” “developed” by the Church during this period, and that tradition was “silent” about Mary’s Assumption, is manifestly false.
To this McCarthy responded, “Did Marian doctrines develop or were they simply defined? We did use the term develop. I have before me a tract by Catholic Answers of San Diego titled ‘Can Dogma Develop?’ They answer, yes. They quote Vatican II as saying, ‘The tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.'” McCarthy also acknowledged that “many” was “a regrettable overstatement.”
It should be noted that this response equivocates on the term “develop.” To say that the Church “developed new doctrines” during the century in question does not suggest that the doctrines underwent “development” in the Catholic sense of ongoing clarification and increased understanding of existing beliefs. Rather, it suggests that the doctrines were novelties materially unconnected with the prior faith of the Church. Moreover, the proposed time-frame for the development of these novelties, implying that the beliefs did not exist prior to the century preceding Vatican II, is unambiguously historically false. One can mount a challenge to the claim that the Immaculate Conception and Assuption go back to the earliest days of the Church, but there is no question that both were believed, in essentially the same form that they were eventually defined, centuries and centuries prior to Vatican II.
In my reply, I wrote, “I am not aware that the Immaculate Conception did any developing after Duns Scotus, or that the Assumption did much developing at all. And it is unequivocally incorrect to refer to the doctrines as ‘new'” (i.e., novelties of the century prior to Vatican II). In reponse, McCarthy contended that the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception did indeed “develop” the doctrine further, which is probably a justifiable claim, but does not justify the original claim that the Church “developed new doctrines” during this time-frame.
I also pointed out that “Catholicism: Crisis” takes a similar approach in its section on Tradition to other doctrines (transubstantiation, purgatory, papal infallibility, the Assumption etc.), misleadingly mentioning the dates when various dogmas were defined with no indication that the beliefs themselves existed long before they were defined. As I wrote, “The reader or viewer is left with the impression that these dates represent the invention of these doctrines; and no slightest obstacle is placed in his way.”
I can find no further discussion on this point.
- “Catholicism: Crisis” quotes statements from a number of anti-Catholics on justification and the Gospel that distort the Church’s teaching. E.g., quoting Bart Brewer: “The Catholic Gospel, the Roman Catholic Gospel, is absolutely a gospel of works” (p. 31). Again, quoting a couple of ex-nuns: “Someone has once mentioned that God has done 99% and we have 1% left to finish”; “I came to recognize that it’s not … sincerity that’s going to get us to heaven.”
In response, I pointed out that the Council of Trent declared that justification is accomplished by God alone, by means of His own righteousness alone, merited by the superabundant satisfaction made by Christ alone (cf. the “causes” of justification in chapter VII of Trent’s Decree on Justification). Regarding the comments from the ex-nuns, I noted, “Viewers will reasonably assume that these women, as former nuns, are accurately characterizing Catholic theology, which nowhere teaches the ‘1 percent’ theory or the ‘sincerity’ theory.” I also pointed out that this was the only major subject covered in the video which did not quote one of the two priests interviewed for the video — as if for their presentation on this subject it was important not to have an actual Catholic point of view represented.
To this McCarthy responded that the issue turned on Protestants having “a different definition of justification than you do.” I answered that by justification I understood “a positive act of God whereby, unto his own glory and our salvation, for the merits of Christ, and by means of his own righteousness or justice, through faith and baptism, He not only forgives our sins but creates us anew, raising us up to the spiritual life of grace, making us his children.” I added, “Except for two words (‘and baptism’), I should be rather surprised to learn that your understanding of the term is radically different from this.”
I further pointed out that the Bible speaks of “salvation” in different ways, sometimes in the past tense (e.g., Eph 2:8), but also in the future tense (e.g., Acts 15:11).
McCarthy asked me whether we could agree that “if anyone says that justification involves the meritorious works of men, he is preaching a false gospel”. I responded that I agreed if by “justification” McCarthy meant “the act of reconciling a sinner to God” and if by “meritorious works of men” he meant “any deeds a sinner might do to merit or acquire God’s favor.” In that sense, I said, “meritorious works of men” are nonexistent; the unjustified man can do nothing meritorious before God. But I added that Catholic theology also spoke of ongoing justification (where Protestant theology tends to speak of sanctification), and that “meritorious works of men” could also mean the just man’s grace-filled deeds which show forth Christ’s transforming power, and which God deigns to reward.
I can find no further discussion on this point.
- “Catholicism: Crisis” claims that the Church teaches that “the priest actually transforms the bread into the body of Christ” (p. 11). Again, “Catholics are taught that the priest must change the bread” (p. 12). This is misleading, since it is God, not the priest, who transforms the elements into the body and blood of Christ at the words of consecration. The priest is authorized to say the words of consecration in persona Christi, but the power is God’s.
To this, McCarthy responded, “Our intention was not to imply that priests have power in themselves. They do claim to be the agents of God in the act of transubstantiation. … Often we say a man does something, but mean he is the agent.”
I replied that while I was sure McCarthy understood Catholic teaching well enough to know that the miracle is not attributed to the person of the priest, many in his audience probably weren’t, and the language in “Catholicism: Crisis” would cause confusion and misunderstanding of Catholic teaching.
I can find no further discussion on this point.
- “Catholicism: Crisis” claims that “Transubstantiation is the foundation upon which the Mass rests” (p. 12). This, I wrote, is like saying “Hypostatic Union is the foundation upon which the birth of Jesus rests.” Terms like “Transubstantiation” and “Hypostatic Union” are philosophical formulations of divinely revealed truths, human attempts to speak truly about God’s actions by means of human categories. The object of faith, though, is the divinely revealed truths, not the philosophical formulations or categories.
The Church’s faith, defined by Trent, is that “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.” Trent goes on to say: “This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” Lumen’s characterization of transubstantiation as the “foundation” of the Mass, rather than a “fitting and proper” description of the miraculous change upon which the Mass is founded, distorts the issue.
McCarthy’s initial response was that “Catholicism: Crisis” uses the word Transubstantiation “to mean bread transformed into the real presence. The narration was not seeking to state that Transubstatiation is the theological origin of the Mass. Rather, that Transubstantiation is necessary for there to be a sacrifice.”
I’m not sure McCarthy entirely got the point that I was trying to make. In any case, I replied that “If by that you mean that the reality described by the word ‘Transubstantiation’ is necessary, then I agree. But I think you mean that the technical concepts of form, substance and accidents are necessary, which is not true. Transubstantiation is simply a way of describing the miracle of the Real Presence in philosophical terms. The description is not necessary for the miracle.” See also the next item for more on the vocabulary of transubstantiation.
- “Catholicism: Crisis” claims that the idea of “substance” and “accidents” has “long since been discarded by modern science.” The intended inference here, of course, is that since transubstantiation (which presupposes the categories of substance and accidents) is supposedly “the foundation of the Mass,” and science has “discarded” these categories, science has undermined the Mass itself.
In reality, science has not and cannot discard the categories of substance and accidents, which, I wrote, “are metaphysical [categories] rather than physical, philosophical rather than scientific, and are not subject to scrutiny under a microscope. Which scientific discipline has proven them unreal or inadequate? How? By means of what experiment?”
McCarthy’s reply sidestepped the question and followed up a non sequitur with a non-answer: “When asked for an explanation why the bread and the wine look like bread and wine after the consecration, the Roman Catholic Church answers ‘Transubstantiation.’ … You say [the categories] are metaphysical or philosophical terms rather than scientific. I am aware that the Roman Catholic Church discourages attempts to really understand the change and considers it a mystery. If the Church wishes to stay in the realm of the mystical, there is nothing anyone can say for or against the doctrine. But when the Church uses Transubstantiation to explain what is perceived (or not perceived) by the senses at the consecration, it is giving an explanation of physical realities. At that point, it becomes subject to scientific scrutiny.” McCarthy continued, “I cannot give you the history of the use or disuse of terms ‘substance’ and ‘accidents,’ but I am confident that no modern scientist would resort to ‘accidents’ or ‘substance’ to explain anything, much less that the substance can change while the accidents remain the same.”
To this I replied: “Forgive me, but this response makes me think you didn’t understand my statement. ‘Metaphysical’ does not mean that it is a mystery which we are discouraged from attempting to understand; nor does it mean ‘mystical’ (although the Eucharist is in fact a mystery). It simply means that the terms belong to a given philosophical way of describing things. Metaphysical categories, as such, cannot be proved or disproved, because they are not statements or assertions: they can only be found more useful or less useful than other categories.”
Remarkably, despite this, McCarthy agreed that “The issue here is not could God miraculously change bread into Christ’s body but did he … God is capable of making inward changes without outward manifestation.” Pressed further, he added: “I can agree with you that ‘some realities’ are ‘inconceivable.’ I can also state my confidence that God can do anything, even change bread into Christ’s body and still have it look like bread. If Scripture clearly taught that, I hope that I would be willing to close my mind to the contrary evidence [?] and believe God no matter how absurd it seemed. However, I firmly believe that Scripture does not teach the Roman Catholic doctrine of the real presence. Therefore, I feel free to use the physical evidence that presents itself to support my case. I trust you agree that the physical evidence is on my side.”
In other words, McCarthy essentially admitted that what Catholics call “transubstantiation” is something that God could do if he wanted to. To this I responded, “as long as you agree that thing itself is objectively possible, there’s no point quibbling about the way the thing is described. … You can deny transubstantiation if you like — you can say that it is false, that the thing does not happen, that it is utterly devoid of any scriptural justification … and whatever else you want to say — but as long as the thing itself is within God’s power, what are you trying to prove by fussing about substance and accidents?”
I continued: “You say, ‘When asked for an explanation why the bread and the wine look like bread and wine after the consecration, the Roman Catholic Church answers “Transubstantiation.”‘ No. Transubstantiation is a description of what, not an explanation of why or how. It is simply another way of saying what you just said: that the bread and the wine look like bread and wine even though they are the body and blood of Christ” — which (again) we agree is objectively possible. It is not intended to be an explanation; indeed, none is possible (except perhaps ‘Because God in his sovereignty has so chosen’). This is precisely the same sort of thing I objected to in the ‘foundation of the Mass’ remark.”
Responding to his comment about “no modern scientists” would the categories of substance and accidents, I wrote, “This sounds like something I once heard from an atheist who remarked in my hearing that ‘modrn science’ had disproven miracles. I asked him the same question I asked you — ‘Which science? When? By means of what experiment?’ His response was, ‘Oh I don’t know any specifics like that; but face it, scientists today just don’t believe in miracles.’ There are two things wrong with this answer. First, what modern scientists may or may not believe in has nothing to do with what ‘modern science’ has or has not established. Secondly, the statement is false; scientists who are Christians certainly do believe in miracles. And scientists who are Catholics, such as Fr. Stanley Jaki, the priest-physicist with doctorates in physics and theology, certainly do appeal to ‘accidents’ and ‘substance’, precisely to explain the Eucharist. (In fact, I’ve heard that Albert Einstein, in his efforts to understand the nature of matter, once questioned a Catholic priest at length about the language of transubstantiation!” (Account here.)
I continued: “However, the real problem with your answer is that, as I have noted, Aristotelian categories are not scientific but philosophical or metaphysical: and there are plenty of modern philosophers who use them. … What was the point of your remark about ‘modern science’ (and the similar remarks in your new MS)? That transubstatiation does not make sense? That it is nonsense to describe God substantially changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ without destroying the physical appearances of bread and wine? That, in fact, even God’s power could not accomplish such a thing? But you agree that it could. Therefore I ask you again: What are you trying to say?”
I can find no further discussion on this point.
- After quoting a Catholic source correctly stating that the Eucharist “is not a different sacrifice from the one Jesus made on Calvary. It is the same sacrifice” (p. 13), “Catholicism: Crisis” goes on to argue, “It only took one offering to save us from sin … the scripture is very clear about the fact that there is only one propitiatory sacrifice (pp 14-15) — as if the Eucharist were conceived as a separate or additional sacrifice. This is another example of “Catholicism: Crisis” correctly stating a Catholic teaching and then going on to offer a canard aimed at refuting a misstatement of Catholic teaching.
McCarthy’s response to this was to mail me a copy of his pamphlet “The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning” as a fuller discussion of the issues. Of course that doesn’t change the misleading nature of the original claim. Later he sent me part of a manuscript he was working on for a book. In fact, as I pointed out in our ongoing correspondence, “The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning” does not improve upon the problematic presentation of “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith,” but merely perpetuates the problem.
The central charge of “The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning” is that “We find in the Mass … a man re-sacrificing Christ” (p. 17). Citing Hebrews, McCarthy writes, “The Scriptures tell us that a sacrifice which must be constantly repeated reveals itself to be weak” (p. 19). Again, citing 1 Peter 3:18 (“For Christ died for sins once for all”), McCarthy writes, “Now there is something worth commemorating! What a joy to take bread and wine and remember what he did for us rather than attempt to repeat it” (20). Again, “Is the Eucharist a symbol or a sacrifice? Your answer will depend on a far more important question which each must ask himself: am I relying on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross alone as sufficient payment for my sins?” (p. 20).
Despite the admission in “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith” that the Eucharist “is not a different sacrifice from the one Jesus made on Calvary” but “the same sacrifice,” McCarthy’s critique of the Mass again and again assumes that the Mass attempts to repeat or add to the sacrifice of the Cross. In order to critique the Catholic teaching, McCarthy must first distort and falsify it.
Among other things, I wrote in response to all this that the “need to return again and again to the one Sacrifice is not a specially Catholic thing; Protestants express the same thing when [they] sing ‘Lead Me to Calvary’ and ‘Near the Cross.’ Wouldn’t our local Baptists be nonplused if I suggested to them that if they really believed in the efficacy of the Cross they shouldn’t need to be constantly led back to it or kept near it?” Protestants, I argued, return spiritually again and again to the Cross, “through singing,” while in the Mass Catholics return “both spiritually and physically, through eating and drinking. But it’s the same sort of thing.”
Referring to Hebrews 9:22 (“Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins”), McCarthy writes that “a bloodless sacrifice is a powerless sacrifice” (p. 19). My reply: “Terminology trouble. The point of the ‘bloody oblation / “unbloody oblation’ language is not that there is now a new and more pleasant way to sacrifice Christ again and again without causing Him all the inconvenience of the first time. The point is simply that the efficacy of the Eucharist stems from Christ’s one shedding of blood on the Cross, not from a new shedding of blood on the altar.” In other words, “there is only one oblation — in which blood was indeed shed — which is now offered or presented in such a way as not to repeat it (ie. shed blood again).”
McCarthy claims, “Every Mass declares that Christ’s death on the cross was not enough” (p. 19). My reply: “On the contrary, every Mass depends upon precisely the fact that Christ’s death on the cross was enough. There is nothing on the altar which was not on the cross. If there were any defect in the cross, the same defect would extend to the Table. If there is any excellence in the Table, it derives directly from the Cross.”
Citing Hebrews 10:10,18 (“We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … Now where there is forgiveness of these sins, there is no longer any offering for sin”), McCarthy argues that since there is “no longer any offering for sin,” Jesus’ sacrifice is solely in the past. Turning this argument on its head, I pointed out that “the passage speaks not only of the offering in the past tense as an accomplished fact, but also of our sanctification (“We have been sanctified…”). And indeed, objectively speaking, Christ’s work on the cross accomplished all the sanctification that is ever going to occur. In that sense, sanctification is an accomplished fact. But I hope no one would argue ‘And so therefore don’t seek to experience any sanctification here and now. It’s already accomplished. You can’t repeat or add to what Christ has already done.’ For of course Christians experience subjective [i.e., experiential] sanctification every day. And this is itself the work of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross — objectively finished, but subjectively [experientially] experienced on a daily, ongoing basis. The only difference between us is, again, that I participate physically, not just spiritually.”
Here is McCarthy’s response to all of this: “You must understand that I reject as double-talk the Catholic explanations of the Mass as a continuation or perpetuation of Calvary. If Sunday’s Mass is propitious and produces the sacramental effects ex opere operato, from the work done, then you simply cannot say it is simply the continuation of Calvary.” Responding to my statement that I have always believed in Christ’s completed work of atonement and still do, he wrote, “I ask, then why do you give your time defending a practice which does not witness to the finished work of Christ but to the unbiblical Catholic concept of the continuation or perpetuation of Calvary? Every Sunday you are witnessing to an ongoing sacrifice not the finished sacrifice.”
McCarthy even went on to ask rhetorically whether 1 Peter 3:18 states “Christ died for sins once for all…” or “For Christ is dying for sins…,” adding, “Do you indeed witness at the Mass to 1 Peter 3:18 (past tense), or to the Catholic concept of Christ, the immaculate victim of the Mass, dying (present tense)? There is a substantive difference here. Christ ask us to proclaim his death, not his dying.”
As this indicates, McCarthy is (or was) committed to his distortion of Catholic teaching on this point. He must have known that the Church does not teach, and no knowledgeable Catholic believes, that Jesus is “dying (present tense)” in the Mass. He makes free to impute this notion to Catholicism, though, by dismissing Catholic explanations of its own teaching as “double-talk,” and then attacking what he claims Catholic dogma “really” entails but officially denies.
This, of course, is exactly like a Jew or a Muslim quoting biblical injunctions against idolatry as a rebuttal of the Trinity or the Incarnation, and then dismissing as “double-talk” Christian explanations of why the Trinity and the Incarnation don’t entail idolatry. Again and again I asked McCarthy to explain why he regarded the Catholic view as double-talk. Without such an explanation, I pointed out, “your calling it ‘double-talk’ only means ‘I don’t get it,’ which is (you must admit) hardly compelling logic. Jews and Muslims don’t get the Trinity or the Incarnation; that doesn’t make Monarchianists and Arians out of us.”
Again, I wrote, “It would be one thing to argue that the Church’s teaching, while it does not amount to claiming to have an additional sacrifice, is still false and unscriptural. Then we could dismiss the red herring of Heb 7 et al and turn to the real disputed grounds, 1 Cor 10:16 ff, Mal 1, etc. However, you have not wished to take this path, and so you have dismissed this explanation, not simply as untrue, but as ‘double-talk. … Therefore I ask you again: What is your reason for believing the Catholic position to be incoherent? Wherein lies the logical absurdity, and how do you know that it is an absurdity?”
Although I put this question to McCarthy again and again, I cannot find any attempt to answer it in any letter or work that I have from him.
- Similar issues cropped up in discussing the Real Presence. McCarthy spends part of “The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning” making a preemptive strike for “Sound Reason,” noting that “God is rational” and that faith must make sense. While that’s true as far as it goes, combined with the pamphlet’s subtitle (“From Mystery to Meaning”) McCarthy seems to be suggesting an antithesis between “reasonable” or “meaningful” faith and “mysterious” doctrines that transcend human reason or comprehension. As I pointed out, McCarthy’s title strikes me “rather the way a Unitarian tract titled “The Trinity and Incarnation: From Mystery to Meaning” would strike you. The mystery is very meaningful.”
McCarthy notes that Jesus’ body was visibly present to the apostles at the Last Supper, and contends that even now is physically located in one place, Heaven (pp 13,14). He also contends, rightly, that the attributes of Christ’s two natures are distinct and not communicable, e.g., Christ’s divinity does not comprise flesh and bones, and in the same way Christ’s humanity is not omnipresent. How then, he asks, can His flesh and blood be present at all the Eucharists in the world? He even implies the Catholic view requires Christ’s body to be located “everywhere” at once, or at least in many different places.
The answer to this, as I noted, has to do with the one way that Christ is not present in the Eucharist: He is not present “locally” or “spatially,” or, in the words of St. Thomas, “present as in a place.” The Real Presence does not involve a bodily extension in space; there is no spatial distribution of head, torso and limbs, etc. Christ’s body is located only in heaven, but the miracle of the Eucharist makes it, so to speak, present to earthly places, not present in them. It is not that Christ comes down to earth, or bilocates, or any such thing, but that heaven and earth touch in the Blessed Sacrament. As analogies, I pointed to Lewis’ The Last Battle, where the stable door becomes a frontier between old Narnia and New Narnia, and Madeleline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, in which time/space is conceived as a fabric that can be “folded” or warped to bring together two points far apart on the surface of the cloth.
McCarthy’s response: “Only Stephen Hawking could follow your arguments here. Let’s put ourselves in the place of the apostles for a moment following the Last Supper. Before they depart for the Garden, Christ introduces you to the eleven. Lest they interpret his words wrong, he wants you, Steven D. Greydanus, to make the record clear. You read them your reply as in the letter space warps and all. Now, what would they think? Seriously, doesn’t such a complicated explanation make you question if you are on the right track? I have found it a help in interpreting the Bible to remember that Christ was generally speaking to humble, working-class people.”
My reply: “Well, for that matter, how would you like to have the honor of walking onto the scene at Caesarea Philippi just after Peter’s confession and explaning about the Hypostatic Union? On one level, [these matters are] really simple (‘You are the Son of the living God’; ‘This is My body’), but once someone starts asking ‘Yeah, but how does it work?’ all of us end up over our heads. But the complicated explanations don’t put us off, because they aren’t the object of our faith, Jesus is. Just as you didn’t spend this Christmas thinking about Athanasian theology, I don’t spend Mass thinking about Thomism and space warps. We think about Him.”
I can find no further discussion of this point.
A closing observation: A common thread running through McCarthy’s apologetic on the Eucharist, from his efforts to debunk the categories of “substance” and “accidents” to his characterization of the theology of the sacrifice of the Mass as “double-talk” and his pitting Christ’s heavenly locality against the Eucharistic real presence, is his efforts to represent Catholic teaching as incoherent or impossible.
On at least one angle, transubstantiation, I seem to have elicited an admission that God could do it if he wanted to. Whether McCarthy would ultimately have made similar concessions, had our correspondence continued, to the effect that if he wanted to, God could cause the once-for-all sacrifice of the cross to be made present again and again, could make Christ who is present on earth (or to earth) without bringing him down from heaven, I can’t say, but I can’t see from his arguments how he would have resisted this line of thought.
On this latter point, I’ve always appreciated (though obviously not totally agreed with) the approach of the founder of the tradition in which I was raised, John Calvin, who wrote in the Institutes:
I am not satisfied with the view of those who, while acknowledging that we have some kind of communion with Christ, only make us partakers of the Spirit, omitting all mention of flesh and blood. As if it were said to no purpose at all, that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed; that we have no life unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood; and so forth … No, the very flesh in which he resides he makes vivifying to us, that by partaking it we may feed for immortality … But though it seems an incredible thing that the flesh of Christ, while at such a distance from us in respect of place, should be food to us, let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive, viz., that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.
Whether McCarthy would resist this as “double-talk,” and if so whether or how he might seek to defend his charge, I can’t say with finality. Based on what he did say, I can’t think anything he might have said in this direction would have seemed at all persuasive.
Our correspondence covered other subjects as well (mostly from my side), but the above suffices to give a good sense of our back-and-forth. Hopefully I’ll be back before too long with points from my old critique of The Gospel According to Rome.