I’m researching the claim that transubstantiation was not the doctrine of the church for the first millennium of Christian history. One of my first google hits was http://www.justforcatholics.org/a181.htm. The claim of the article is that transubstantiation was not believed universally in the early church.

The first supporting claim is that “Paschasius Radbertus was the first to formulate the doctrine of transubstantiation in the ninth century.” This claim isn’t very specific (what does it mean to formulate a doctrine?) and it begs the question. I hope my study will make the facts clear.

The second supporting claim is that Radbertus was opposed by “Ratranmus*, a contemporary monk at the monastery of Corbie. Ratranmus wrote: “The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in a figurative sense” (De corpore et sanguine Christi). This controversy between two Catholic monks shows that both views were present in the Catholic church at least up to the eleventh century.

This Catholic Encyclopedia (CE) entry http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12659c.htm states that Rathramnus’ work dealt with two questions:

  1. Do we in the Holy Eucharist directly see the Body of Christ with our bodily eyes, or is the Body of Christ hidden from our sensory vision?
  2. Is the Eucharistic Christ identical with the historic Christ?

According to the JFC article, Ratramnus believed in a purely symbolic Eucharist. Based on the more extensive information provided by the CE, I doubt this claim. It is curious to me why someone who believes in an exclusively figurative presence of Christ in the Eucharist would bother with the first question. If the Eucharist is only a figure, then it is pointless to ask if the presence of Christ is hidden from our sensory vision. How can something that does not exist be hidden? One might attempt to correct the notion that there is something hidden, on the basis that there is actually nothing but a symbol. But one would not take up the question as stated.

The CE entry goes on to state that Ratramnus’ answer to the first question was “yes”.

In the solution of the first question Ratramnus distinguishes correctly between the invisible substance, “invisibilis substantia”, which, he says, is truly the body and blood of Christ, “vere corpus et sanguis Christi” (xlix), and the external appearances which after the consecration by the priest remain the same as they were before (ix-x)

This simply isn’t the argument someone makes if he believes there is no transubstantiation. One who does not believe in transubstantiation does not argue that there is a distinction between an invisible substance which is one thing, and external appearances which are something else. He argues that there has been no change, that the external appearance and internal reality are the same.

Things get more curious in the next few lines of the CE entry:

Attention was again called to it [Ratramnus’ treatise] by Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who cited it in defence of the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist in the preface to his work: “De veritate corporis et sanguinis Christi in Eucharistia adversus Joh. Œcolampadium” (Cologne, 1527).”

It seems that Rathramnus’s treatise is cited by apologists in both camps, both for and against the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ratramnus’ views seem not to be as simple as the JFC article would lead one to believe.

Considering the more detailed information provided by the EC entry, it seems unlikely that Rathramnus believed in a purely symbolic Eucharist. If the CE article is incorrect about the content of Rathramnus’ treatise, the JFC author will have to do more than pull a single quote, of questionable translation, out of context to show so.

The JFC author then takes a swipe at the Catholic Church in stating, “Eventually Radbertus was canonized while Ratranmus’ work was placed on the index of forbidden books.” The author implies that Radbertus was canonized because he taught the doctrine of the Real Presence and Rathramnus was censured because he taught against it. This displays an ignorance of canonization, a step which is not taken because of someone’s doctrinal stance, but because of someone’s life of heroic virtue. Again the CE article provides more information: The treatise was placed on the index of forbidden books because of mistranslations, which some used as support for heretical opinions, not because of its own heresy. There is no hint of censure or disapproval of Ratramnus anywhere in the CE entry.

Further, a perusal of the CE entry on Radbertus http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11518a.htm shows that in Catholic history, Radbertus’ writing on the subject was considered more questionable than Ratramnus’. I expect that some will believe the CE has its facts wrong, but it is hard for me to believe this. The CE articles deal with the subject in more depth than the JFC article, and the CE points out various nuances that the JFC article never even hints at. The writer for JFC will have to deal with the claims stated in the CE before he will convince me of his opposing claims on this issue.

*The JFC article spells this name “Ratranmus” while the CE spells it “Ratramnus” or alternately “Rathramnus”. I have copied and pasted quotes without changing either spelling.