The Eucharist and the Council of Trent

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What is it that the 13th session actually has to say about the Eucharist, and how does it compare to what Luther and the reformers confessed about the Lord’s Supper?

On October 11, 1551, in Trento Italy, the 13th session of the famous Council of Trent was convoked. This, the 19th ecumenical council, began in 1545 and spanned 18 years and three pontificates, including Popes Paul III, Julius III, and Pius IV. While the other sessions of the council had met to discuss and affirm various doctrines such as the doctrine of Holy Scripture (4), justification (6), and baptism (7), the council now met under the guidance of Pope Julius III to discuss the “source and summit” of the Roman Catholic sacramental system: the most holy and blessed Eucharist. During this session, what was decided would become central for dialogue between Roman and Protestant theologians and remains essential for dialogue today.

From the Roman perspective, a wrong confession of the Eucharist fundamentally undermines all other doctrines. The mass is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. For a Roman Catholic, the Eucharist is the basis for church fellowship, unity, grace, love, and piety. This makes Luther’s claim at Smalcald that justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls particularly scandalous. For Rome, such a claim posits a decapitated body of doctrine led by its hand.

So what is it that the 13th session actually has to say about the Eucharist, and how does it compare to what Luther and the reformers confessed about the Lord’s Supper? To answer this, we can ask and answer the three questions that Luther identifies in his Small Catechism: What is it? What benefit does it give? Who receives it worthily?

First, what is it? The Roman theologians identify the Holy Eucharist as the true body and blood of Christ under the bread and wine (Canon 1). After the words of consecration are spoken, the bread is no longer mere bread nor the wine mere wine, but Jesus Christ himself is really, truly, and substantially contained therein. Christ is not only partially present, but wholly and fully in the bread and wine (Canon 2, 3). Lutherans can agree with these statements. Luther, in his Small Catechism, likewise identifies the Lord’s Supper as the body and blood of Christ under bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself, for us Christians to eat and drink as the words and promises of God declare (SC VI.1-2).

On this point, however, Rome continues to describe how this transformation comes to pass and the mode of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine by what they call “transubstantiation.” This means that the substance of bread and wine is eliminated and, by the words of consecration, transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. Yet only the outward appearance or species of bread and wine remains. This distinction makes use of two categories from Aristotle - substance and accidents - that are absent from the Scriptures and foreign to Lutheran thought on the Lord’s Supper. Where Rome seeks to explain by philosophy how Christ is present, Luther simply confesses according to Christ’s promises that he is present.

Not the person who does much, but the person who believes much is worthy of Christ

Second, what benefits does it give? According to the Roman theologians at Trent, the chief benefit is the example of love in Christ, which is given to believers. His self-giving sacrifice is what we remember. The Eucharist, therefore, also serves to strengthen our faith and our love toward one another and preserve us from mortal sins. The benefit is being formed into the image of Christ (Chapter II).

On this point, Rome and Luther depart significantly. In his Small Catechism, Luther, following the words of Christ, boldly confesses that the chief benefit of the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins. This forgiveness brings with it also life and salvation because where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also every other blessing (SC VI. 5-6). Against these statements, the Roman theologians write that anyone who confesses forgiveness of sins as the principal benefit of the Eucharist is anathema, eternally damned (Canon 5).

Third, who receives it worthily? The Roman theologians confess that for a person to receive the Eucharist for their benefit and not to their death or condemnation, penance must be done beforehand. This entails contrition (sorrow over sin), repentance (confessing sin), and works of satisfaction (piety). A pure heart and pure actions must be in place beforehand to present oneself pure and holy before God (Canon 11).

Here also, Rome and Luther part ways. Instead of fasting, external discipline, and good works, Luther argues the only preparation necessary is simple faith in these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Not the person who does much, but the person who believes much is worthy of Christ (SC VI. 9-10). Only through the gift of belief is a Christian finally able to receive the benefits of the Lord’s Supper. Against this position, Rome confesses that anyone who says faith alone makes one worthy is once again anathema and certainly damned (Canon 11).

Despite the Council of Trent’s rejection of Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism do share more common ground than any other Christian communion in the West on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps one day on the ecumenical horizon we will be able to gather around the words of Christ and confess together the body and blood of Christ as a pure gift given and shed for us.