Corpus Christi: Punctuation and Continuity

Too often academics are impressed with novelty as it appears in history, preferring to emphasize what they see as discontinuities and divergences, rather than attempting to study development rightly understood. This is for two reasons. The first is that the long shadow of a whiggish progressivism is still upon them. Lurking in the back of their minds is the enlightenment supposition that we are moving from an age of superstition and darkness “forward into the broad, sunlit uplands” of our own perfectibility. This of course implies a reaction against premodern standards such as community, family, religion, monarchy, and other such undesirables. Purified of such dross humanity can continue its ascent. Rarely is this bias admitted among academics—indeed it is the rage to disclaim it—yet it constantly seeps into academic writing, and is especially evident in most academic engagement with contemporary politics.

The second aspect of the cult of novelty is that nearly all academic writers are mired in the philosophical presupposition of nominalism, currently in the guise of post-modernism (indeed that radical post-modernism and enlightenment liberalism are mutually contradictory seems not to bother them much). This neo-nominalism sees all historical instances not merely as unique (which they are), but as so radically singular that they are unrelated to one another in any substantive way. One can draw no lessons from the past in this system. Indeed it is difficult to understand, from a post-modern perspective, why we do history at all. It can tell us nothing except how currently preferred subgroups were marginalized in the past (though even that betrays a realism and progressivism underpinning their professed nominalism). Power and “power relations” become the watchwords, ironically emerging as unexamined dogmas. New terms and ideas as they arise in history must then be radically distinct and disjunctive. There is no such thing as an institution or idea embedded and extended in time, for there is no common human nature to work upon. All that is left is the bare struggle for power, leaving them with a sort of “Diet Nietzsche” that empties humanity of any meaning, leaving atomistic individuals ceaselessly struggling to assert their dominance in any way possible. It is a vision as enervating as it is philosophically incoherent.

In this the Punctuationist Historians (to coin a phrase) hew very closely to rudimentary religious fundamentalism. “Transubstantiation” was invented by Lateran IV in 1215 (or, for the clever among them, by Hildebert of Lavardin in the late eleventh century). The Bible (or the Fathers) never use the word. Therefore it is invented by the Catholic Church (to assert her power, of course), in the high middle ages. We see a similar story about the Council of Trent. Modern historians claim that it invented the “Roman Catholic Church” in the sixteenth century, and that the Tridentine Church bore little to no relation to the institution of the middle ages. One suspects this helps to cover up confessional guilt about ecclesiastical late-comers on the other side. Again the Punctuationists are on full display in Giuseppe Alberigo’s “Bologna School”: the epicenter for those who claim that Vatican II represents a “Hermeneutic of Discontinuity” and utter break with tradition. Apparently they really did “Sing a New Church into Being.” It is surprising how much these rarefied academic attitudes affect the everyday lives of believers, and it is good to lay bare their presuppositions.

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In studying church history, there needs to be a balance between historical innovation and radical creativity on one hand, while underscoring the longstanding traditions of cultures and societies on the other. When Pope Urban IV issued Transiturus on August 11, 1264 to institute the feast of Corpus Christi, he was doing something at the same time radically new and rooted in the perennial sacramental and incarnational tradition of Christianity. If we cannot see both, then we miss the point of church history entirely.

Let us take first the novelty. Never before had there been a feast of the Eucharist itself—a fact that has encouraged some to think that this was simply a liturgical effort to underscore the decision on Transubstantiation at Lateran IV (power again). Holy Thursday indeed commemorated the institution of the Eucharist, but was also rich in meditations on the priesthood and on the coming passion. Indeed so novel was this feast that subsequent popes neglected to reissue the decree for almost 50 years (it was not resumed by the popes until 1311, and then in Avignon: historically the see of Rome was exceptionally conservative in liturgical matters). Such a celebration was unknown to the Fathers, and is not celebrated in the Christian east. It was the result of the visions of the mystic Juliana de Cornillon in the Low Countries, arose out of localized devotion, and comes at the dawning period of papal supervision over the liturgical calendar. It resulted in a wealth of new liturgical and devotional literature that bore witness to new devotion to Christ’s humanity then flowering in the middle ages. It was a truly a different and novel thing.

Yet St. Augustine had characterized God Himself as that beauty “ever ancient and ever new.” The flowering devotion to the Eucharist was embedded deeply in Christian culture. This episode can provide a textbook example of the orthodox development of doctrine as presented by Cardinal Newman. The Fathers were unanimous on the Real Presence, indeed it feels like authority-piling to compile their testimony on this issue. J. N. D. Kelly in his excellent book Early Christian Doctrines has to do some exceptional maneuvering to get even a few spiritualizing statements from Augustine on the Eucharist. The rest is solid for the Real Presence. Their exegesis of the New Testament was with one voice. Even Martin Luther drew a chalk line under “Hoc est corpus meum” at Marburg. Christ was really present in the sacrament of the altar. There was no dissent. No dissent meant no heresy. No heresy, no council to refine the matter further. So unanimous was the Church’s testimony about the Real Presence that the first breath of opposition was the dialectician Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century. Rebuffed by the vast majority of the Church, he recanted, and opened up the way to increasing precision about the Eucharist in the medieval Church.

Liturgically, Corpus Christi was also in line with tradition. In all Eucharistic liturgies of the early Church, belief and practice were one. One only needs to read the words and study the gestures that surrounded the offertory, the consecration, and the communion of the consecrated elements to get some sense of the depth of devotion to the Eucharist in the Church of the first millenium. Much Eucharistic devotion also began to take root in monasteries, where habitual presence before the Sacrament brought a deepening of reflection. As early as St. Basil in the 370s we see the development of a reservation of the elements in the monastic setting. The continual meditation of the monastics on what they did led to a concomitant deepening of devotion.

Liturgical piety was also developing in line with tradition. With the purification of the Church by the Gregorians there was a rising lay appreciation of sacramental signs and realities. Indeed lay piety sometimes sped ahead of clerical practice. Up until the middle ages bowing had been the primary clerical gesture. It was the laity who introduced the liturgical attitude of genuflection and kneeling, combining a strong sense of penitence together with increasing awareness of the real presence. Christians have always known how posture relates to doctrine (indeed this is a dangerous truth).   In addition the laity began to demand to see the Eucharist more, resulting in the innovation of the elevation around 1200. Sometimes one would hear shouts from the congregation to “lift it higher.” As early as 1208 bells began to be employed in the liturgy to announce the imminence of consecration, and then to highlight the elevation itself. All through the early middle ages the frequency of communion began to be reduced, mostly as a result of the increased meditation on the gravity of such a moment. One had spiritually to prepare deeply for sacramental communion, for familiarity could breed contempt. The changing of the consecrated wine for unconsecrated at communion was another symptom of deepened meditation: an avoidance of the possibility of grave sacrilege. Contrary to the opinion of recent liturgists, one could say that the decrease in frequency in communion and the withholding of the chalice were both emblematic of great spiritual health, and an absolute awareness of and belief in the reality of the Sacrament. Yet even when not communicating, one could see the Miracle every day at Mass, leading to increased devotion towards the consecrated elements themselves.

The middle ages also witnessed a shift towards the humanity of Christ. The divinity of Christ, of Him who would “come to judge heaven and earth, and the world by fire,” came to be balanced with a vision of Christ as a man, and as a brother. It is no mistake that devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child began to flower exceedingly at this time. In addition attacks on the Incarnation by a motley crew of heterodoxies in the middle ages reinforced liturgical piety towards the sacrament and towards the communion of saints. In particular, when heretics derided the Eucharist, the laity and clergy came to its defense even more readily. It is no wonder that an opportune time came for all of these strains to flow together in the promulgation of the feast of Corpus Christi, with the attendant panoply of liturgical and paraliturgical devotion to the Eucharist. The Church had finally fully realized the treasure she had all along.

True development of doctrine then comes from a symphony of orthopraxis and orthodoxy working hand in hand, with each strain deepening the other in an organic masterpiece. This true development never happens against the grain, as it were. It never transpires by one swimming against the tide of received teaching or liturgy, and it never happens by falsely setting orthodoxy against orthopraxis or vice versa. What we have here is a true sensus fidelium, a recognition by the whole Church of the reality present before it. In this way we recognize in the study of church history to balance the new with the perennial, and to recognize and value both. Indeed here the Church’s belief in, and commitment to, living the reality of the Incarnation is demonstrated. Indeed it is this belief alone which, if pushed, we may say is the one truly “new thing” in all of human history, for it is the sole possible answer to the lament of Qoheleth.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Last Supper” painted by Juan de Juanes in 1560.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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