The Real Absence of Virtual Services

The Church does not think “virtual” participation is “real participation” in the way the Church understands it.

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Back in graduate school at Fordham, I once heard a liturgy professor describe classical Protestant Eucharistic theology as “the Real Absence.” That characterization (which I accept) was driven by two factors. The first was the rejection of transubstantiation in favor of “spiritualized” or even purely symbolic understandings of how Christ might be related to what Protestants called the Eucharist. 

The second was marginalization of the Eucharist in the life of the Church: in contrast to Catholicism, the “chatty Calvin” churches of the Reformation, which emphasized word over sacrament, relatively quickly replaced even the Sunday Eucharist with Word services that focused on Bible reading and preaching. The consequence was that—unlike any previous version of Christianity—the “Lord’s Supper” was reduced from “the source and summit of the Christian life” to just an occasional and practically optional service, celebrated monthly or even quarterly.

Those lectures came to mind this morning as I passed my local Episcopal church on the way to work. (I really do owe those guys something because they’re the source of so many bad ideas for me to comment on). I noted that the signboard announced “In-Person and Virtual Services.”

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Having recently written about and cautioned against the televising and social media presence of Catholic Masses, as well as continuing to research the topic, that “In-Person and Virtual” availability of services got me to thinking.

First of all, it made me ask about the apparent interchangeability of the two “formats.” Want to come to church? OK. Want to stay abed and have church come to you? OK, too.

Presumably, the former is “preferred.” So, too, is earth burial over cremation, but we know how that’s turned out. But, honestly, is it even “preferred?” Hasn’t the exodus from church become so culturally commonplace that “we’re just glad you’re here at all?”  

Now, for Catholics, it’s not even that in-person worship is “preferred” over virtual attendance. It’s required. Even at the height of the pandemic, while the Church encouraged people to avail themselves of online Mass while the “field hospital” had struck tent and fled the battlefield, it made clear that substitute was not required because, sensu stricto, “virtual attendance” did not “fulfill” the dominical precept of participation in Sunday Mass. But I’m not going to settle deep theological issues on purely canon law rules. Canon law serves theology; it does not replace it.   For Catholics, it’s not even that in-person worship is “preferred” over virtual attendance. It’s required.Tweet This

Bottom line: the Church does not think “virtual” participation is “real participation” in the way the Church understands it. And “fully conscious and active participation” in the liturgy is what Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14) set as its standard.  

I am frankly surprised that we have not seen pushback from a generation that has 50,000 “virtual friends” (or revisionist theologians) that sitting at a screen cannot be “fully conscious and active participation.” That’s why I stressed “real participation” (about which I would likewise expect pushback from those quarters). And that’s what got me thinking further.

Perhaps the reason we Catholics have problems with the “Real Presence” is that moderns have but an attenuated version of “real.” Unlike the early 1900s when Coca-Cola advertisements urged consumers to “accept no substitutes,” some Catholics apparently do.

And, on the flip side, does an impoverished understanding of the Real Presence facilitate accepting “virtual services?”

My neighborhood Episcopal church can offer “in-person and virtual” services interchangeably because, in truth, for them they are. If the bread in that church is not substantially changed in that liturgy, then what real difference is there between that bread and what the stay-at-home worshipper pops into the toaster? If the minister does not effectuate a change in that bread, why bother with the commute?  

So, in principle, a Protestant church should have no substantial reason to insist on in-person over virtual worship: if Jesus Christ is “my personal Lord and Savior,” He can be personally present in my house as well as His. In that sense, Protestant theology dovetails well with virtual services. One could even argue that Reformation denominations were designed for radio: what matters is the “word.” The antiseptic style and iconoclastic theology of those churches is perfectly suited for oral radio delivery.

But if you do believe that this bread and wine become, in the Mass, the Body and Blood of Christ, really, truly, and substantially present, then the Sacrament on the altar and the pixels on a screen are not interchangeable. But if Catholics act, in fact if not in theory, as if they are, isn’t that just as much proof as the Pew survey that “Rome, we have a problem” with their understanding of the Sacrament?  

How much longer before, in the name of the “common priesthood of the faithful,” we’ll have stay-at-home Catholics producing the “Eucharist” by AI?  

Among the “glass half full” types, some might argue the fact that those Catholics who think “watching Mass” still has more significance than not are “flickering wicks” we should fan. That may be true, though they are very confused Catholics, but—as in the case of the Pew survey data—those Catholics who facilely substitute a picture for “the real thing” have de facto Protestant theologies of the Eucharist.  

Because both are satisfied with “the Real Absence.” 


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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