One Body and One Loaf: Eucharistic Unity Through the Theology of St. Bonaventure

I have many Roman Catholic friends. Leading from my time at Saint Louis University and continuing through various scholarly engagements I often get an opportunity to discuss history and theology with Roman Catholics who are very well educated in their tradition and practice, some of whom are leading scholars in their fields. In these conversations the topic of conversation often turns toward ecumenical rapprochement and church unity.

Recently I was having such a discussion with one of these friends. Even as we expressed commonality over shared history, liturgical practice, and sacramental belief, there was still a large divide between us. I expressed, as I often do, my desire that one day Roman Catholics and Protestants could forge a true sacramental unity by not only accepting each other’s baptisms but also by accepting the truth of each other’s eucharistic celebrations.

Though this friend is committed to ecumenical dialogue and cooperation, he balked at the possibility of ever achieving a real sacramental unity. As we talked it seemed that the largest obstacle in his mind was our great divergence in eucharistic practice. In fact, he stated that he could never see the Roman Church accepting the validity of our Eucharist.

I must be honest, I don’t really see the point in co-belligerency if we can’t effect something as basic as table fellowship. To me, without table fellowship all our other ecumenical dialogue is just talk. Jesus gave us a clear command to be one, and that unity is expressed most fully in the unity of the Lord’s Table. Eucharistic unity must be the foundational basis for any ecumenical program or effort. So while we are cooperating in ministry and dialoging about various aspects of faith and life, we shouldn’t ignore the single most important aspect of Christian unity and give up hope that we can ever have any concord on the Eucharist.

Now, I don’t want to make it seem like my friend was expressing a fringe view. His comment was matter of fact, and stated the reality of the beliefs of many Roman Catholics. I do agree that eucharistic practice is a huge hurdle. We can say that we have (basically) the same liturgy and the same (or close to the same) beliefs about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but we cannot deny that the differences in praxis between Protestants and Roman Catholics are very significant. For the purposes of this essay, I want to focus on one of these practical issues: our differences in how we treat the leftover bread and wine.

For Protestants, we do not usually reserve the leftovers, or at the very least if we do reserve some to take to the sick we do not dispose of what’s left differently than other bread. Some Protestants let the congregants eat the bread after the service. Other Christian traditions (including some very ancient Eastern traditions) will give the leftovers to the poor. Many Protestants will simply throw the leftovers in the trash.

For Roman Catholics, who believe that the body of the Lord remains with the bread as long as the bread remains, this is very scandalous. It’s easier for them to say that we don’t really have the true body of the Lord in our Eucharist than to deal with our difference in practice. But what if there was a respected Doctor of the Catholic Church who gave us a theology that helped us come together on this issue?

St. Bonaventure is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church. In fact, Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, his colleague at the University of Paris, were the first two to be added to the list of eight ancient Doctors (4 Western, 4 Eastern). That list included Augustine, Chrysostom, and Athanasius. Though Thomas Aquinas is now considered to be the standard for Roman Catholic orthodoxy, Bonaventure enjoyed more influence and credibility in their own day than did Aquinas. Furthermore, Bonaventure still remains a respected authority in their (our) tradition.

For the past 6 years I have been a part of a project producing a translation of St. Bonaventure’s sacramental theology from book four of his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (forthcoming from Franciscan Institute Publications). The principal in the project, Fr. Wayne Hellman, and I met early in the morning over coffee over a period of two years poring over every single word of that text, translating the Latin and discussing the theology and its importance.

My particular interest and expertise lies in the Eucharist, and so I was tasked with editing, composing notes, and writing introductions for the Eucharistic material, which is contained in distinctions 8-13 of the commentary. The result of this is that I have been wading through this text for six years now, and have been immersed in the Eucharistic thought of the Seraphic Doctor.

Medieval Commentaries on the Sentences used Peter Lombard’s original text as a topical guide, yet functionally they were scholastic texts, focusing on specific questions using the sic et non method. In Bonaventure’s and Thomas’s Commentaries on the Sentences we find a set of questions that develop a theology of the eucharistic leftovers that I believe can help bridge the current divide we have due to our varying practices. This set of questions revolves around how and when the body of Christ ceases to be connected to the species of bread.

Some were of the opinion, including Thomas Aquinas, that the body of Christ remains with the bread as long as the bread remains, including if it were tossed into a sewer or eaten by a mouse. But Bonaventure, applying his Franciscan pastoral sensitivities, did not find this option satisfying. For Bonaventure, the body of Christ remains with the bread only as long as the bread is still functioning as a sacrament. So if the bread is thrown into a sewer or becomes moldy, the body of Christ ceases to be there because the bread has lost the quality of being a meal and the capacity to signify perfect refreshment. In that case, it is no longer functioning as a sacrament.

The reason for this comes down to signification. For Bonaventure, the Eucharist is fundamentally a meal and so the core issues of signification revolve around the symbolism of eating a meal. This is beautifully illustrated in the questions where he discusses what it means to eat sacramentally and spiritually. To eat sacramentally of the Eucharist requires physical bodily eating, which includes chewing, swallowing, and digesting (for digestion he uses the term incorporatio to incorporate, literally to subsume or incorporate into one’s body).

Thus when he discusses what it means to then eat spiritually of the substance, he uses the symbolism of eating to develop his theology: Spiritually eating involves chewing (ruminating on the truth signified), swallowing (being moved by the genuine affection of Christian love), and digestion (being incorporated into the body of Christ and the body of Christ into the recipient). The entirety of this symbolism is thus ordered to the res tantum, which is the Latin term for the true end of the sacrament: the mystical body of Christ.

Thus when discussing the question of whether the body of Christ descends into the human stomach, Bonaventure says that it does, because of the signification of incorporation. But the body of Christ does not descend into the bowels because once the food passes on from the stomach it has lost the sacramental quality of being food. Additionally, if the bread is vomited out, he says, the body of Christ is not there by reason of sacramentality: It is no longer a meal.

When we come to the famous question of whether the mouse eats the body of Christ, you might already be able to guess that Bonaventure says, “No.” Why? It is because of the signification. The Eucharist is ultimately ordered not to the real presence of the Lord Jesus’ body, but to the res tantum, the mystical body of Christ. Thus no one who does not have the capacity to belong to the mystical body can in any way partake of the sacrament. The mouse eats only bread, having changed back into the substance of bread.

These questions, whether the body of Christ would exist there if the bread were thrown into a sewer, whether a mouse eats the body of Christ, and the others, while seeming to be silly questions, are actually very important because they address the central issue in ecumenical Eucharistic rapprochement: what do to with the leftovers. While Thomas’s theology leaves no room, Bonaventure’s theology gives us a way forward.

For Bonaventure, as we have seen, the body and blood of Christ are only connected with the bread and wine as long as they are being used sacramentally. This includes the capacity to be eaten and drunk as a meal. So when the bread and wine ceases to function as a sacrament, when they lose their capacity to symbolize true and perfect refreshment, as in the case of being thrown into the sewer (or the trash bin), they cease to be sacraments and the body of Christ is no longer present, however we define the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The example of the mouse helps us further. Even though the bread would still be sacramental in the mouth of a human being, the bread cannot be sacramental in the mouth of the mouse because the mouse does not have the capacity to be united to the body of Christ, which is the ultimate grace and signification in the sacrament. Thus the larger principle is that when the sacrament ceases to function sacramentally it is longer exhibiting or conferring the grace signified therein, either the body of the risen Lord or the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

This theology developed by one of our Catholic Doctors may help our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as we think about eucharistic unity. For if we Protestants pass around a loaf of risen bread and break off pieces ourselves, some crumbs of which fall on the floor, there does not have to be a scandal. Bread that falls on the floor looses its capacity to symbolize perfect refreshment, thus it is no longer a sacrament. If we allow the congregants to eat the leftover bread (including little children) there does not have to be a scandal, because they are not intending to eat it as a sacrament, and thus it is no longer a sacrament. If we take the leftovers to the poor, there is no scandal, because in that case the bread is functioning not sacramentally but as food, and thus it is no longer a sacrament.

The central principle here is that once the worship service is over, the benediction is pronounced, the final “Amen” is sung, and the candles are blown out, the bread and wine are no longer functioning sacramentally and thus they are no longer sacraments. And if at any time during the service, the bread crumbles or falls on the floor, or even gets eaten by a mouse, it is no longer a sacrament because it is not functioning sacramentally.

This will undoubtedly bring out a slew of “what ifs” and “buts” but I think that is when we should take one more step in our ecumenical rapprochement and listen to our Eastern brothers and sisters by not getting hung up on the “what ifs” and “buts” and just proclaim and believe that it is a mystery.

In fact, Bonaventure anticipated the “what ifs” and “buts.” His words on what happens when the bread ceases to be sacramental are helpful: “If you should ask, ‘What happens to the body of Christ? Does it fly away?’ It must be said that in the conversion of the bread the body of Christ does not locally descend nor is changed by any alteration. It is only by the conversion of the bread that it begins to subsist beneath those species. Therefore, only by the return of the bread, he ceases to exist there in such a way that there is no change in him either locally or any other change. Let him accept this teaching who can, and whoever cannot, let him believe, and that will be enough for him.”[1]

Perhaps what we need to do is to return again to the simple mystery of the Eucharist, and stop dividing the body of Christ over our numerous theological distinctions.

Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy is Pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church, Columbia, Missouri.

[1] Book IV, d. 13, a. 2, q. 1, ad obj. 3

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