Today is the feast of St. Augustine, a Doctor of the Church and author of one of the most widely-read works on spirituality, Confessions. Over the years, some mainline Protestant theologians have tried to attribute to Augustine a theology of the Eucharist that denies the belief of Christ’s true presence. Is this reading of Augustine at all accurate?
CUF’s Faith Fact “St. Augustine’s Real Faith in the Real Presence” addresses the question thoroughly.
Catholics believe, and have always believed, that Christ is present spiritually and symbolically. The difference is that neither ancient nor modern Catholics hold that the Presence is merely spiritual or symbolic in the Protestant sense. Jesus Christ is present in body, blood, soul, and divinity as the Eucharist — or more simply, the Eucharist is Jesus Christ (c.f. Catechism nos. 1373-1381). If the “spiritual” and “symbolic” passages from the writings of the Church Fathers were returned to their larger context, the misunderstanding would be solved.
Specifically regarding St. Augustine, the previous quotes and those noted below provide the larger context and meaning of his teachings. St. Augustine certainly believed that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Christ was carried in His Own hands when, referring to His Own body, He said, “This is My body.” For He carried that body in His hands (Explanations of the Psalms 33, 1, 10).
[Jesus] received earth from earth; because flesh is from the earth, and He took flesh from the flesh of Mary. He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless he first adores it… and not only do we not sin by adoring [His flesh], we do sin by not adoring (Explanations of the Psalms 98, 9).
I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, which you now look upon and of which last night were made participants. You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the blood of Christ…. What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ (Sermons 227).
The faithful know what I am saying. They know Christ in the breaking of the bread. For not all bread, but only that which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s body (Sermons 234, 2).
St. Augustine did not endorse idolatry when he taught his readers to adore the Eucharist before eating — which the Church still does today (Catechism no. 1378). He really believed and taught that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. Because of the Real Presence, we must adore Him.
Read the Faith Fact in its entirety here.