What is church teaching on Protestant Communion and the Real Presence? 

By Jenna Marie Cooper 

Question Corner

Q: What is the church teaching about the Real Presence in other denominations? 

A: For context, let us recall that the Real Presence in the Eucharist means that the bread and wine offered at Mass literally become the Body and Blood of Christ when the Catholic priest invokes the Holy Spirit and prays the prayer of consecration.

This doctrine has been a part of the Catholic faith since the time of the church's foundation. For example, as we read in St. John's Gospel, Jesus himself states: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" (John 6:53, 55).

Later, in the Middle Ages, scholastic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas were able to describe this teaching in more technical philosophical terms. Specifically, "transubstantiation" is what happens when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass -- namely, the "substance" (basically, the essential nature, identity or "being" of a thing) changes, even while the "accidents" (i.e., the physical, observable qualities) of the bread and wine remain.

During the Protestant Reformation and afterward, Protestant denominations distanced themselves from Catholic sacramental theology and rejected the Real Presence in the Eucharist; that is, if they had any practice similar to Holy Communion, this was a purely symbolic means of recalling the Last Supper. 

The Catholic Church does not recognize any Protestant denomination as having the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The reason for this is that, even in Protestant denominations that call their clergy "priests," these clergy were not ordained through apostolic succession. That is, all our Catholic bishops — and the priests whom they ordain — were ordained by bishops who were in turn ordained by other bishops in an unbroken chain reaching back to the first bishops, the apostles, who were consecrated in their vocation by Jesus personally. Jesus gave the apostles the power to consecrate the Eucharist, a power which the apostles then handed down to their successors, and a power which cannot be obtained in any other way.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].