Can we use Immanuel Kant's philosophy to describe the Eucharist?

Traditionally the Latin/Roman/Western church has used Aristotle’s philosophy, interpreted by the medieval scholastics, to describe the doctrine of the Eucharist: The substance/accident distinction and transubstantiation.

Respecting that the sacrament remains a suprarational mystery, is there another philosophy that we could use to describe it? I’ve thought about Immanuel Kant’s phenomenon/noumenon distinction. Something about it feels more intuitive to me. I think of the phenomena of the bread and wine remaining, while the noumena changes into Jesus Christ.

Depending on how we interpret Kant’s noumenon–thing-in-itself distinction, Christ’s body, blood, soul and divinity does not change anything as a thing-in-itself, but replaces the noumenon of the bread and wine at each valid Mass.

Does this “work” philosophically, and — more importantly — theologically?

What is the difference between them? You’d probably have to explain it in “layman’s terms” if you want to talk about it here because I doubt that most people are going to be familiar with phenomenon and noumenon.

After I read a little bit about it I don’t see a difference other than semantics or maybe some nebulous philosophy that I don’t get.

Maybe it is just semantics then. If the thing-in-itself is “what is there” for real (the ontic) and the phenomena is only whatever we can experience of that thing via our senses ("thing-as-it-appears’), then we could say the thing-in-itself becomes Christ, and only the phenomena remain. Even with just this semantic difference though, it seems more intuitive to my mind. This would be on the “dual aspect” view where the noumenon is the intelligible understanding of the thing-in-itself or “thing-as-thought.”

If we draw a distinction between the thing-in-itself from the phenomenon (subjective) and noumenon (objective), it might seem like consubstantiation. I think there is a subtle but crucial difference. The thing-in-itself of the bread and wine exists before and after consecration; but the noumena of the bread and wine is replaced by the noumena of Christ. What is objectively there in the Eucharist is the thing-in-itself of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity (the Real Presence). The thing-in-itself of the bread and wine is not objectively there as noumena, only its phenomena remains and our subjective experience of it.

The latter “dual object” view seems much more intuitive to me, because the appearance of bread and wine has some sort of reality, obviously. It retains the physical properties, and it can nourish and intoxicate us. To say this is all accident with no substance is true, I don’t doubt that, but it seems like saying that we are experiencing something when we are not, which is counter-intuitive. How do we account for our experience? With Kant, we can say that there is a real experience of bread and wine, but it’s phenomenal and subjective only. What we are really consuming, objectively, if we could know what is really there as a thing-in-itself, is Christ.

Full disclosure: I was raised Lutheran, and its sacramental theology (admitting of course that it does not actually have valid sacraments) has traditionally been described — and condemned — as consubstantiation. It doesn’t work philosophically because a thing cannot be two things at the same time, but it has the advantage of offering an intuitive reason for the experience of bread and wine. Also, I wouldn’t want to use Immanuel Kant here in a way that would commit us to the rest of his philosophy.

Well, for me, understanding the Eucharist from a philosophical point of view doesn’t do much for me. The substance and properties explanation is okay, but to me it’s just a backward working conclusion. I’m more interested in the meaning that Jesus was actually trying to impart.

Anyway, I still don’t see a difference in the substance/properties explanation and the phenomenon/noumenon explanation. To me, it’s all still transubstantiation. I don’t see why the noumenon explanation would amount to consubstantiation. Not to mention, I personally don’t think there is any meaningful distinction between consubstantiation and transubstantiation other than semantics and an arrogance of one point of view claiming to have a monopoly of understand what is considered a matter of ‘faith’. Go figure. I actually think the Lutherans have a better understanding of the Eucharist despite not being able to articulate it in a way that, at least historically speaking, wasn’t acceptable to the Catholic Church. I mean, was anyone ever supposed to believe that the Catholic Church was ever going to give any ground to the Lutherans? :roll_eyes:

I think that I would leave purely human personalities out of it and focus like a laser on “accidents” and “substance.” Who it is that constitutes that substance is infinitely greater than any human person or human expression of thought.

Do you spend time at adoration? If not, ask yourself why not. If you do and still have questions, then it seems clear (to me at least) that you should pray for the grace of patience and perseverance in prayer.

Be as patient with the Lord as He has been with you. And, on the day that you receive that consolation, you will be changed.

No, not really. Aquinas borrowed Aristotle’s terminology to explain the mystery of the Eucharist, but he used the terms “substance” and “accident” in ways that Aristotle never intended.
In Aristotle’s philosophy, the “substance” of a thing is what doesn’t change while “accidents” can change without altering the substance. But in Aquinas’ explanation of the Eucharist, it’s the substance that changes while the accidents stay the same. I don’t think Aristotle ever envisaged anything of that kind. Aquinas has borrowed Aristotle’s terminology, but he is assigning new definitions to the Aristotelian terms “substance” and “accident”.

Aristotle understood that substances could undergo substantial change such that one substance went out of existence and another replaced it. It’s not my understanding that St. Thomas changed much at all with regard to ideas of substance and accident in general use. The Eucharist is not general use, however. It’s a miracle. In general use the accidents of course can change while the substance remains the same. It’s not a new definition of substance an accident, it’s a miraculous case of it. That’s not to say Aristotle would have agreed with St. Thomas, but, again, in all natural situations St. Thomas pretty much followed Aristotle on the matter. Transubstantiation is not the example for how St. Thomas understood substance and accident.

As for using phenomenon vs. noumenon as an explanation of transubstantiation, I am skeptical. In Aristotleanism, accidents are types of being in act, and in St. Thomas’ explanation, the accidents are really there. Kant’s terminology implies that what we perceive is only mental and does not necessarily tell us anything about what’s really there. St. Thomas’ explanation is not dogmatic, just an explanation in Aristotlean terms of the dogma. But I’d still be wary about the change without knowing more.

I don’t see why we need to use abstract philosophy to describe the Sacred Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The Church teaching is very basic: After consecration, what was once bread and wine are now Christ, although The Eucharist still appears to be bread and wine to the senses. When the apparent form of bread and wine ceases (for example, shortly after consumption, when the Eucharist is dissolved), His Real Sacramental Presence also ceases, although the Graces recieved remain.

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That is a really interesting point. I like the simple descriptive approach of the Lutherans’ “sacramental union”, but I don’t like that they dismiss the value of our reasoning to explore mysteries. We cannot explain a mystery of course, but we can appreciate it with our faith and our reason together. Consubstantiation could violate the law of non-contradiction and for that reason I think was condemned (it cannot be really bread and not bread simultaneously), but the “sacramental union” could be otherwise understood.

Will the questions ever end? Should they? :slight_smile: I don’t go to adoration often enough, though, thank you for the reminder.


Yes, that’s incisive. My line of thought here is not to supplant the traditional philosophical approach, but only to appreciate the sacrament with a different philosophy. John Paul II is one of my favourite philosophers and he wrote in his book (before he was Pope) The Acting Person that Immanuel Kant inspired a lot of his thinking on the philosophical approach to subjective experience. JP2 distinguished ancient philosophy as the philosophy of being, from modern philosophy as the philosophy of consciousness. In his paper on Thomistic Personalism (1961) he stated:

St. Thomas gives us an excellent view of the objective existence and activity of the person, but it would be difficult to speak in his view of the lived experiences of the person.

Without necessarily adopting Kant’s idealism, adapting his concepts could present a point of view that gives more weight to the subjective experience, without detracting from what is really there. To our senses it really smells, looks, tastes and feels like bread; it smells, looks, tastes and feels like wine. The Real Presence as it is and as it is knowable, is Christ.

We don’t need to. It is a mystery of faith and not something we can understand. I believe God wants us to use all of our faculties to appreciate his gifts, as long as we remain humble and in a spirit of worship.

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