St. Bonaventure on Real and Symbolic Presence

Defenders of some form of Real Presence might insist that a merely symbolic eucharist is not enough to explain all the fuss. In Flannery O’Connor’s famous words, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”[1] The idea seems to be that only if Christ is really present there on the altar does this rite do us any real good. We need real presence to have real causal efficacy. Real presence gets us real contact with Christ, and this real contact is supposed to cause in us a real transformation: increase in virtue and closer union with God.

Like O’Connor, Elizabeth Anscombe was profoundly committed to real presence. In a little essay on transubstantiation, she shares this story:

I knew a child, close upon three years old and only then beginning to talk […] who was in the free space at the back of the church when the mother went to communion. "Is he in you?" the child asked when the mother came back. "Yes," she said, and to her amazement the child prostrated itself before her. I can testify to this, for I saw it happen. I once told the story to one of those theologians who unhappily (as it seems) strive to alter and water down our faith, and he deplored it: he wished to say, and hoped that the Vatican Council would say, something that would show the child's idea to be wrong. I guessed then that the poor wretch was losing the faith and indeed so, sadly, did it turn out.[2]

Surprisingly, St. Bonaventure would have sided with the apostate theologian rather than the pious philosopher. This illustrious Franciscan’s eucharistic theology and metaphysics are now more widely available thanks to Junius Johnson's recent translation of the relevant parts of his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences.[3] In Distinction 13, Article 2, Question 2, Bonaventure asks explicitly, “Does the Body of Christ Descend into the Stomach of the Human?” As part of his answer, Bonaventure tells us that “someone would be a fool (stultus) who adored Christ in the stomach of the one eating (415).”

Bonaventure’s full answer is more nuanced than this dismissive comment suggests, but even if we add the nuance we don’t quite get Bonaventure to measure up to the piety of St. Elizabeth of Oxbridge.

What happens, Bonaventure asks, if someone eats the sacrament but then vomits it up, there being in the vomit little chunks of the species of bread? Christ is still there, Bonaventure insists. Therefore it is counseled that the chunks should be eaten (415).

Eucharistic piety can only impinge on good taste so far, however: the species which are only partially digested and then defecated, with discernible chunks of the species of bread in the feces, are not to be eaten (415). Thankfully, however, in this case the discernible chunks no longer conceal the real presence of Christ. Similarly, if the species end up in the sewer or in the belly of a churchmouse, Christ is not there (407). Christ might have harrowed hell, but some places on earth are just too horrible.

Is there some principle which explains Bonaventure’s willingness to affirm real presence in vomit but not in feces, a mouse, or a sewer? The closest we get to an answer is that discernible chunks of the species in these especially unwholesome places are extra proprietatem refectionis, outside the property of refreshment, in Johnson’s rendering (414). On this point, reflecting on the fact that Bonaventure evidently thinks that vomited chunks are not outside the property of refreshment, Johnson drolly remarks that “the interpretation of what renders something unsuitable for human consumption might not be as broad as one might like (9).” Yes, but, it could have been worse!

Bonaventure’s invocation of the principle extra proprietatem refectionis is puzzling, for two reasons. First, it doesn’t clearly explain why vomited chunks of the species of bread are inside, while defecated chunks are outside, the property of refreshment. Second, elsewhere, in Distinction 12, Article 2, Question 1, Bonaventure hesitates to affirm the view that the species of bread and wine provide bodily nourishment at all, and appears to use the terms reficere (to refresh) and nutrire (to nourish) interchangeably, warranting an interpretation of “refreshment” as “nutrition” or even “food” (309-316). But if Bonaventure, in 12.2.1, declines to pronounce on the question of whether the species nourish, why does he, in 13.2.2, make having the property of nutrition the mark of whether Christ remains under the species? And, in any case, gross as it would be to re-ingest undigested chunks of food one has already passed, they probably could serve as food, in a pinch.

For all the trouble Bonaventure took, in Distinctions 10, 11, and 12, to do a Magister’s job of working on the metaphysics of transubstantiation, the take-away sense is that Bonaventure was not nearly as confident as Aquinas that metaphysical speculation could deliver a uniquely correct account of eucharistic conversion and presence. There is an element of inexplicable magic here: Christ might begin to be present in the species in a formulaic way, but his evacuation of the species cannot be tied down with metaphysical precision. Christ just leaves when there’s no longer a point to hanging around. Compare this to the now-official view, expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1377, that “the Eucharistic presence of Christ […] endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist”—Bonaventure calls this very view “excessively broad (413).”

Comparing Bonaventure and Aquinas on this topic, Johnson says,

What we have here [in Aquinas] is a strongly objective claim about the nature of the change: all the wine remains the blood of Christ, even once spilled, and so it ought to be all returned to the altar. Bonaventure, without wanting any less reverence to be done to the sacrament, disagrees: the change is marked for us, and so when the sacramental elements are no longer suited to our use, there is no longer any question of the sacramental presence. His view is considerably less objective than Aquinas’s (9).

Having a “less objective” view than Aquinas’s does not itself imply that Bonaventure is less serious about the metaphysics than Aquinas is. But the lack of rigorous metaphysical backing to his less objective view does indicate that in Bonaventure’s mind the metaphysics took a back seat to the liturgical, pastoral, and mystical aspects of eucharist—the ways in which the eucharist is for us, over above the ways in which the eucharist is simpliciter.

In turning to these perhaps more important aspects, we need to return to O’Connor’s damnification of symbolical views of the eucharist. The problem with O’Connor’s aphorism is that it’s insensitive to the deeply symbolic nature of communion on even the hardest-core real presence theory. Consider: you want to be close to God; therefore you need to eat God. Again: you want to be virtuous; only God can make you virtuous; therefore you need to eat God. The conclusion is startling however you take “eat” and “God”, literally or metaphorically. Ingestion is the wrong kind of closeness. Nourishment is the wrong kind of causal efficacy. Just asserting real presence does not relieve us of the need to engage the poetic imagination for making sense out of why a wise and loving God would make eating God the source and summit of Christian life. After all, eating a man is a very bad way to show him you love him, and his encouraging you to eat him is a very bad way for him to show you he loves you. Why is it different in the case of the Eucharist?

Bonaventure’s poetic imagination is well-tuned to this issue. So is Johnson’s. One sort of argument Bonaventure frequently employs is an argument from what is fitting. Johnson’s description of this method of argument—common in many medieval thinkers, not just Bonaventure—is the best I have ever read:

This theme of fittingness will play itself out throughout the questions translated here, not just as a general concern about the doctrine of God (God must act in ways that can be shown to be fitting), but also as a methodological tool for advancing the argument. For when arguing about the sacrament, it is not always possible to advance logically from one point to the next: sometimes logic would allow for two or more different moves, and logic alone cannot settle which should be followed. Bonaventure will often utilize a principle of fittingness in such cases, which grounds what may be called an aesthetic (rather than logical) argument. An aesthetic argument is one that draws its force not from deductive or inductive rigor, but rather from a consideration of fit within a larger set of considerations (12).

Fittingness opens up the conceptual space we need to make sense out of eating God. We’re not going to make this sense from syllogistic reasoning or conceptual analysis. Instead, the sense comes out of seeing how this act of eating God draws together so many features of human experience, biological, social, historical, cultic, into an aesthetically unified whole. Toward the end of Distinction 8, Part 1, Article 2, Doubts 1 and 2, Bonaventure gives us an exhilarating list of reasons why this chief sacrament of the Christian life should focus on food and why that food should be God. These reasons don’t prove that we need to eat God to get whatever good effects come from communion. Instead, these explain why it was loving and wise to institute eating God as the way for us to get these good effects. Here are some of these reasons. First, food’s ability to nourish is an image of the diffusiveness of goodness, and Christ is the highest good. Second, the union of food and the eater in an act of eating is an image of the union of lover and beloved, a union which eucharistic eating both enacts and prefigures. Third, in normal eating the food is incorporated into—made to be part of the body of—the eater, but in this sacramental eating the eater is incorporated into the food. The sacrificial victim is the conquering king, as death is swallowed up in victory. Fourth, food strengthens us, and God wishes to strengthen us through the food of this sacrament. Fifth, food delights us, and God wishes us to be delighted through the food of this sacrament. Sixth, Christ promised to be with us always, and the intimacy of eating is a poignant way to fulfill this promise. Seventh, meals are social gatherings in which love is shared and increased among the diners, and God wants love to be shared and increased (79).

What Bonaventure gives us, and what Johnson understands and explains so well in his Introduction, is a different sort of sense-making: sense-making through symbolic value. Why is Christ really present in the species? Precisely because the sacrament more powerfully symbolizes what it symbolizes if he is. Take Christ out of the species, and of course God could produce exactly the same spiritual benefit in you which the Real Presencers claim God produces through Christ’s real presence. But take the real presence away, and the symbolic value of communion is harder to access, intellectually and affectively. It’s jolly generous of God to have made instead a world in which common food and drink mediate divine presence and thereby so powerfully symbolize what they symbolize.

The explanatory power of symbols is a main reason why Bonaventure is able to be simultaneously intensely literal about transubstantiation, but also intensely metaphorical about how we reap the benefits of real presence. The symbolic value of real presence is especially clear in Bonaventure’s discussion of spiritual eating in Distinction 9, Article 1, Questions 1 and 2. Spiritual eating has two parts: mastication and incorporation or, chewing and digesting. You might think that spiritual chewing and spiritual digesting have something to do with the causal interactions between our bodies and the real presence of Christ in the host. But they don’t. Instead, when we spiritually chew we “reflect on the food, namely, on the body of Christ offered for us as a price for redemption and as food for refreshment (117).” And we spiritually digest when, so reflecting, we are “joined and thus incorporated into what is thought (117).” Bonaventure says that the spiritual eater eats with ”the mouth of the heart (113)” an activity eerily familiar to fans of Gaudy Night, a Dorothy Sayers novel in which her heroine, Harriet Vane, in a reflective moment, recalls the words of a curate: “Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult that may be.”[4] Just as honesty with oneself doesn’t come from looking at one’s actual face, but the face of the heart, so in communion the real spiritual benefit comes not merely by eating with our actual mouths, but the mouth of the heart. If we eat only with the actual mouth, we derive no benefit from the sacrament, notwithstanding that God himself is getting into our bodies through our actual mouths. Therefore Bonaventure could say to O’Connor, “Well, if it’s only real presence and not a symbol, to hell with it.”

Johnson’s Introduction is both helpful to the novice and insightful to the expert, surveying the historical background to Bonaventure’s eucharistic theorizing and offering a concise but accurate exposition of each of the six distinctions he translates. There is also a short Glossary of key terms, and a well-curated Bibliography. The translation itself is superb. I have only two minor quibbles which are not worth exploring in detail, concerning the translations of ratio and probabile, two notoriously difficult words. Johnson consistently translates ratio as “logic” and probabile as “probable.” I would have preferred varying translations of these terms as appropriate to context. Fortunately, however, the translation is offered with the Latin text on facing pages, so most readers will be able to check for themselves what is being translated as what. Johnson has made Bonaventure’s eucharistic thought more accessible—a great service to analytic theologians and their sympathizers, who take interest in the metaphysical backbone of the articles of faith, but whose attempt to understand these is not limited to solving puzzles about whether some tricky doctrine (e.g., transubstantiation) is coherent.


[1] Flannery O’Connor, “To ‘A’,” 16 Dec. 1955. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979, p.125. [2] G.E.M. Anscombe, “On Transubstantiation,” in Ethics, Religion, and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. 3 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991), p.107-112 (p.108). [3] St. Bonaventure, On the Eucharist (Commentary on the “Sentences,” Book IV, dist. 8-13. Dallas Medieval Texts and Transaltions, vol.23. Edition, Translation, and Introduction by Junius Johnson. Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2017. [4] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), p.334.

Portrait of St. Bonaventure by Paulo Morando Cavazzola (1486-1522)