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The Aristotelian Character of the Mass

“Little of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae is without reference to Aristotle. Etienne Gilson refers to this phenomenon, this characteristic habit of a great Catholic scholar to base much of his theology on the work of a pagan, as one of the great defining characteristics of Thomism1, and of good Catholic philosophy as well. But St. Thomas did not chose Aristotle out of a hat to be the pagan upon which he would build the theological castle which he so artfully constructed in his lifetime. The principle that he was operating on, the principle which Gilson describes, is the idea that pagan philosophy, while in some ways riddled with error, laid the foundation for all philosophy to follow, and that some pagan philosophers did more to lay the groundwork for all which would follow than others, and the greatest of these was Aristotle. And it would be hard to study Theology, particularly St. Thomas, and forget about this. However, it is easy to lose sight of the particular contributions which Aristotle made, those particular principles which made Aristotelian thought so appealing to St. Thomas; and obscure though they may seem, the fact of the matter is that Catholic thought would not be the same without any one of them. I would like to talk in detail about how this is done in one particular case, that is, the Aristotelian notion of forms inhering in matter as it stands in opposition to the Platonic view that they are only pointed to by the material world.

“While the theological implications of the exact character of forms’ inherence in matter may seem insignificant, the fact of the matter might be that they make the difference between Catholicism and everything else, between the real presence in the Eucharist and a symbolic piece of bread and a cup of wine. But, before we get into this, we should begin by looking at another Aristotelian idea, what he calls the orders of abstraction.

“The orders of abstraction tell us, in three steps, how we move from physics to metaphysics; how we can arrive at the immutable truth by means of the changing world, something perfectly natural that we were designed to do. The necessity of this movement is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that God saw fit not to create us as angelic intellects, but instead to create us with bodies which are, unlike many other Greek philosophers would say, greatly dignified and not simply traps for the soul. This movement starts in the world of physics when we first conceive of an idea only as it relates to the physical thing from which it was abstracted, that is, knowing a thing in its particularity. Then moves to the second step, knowing a thing in terms of mathematical abstraction. Mortimer J. Adler gives an excellent definition of this second step2, especially as it relates to the third, by saying that the level of mathematical abstraction is most like imagination, the ability to know a thing without needing a physical referent. And the Third step is the metaphysical understanding, again according to Adler, the intellectual knowledge of a thing, knowledge according to the soul. So again, the difference between these last two steps is the difference between knowing a thing with the brain versus knowing it with the intellect.

“The significance of all of this is that, when you apply these three steps of abstraction, the three steps to human metaphysical knowledge, you see how perfectly the Mass was designed to elevate us in a unique, yet still uniquely human, way. This is because the Mass caters to us as human by bringing us through the same set of steps that we use to come to know any metaphysical reality, but in the end, the form is God, not a tree or a pencil or a box jellyfish. But this is only true if God informs the Eucharist as the soul informs the body. If God is only represented by the Eucharist, then it is no different from a parable, and can only point us to God in the same way that Plato would say that matter only points to the distant real world of forms.

“But, what’s so wrong with that, you might ask? Why is it that God couldn’t have simply left us on earth until his return with no perfect vehicle for understanding him? What about the Bible? The answer is that human metaphysical understanding follows Aristotle’s orders of abstraction, it requires a physical referent in which a thing’s form inheres. If man is created to know, love and serve God, then he must have such a referent in order to be able to accomplish the purpose of his creation. And, while the bible tells us of God’s acts, his Love, and of his plan for all of us, it is not God himself. We do not worship the bible, and a metaphysical understanding of God is not possible through the Bible in the same way that it is through his actual presence on earth as the substantial form of the Eucharist.”

1 See: Gilson, Etienne. The Spirit of Thomism. Harper. 1966.
2 See: Adler, Mortimer J.. Mind Over Matter. Macmillan. 1990.

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