Daily Archives: September 25, 2009

When the rot set in…

Gasparo Cardinal Contarini

Gasparo Cardinal Contarini

I have recently visited my good friend, Lutheran Pastor Fraser Pearce. There I encountered a book he recently picked up at a second hand book store, “Cardinal Contarini at Regensburg”, by Peter Matheson (Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1972). It is a superb story, told upon the foundation of a great deal of scholarly research, about the part played by Gasparo Cardinal Contarini at the Catholic Lutheran dialogue meeting in Regensberg in 1541 (the Lutheran delegation was led by Melanchthon, Bucer also present, and Eck too).

The Regensburg Colloquy is a most interesting topic, but at the moment, I just want to make a small comment about a something Matheson says the beginning of Chapter 10 on page 122. There we read:

The turning point of the Regensburg colloquy was the failure to reach agreement on the nature of the church; the death blow was given by the controversy over transubstantiation. This was really most surprising. Why should the boundary between the confessions have been born at this particular point? Was this not a relatively new dogma, promulgated as recently as 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, and one pertaining to the scholastic theory rather than to the substance of the Faith? It seems decidedly out of character that Contarini should dig in his feet on this particular issue, especially when he knew that the success or failure of the colloquy depended on his attitude. It seems ironic that the ecumenical endeavours of the 16th century should have foundered on a teaching which today seems to be dropping slowly but steadily below the Catholic horizon.

Now isn’t that extremely interesting? The Regensburg Colloquy took place mere years before the Council of Trent, at which the doctrine of transubstantiation was defined “as most fitting”. On the other hand, Matheson was writing his book mere years after the Second Vatican Council, after which it is generally agreed “the rot set in”. Is it not astounding that by 1972, Matheson, who seems (by all accounts) an innocent bystander and observer of facts, makes the passing observation that the doctrine of transubstation “today seems to be dropping slowly but steadily below the Catholic horizon.”

What can this signify, other than that by 1972, in the 7 years since the end of the Vatican Council, the “rot” had well and truly set into the Catholic Church. This was the era when Bendiction and Eucharistic Adoration was being rejected all over the world. This was the era when all sorts of new theories about how the Eucharist “re-presented” Christ came into vogue. This was the era of “breaking bread together on our knees” (or not, as the case may have been). How surprised Matheson would have been to discover that 35 years later, the doctrine of transubstatiation is well and truly on the rebound, with Eucharistic Adoration playing a significant role in the New Evangelisation, having been encouraged by our two great popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Ask any young person who attended World Youth Day in either Cologne or Sydney what the highlight was, and they will tell you: Eucharistic Adoration with the Holy Father. They may not be able to tell you exactly what transubstantiation is, but they will be able to tell you that “That’s Jesus up there”.

So. Matheson was mystified as to why Cardinal Contarini should be so contrary with regard to the doctrine of transubstantiation in his dialouge with the protestant leaders. We today find this so self-evident that to require explanation seems superfluous.


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