A Chemist Believes in Transubstantiation

Grace's Baptism“I only wish that Catholics would really cherish the word ‘is’ even though science cannot say anything about it.” Those are the words of Fr. Stanley Jaki, priest and physicist, during a lecture given at St. John’s University on February 20, 2003. I didn’t read that until recently, but it just so happens that this lecture was given on my thirty-fourth birthday, a time when I was rethinking the meaning of life. A year later, pregnant with our second daughter, I decided to become Catholic, and during those days I pondered the meaning of that little word, as a chemist, a mother, and a convert. Christ said, “This is my body.” I believed it because if that is not true, then what Christ said is not true, and there is no hope for redemption.

But how can a chemist believe that bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, even when they still look, taste, and smell like bread and wine? Easy. The mastery of chemistry demands that you believe things exist and change in ways invisible the unaided eye. I’ve never seen an atom; I don’t know what protons and neutrons look like; I’ve never watched electrons orbit. I can only visualize the formation of covalent or ionic bonds as they are made and broken while matter and energy are conserved for all time. Yet, I know that every physical substance in existence is made of these things, be it bread or blood or my great-great-great grandmother’s earthly body. Atoms or subatomic particles do not determine what a substance is. God, who made everything, does.

Like any physical science, chemistry is, admittedly, limited to physical properties, but as a mother it was naturally intuitive that science doesn’t have the final say about what something is. I knew my children, even in the womb, were more than lumps of matter, and as their bodies changed, I knew it was still the same child. Even more, I had no difficulty accepting that while appearances remained the same, the substance could be changed, for I believed it of myself. I believed that the grace of Christ would transform me — same physical body, new creature.

By the way, I named that daughter Grace. I wasn’t received into the Church for two more years, but we have never missed a Sunday Mass since her birth because even when I wasn’t in full Communion, I wanted to be in His presence. Cherish it? I sure do Fr. Jaki.

17 Replies to “A Chemist Believes in Transubstantiation”

  1. Stanley Jaki rules!

    I was especially influenced by his long lecture series, published in his book, The Road of Science and the Ways to God. Especially: Is it reasonable to expect that laws of nature should exist?

  2. As a former chemistry teacher I say Amen! It is with, not against, my intellect and knowledge that I believe. St. Thomas said it right when he said our senses are defective, unable, to see but faith and reason allow us to.

  3. “I knew it was still the same child. …same physical body, new creature.”
    I have wondered about something like this. Scientist tell us that our body’s chemical components changes over time. That the molecules are replaced and the components of our bodies are broken down and replaced (always new protein, amino acids, etc. in) With the old stuff excreted. I suppose the only thing that has remained in my tired old 55 year old body is the mineral in my teeth (that haven’t been turned into metal, porcelain , composite yet. Yet.) But my mind has never felt that I am new during this chemical turnover. Except when I come to our Lord in communion.

  4. Thank you Orshio, Tim, and Paula. Our five youngest and one grandchild have worn that gown. It was a gift from my husband’s parents.

    X Contra, Jaki has had a very strong influence on me too. I am currently writing a Master’s thesis about his work and have read a number of his books in the last three years. It all started with the book “The Savior of Science” which I suspect is much like the book you read.

    Teomatteo, yes!

  5. It is worth noting, I think, since science only deals with that which is observable (whether directly by our senses or with the aid of instruments), it can never deal with the substance of things. It’s understanding is limited to the accidents only.

  6. I too am a chemist (although I finished my degree 15 years ago, so it might be more strictly true to say that I was a chemist) and I likewise never had any trouble believing in transubstantiation. But thanks for casting some light on to the way in which a chemistry viewpoint can actually help belief in the Real Presence. I think you’re right that an awareness of the sheer depth and complexity of the material world opens one to its mystery and therefore to the possibility of deeper mystery (Deep Magic and Deeper Magic…).

  7. It is a good subject for the Master thesis. I need to read more of his writings. Actually, everybody needs to read more of his writings!!

    The Real Presence, everything about the Eucharist — the more I learn about quantum field theory and relativity, the more reasonable it seems that the most astounding aspects of the Eucharist should be true. It is good.

  8. I am a medical technologist. I know human blood. I can describe its cells, measure its chemical constituents and detect all sorts of molecules in it. What I receive in Communion looks and tastes like wine.

    But so it was with Jesus. He appeared to be just a man. You could see Him, hear Him and touch Him like the Apostles did. You could even make Him bleed real human blood. It was only on Easter Morning that another reality was shown. To say that something is only what it appears to be is to assume the reductionist fallacy of materialism. To say that God is restricted to the laws of the physical universe is to say that there is no God. If there is a God, then He can do things we can’t do or can’t understand but are nevertheless real. The documented Eucharistic miracles show us that, as does the phenomenon of the Incorruptibles. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in materialist philosophy.

  9. Chemists and physicists often have trouble understanding the concept of ‘changing substance’.

    As a scientist myself, however, I never had a problem with the Real Presence as I always understood that ‘substance’ in the theological sense means something very different than in the chamical-physical meaning.

    What actually we physicists and chemists call ‘substance’ is what in the theology of the Eucharist is called ‘accidens’, and indeed the accidens remain unchanged (so a consacrated host has no different chemical or physical properties than a non-consacrated host).

    The real problem mightr arise if a scientist is a ‘meterialist’ (i.e. believes that only the material world exists). That cannot be proven by science either, however.

  10. You’re right and thank you for stating so, “even though” you’re a chemist!- Substance chances, chemical composition does not. In addition to learning how to interpret “is” like yourself, I also had to learn what “substance” was and study that one.

    I became Catholic in my 20’s as well, but before I was confirmed I assessed that so much rests on transubstantiation that if that bread does NOT turn in to the flesh of the creator of the universe, Christianity is a nice set of ideas to live by and nothing more… If it’s viewed as a metaphor, then it’d also contradict Jn 6:60- noting that it’s hard to believe, to which Jesus didn’t contend one bit and as a matter of fact, actually let people walk away because of it in Jn 6:66. As a teacher, if they got it wrong than he had a moral obligation to clear that part up, say with a parable like he did with ALL his teachings, except that one.

    For, to this very day people still turn their back and do not follow him for this, specific, teaching!!

    Great post and I look forward to more from you!

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