Well, William E. Carroll believes that he is. In an article in The Catholic Thing — Catholics have so many journals and newspapers, organisations and institutions, that they seem to be running out of names for them! — called “The Dawkins Challenge“, Carroll thinks he has caught Dawkins out in a contradiction — ‘hoist by his own petar’,’ as Hamlet says of his uncle Claudius, the king, whose letters to the King of England, borne by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (R & G), are supposed to compass Hamlet’s destruction. But Hamlet alters the letters, so that R & G become the victims, and Claudius is “hoist by his own petar’,” while Hamlet — delving “a yard below their mines, … blow[s] them at the moon.” A petard is a small bomb or mine (in contemporary French, a firecracker), leaned against or attached to a gate or barrier to weaken or destroy it. Has Dawkins blown himself up with his own bomb?
Here’s Carroll’s argument:
Dawkins, in recent statements, has said that Catholics should be held to account for their nutty belief in transubstantiation. According to Catholic dogma the bread and the wine of the Eucharist really become — that is, metaphysically change their substance — from bread and wine to “body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.” According to Catholic doctrine, while the substance changes, the accidents do not. As Carroll says:
The rationale behind the doctrine, which is known as transubstantiation, employs categories of substance and accident, which have their origin in the philosophy of Aristotle. According to the Church, the underlying substances of bread and wine are replaced by the body and blood of Christ while the external appearances of bread and wine remain. A scientific analysis of the consecrated host and wine would only detect these external appearances.
Now, this is an amazingly nutty thing to believe, as Dawkins says, and the Church should be ridiculed for teaching it as revealed doctrine. There is nothing — absolutely nothing — in the supposed revelation of God to Christians, that either suggests or implies this doctrine. When the gospel Jesus says, at the Last Supper, “This is my body” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you” (Luke 22.19), or when Paul says “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10.16), there is simply no reasonable understanding of these words, as then spoken (that is, supposing that the gospel records are accurate reports of what a man called Jesus, who was shortly to be crucified, actually spoke on that occasion), that implies either that Jesus is speaking other than figuratively, or that Paul is interpreting the words in terms of a strictly literal meaning.
It is significant, I think, that the words themselves include an implicit anti-Jewish claim: that God’s covenant with the Jews has been nullified by their refusal to recognise Jesus as their messiah and saviour, and that Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, marks a new covenant in blood. (What for Christians is the old, the Jewish covenant, was sealed in blood. See Exodus 24.8: “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’.”) Nor is it insignificant that the acceptance of the doctrine of transubstantiation by the Church marks the beginning of the of accusations that Jews secretly take the consecrated wafers and desecrate them (see Host Desecration in Wikipedia). Also closely associated is the Blood Libel or Blood Accusation against the Jews. According to the Wikipedia article on Blood Libel:
Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an article in 1993 that argues that blood libel may have originated in the 12th century from Christian views of Jewish behavior during the First Crusade.
Though I am not an historian, I do not find this convincing. Both host desecration and blood libel seem to have occurred together. That Jews should be suspected of killing Christian children and using their blood to make Passover matzoh too closely shadows the idea of transubstantiation to be intelligible apart from it. Since transubstantiation was accepted by the Lateran Council in 1215, early in the thirteenth century, it must have been extensively discussed by theologians during the twelfth century, thus explaining both the increasing accusation of blood libel and host desecration at the time.
The doctrine, as stated, and its rationale, may have seemed reasonable to medieval theologians, but it cannot seem reasonable today, and for precisely the reasons that Carroll suggests. A scientific analysis of the bread and wine will not, as Carroll says, issue in the discovery of real flesh and blood, but it will take you to the particles of modern physics. Now, here comes the petard:
In Australia, [says Carroll] Dawkins observed that to take seriously the views of contemporary science, especially the cosmology that argues about getting something from “absolutely nothing,” we need to be willing to move well beyond our “common sense” understandings of the world. … According to Dawkins, the “whole point of modern physics is that you cannot do it by ‘common sense’.”
And then he says, supposing that Dawkins is still around after he lit the fuse:
This from a man who ridiculed the use of the word “body” in Catholic teaching about the Eucharist because it went against common sense.
Thus “hoist by his own petar”!
But this is nonsense! Carroll, who is, as the credits at the bottom of his article say, Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars — a Permanent Private Hall, not a college, of the – University of Oxford, does not seem to understand that this is not just a matter of technical vocabulary. He thinks it still makes sense, in the age of science, to suppose that Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’) language of substance and accidents is a useful way of understanding the world. Substance, as the intrinsic essence of a thing, is usefully distinguished, according to Carroll, from the accidents, those things which are contingently attributable to the thing. A dog’s “dogness” is independent of its contingent properties — such as those features which distinguish it from other breeds of dogs. Early empiricists like John Locke used the language of “primary” and “secondary” qualities in a similar way, though dropping the idea that real essences exist “out there” in the world (though I acknowledge that there is some dispute whether Locke was a nominalist or a conceptualist). Primary qualities are those that belong to an object as it exists, physically, “out there” in the real world, independently of being perceived, and secondary qualities were those that belong to the object as it is perceived by the mind. Thus, the colour red belongs to consciousness, and is a secondary quality, while the properties of the object which cause it to reflect light only within the red spectrum are primary, and belong to the object itself.
Carroll seems to miss the point that scientists, in accounting for appearances, not only need a technical vocabulary, but need evidence for the deep structure of physical reality. The results of observation, theory construction and confirmation yield a picture of reality that is completely at odds with “common sense” — that is, with our ordinary perception of the world. Physical reality has been shown to be composed of particles and forces which are not perceptible by our sense organs. Indeed, what appears to us as immovable and solid is mainly empty space, and nothing, as Krauss says (again quoting Carroll — Krauss’s words in quotes):
”… is every bit as physical as something” and accordingly we need “to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities,” that “without science, any definition is just words.”
For most of us (perhaps — though certainly for me) understanding modern physics is often a mental stretch too far. Our common sense view of the world is turned into a roiling sea of particles and forces, or strings and wave functions that are describable only mathematically. But the important point is that physicists can provide evidence that this is the way the world is. And, moreover, as Hawking says, it works.
But this is not the case with theology. So, let’s complete the quotation (in bold) used earlier:
This from a man who ridiculed the use of the word “body” in Catholic teaching about the Eucharist because it went against common sense. The vocabulary of faith, like that of physics, needs to be understood in technical terms. But Dawkins does not allow for the kind of specialized vocabulary in theology and philosophy that he is so willing to grant to physics.
By throwing in the word ‘philosophy’ Carroll apparently thinks he has avoided the justified retort about evidence. But, whatever else philosophy may be able to do, it cannot create things from pure reason. Obviously, Carroll still thinks that Aquinas (following Aristotle) was right, and that we can deduce, from premises about the objects of mathematics and universal terms, the existence of an eternal world, and that, in those terms, it makes perfect sense to speak of mere bread (and a particularly “cardboardy,” tasteless bread at that) as the body of Christ. This, says Carroll, is a fundamental truth, that even Catholics shrink from defending:
The body of Christ, present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, although real (neither symbolic nor metaphorical), is vastly different from the ordinary bodies subject to empirical analysis. It is sacramental presence and theology, aided by philosophy, that help to make intelligible what is believed.
Notice how “what is believed” (and the rather shadowy “sacramental presence”) comes first, and then theology comes along, and with a particular philosophy which only has currency within Catholic circles, makes such belief “intelligible.” However, Dawkins is well away from his petard at this point, and is not hoisted by it.
As Carroll says at the end of his article, rather plaintively, I think:
Catholics need to be ready to take up this challenge [to defend belief in transubstantiation]. The arguments in theology and philosophy may not seem compelling — or even worthy of rational attention — to Dawkins and his followers. But informed Catholics ought to be far better prepared to use reason itself to defend what they believe on faith.
The case is hopeless. Regardless of how often Catholics like Carroll repeat the claim that they are using philosophical reason, philosophy, which is a discipline of critical thought and conceptual clarification, cannot be used to establish the claims of faith. For this there must be evidence, and, in the case of transubstantiation, there is none. It is a belief without foundation, either in the biblical text, or in our knowledge about the world. It is as groundless as many Catholic moral beliefs: doctrinaire, repetitious and wrong.