A few weeks ago I debated a Reformed Protestant apologist named Nathanael. While the subject of our debate was (ostensibly) sola Scriptura, during the debate Nate raised several other topics, one of which was his disbelief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
I mostly ignored his attacks on the Real Presence. Just as I ignored them on other ancillary topics like the Church’s understanding of Islam. Several commenters told me how hurt they were by Nate’s comments on the Eucharist and some wondered why I didn’t do more to counter-argue.
Firstly, the debate topic wasn’t on the Real Presence. So the fact that he brought it up multiple times didn’t help the debate to stay on the topic we had agreed upon. My interest was in getting to the truth, and specifically to the fundamental differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, of which the theology of the Eucharist, while important, is not at the root. In fact, as I will show, his rejection of the Real Presence is just another symptom of his central error.
Secondly, Nate was not open to hearing evidence for the Real Presence. The tone of his voice, the mocking way he spoke about it (may God have mercy on him, for he does not know what he says), his flimsy argument (that amounted to: “it looks like ordinary bread, therefore it must be”). All these showed me that he just wanted to attack, and he was not capable of having a calm, reasoned discussion on the subject.
So I handled this like I have handled countless other exchanges with Protestant friends of mine. I let the attacks pass like water off the duck’s back and kept focused on the root issues I was trying to help him to understand. I learned long ago that, for people in Nate’s current state of mind and heart, prayer is what is needed. So I prayed for him (and have prayed for him before the Blessed Sacrament many times since). And when I say this I don’t mean I prayed for him in a cavalier way from my ivory tower throne, but I prayed for him as one sinner prays for another, hoping he would discover what I have in the Eucharist.
Realize that if Jesus’ words, “this is my body” don’t mean (to borrow from Luther) that this is His body, we are all in big trouble. If His words, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” mean that His flesh and blood are not true food and drink, then the Bible is dang hard to understand, saying the exact opposite of what it seems to mean.
Realize that I could read Nate the overwhelming number of quotes by the early Christians attesting unequivocally to the Real Presence, and he would not believe it. Because remember, he thinks that the early Church was only “generally reliable” on most doctrines. They goofed on this one, he would say.
No, this kind of doubt is driven out only through prayer.
What is at the root of his erroneous belief, which rejects the Real Presence? Simple, the fact that he is his own ultimate interpretive authority of the Bible.
This is why I pressed this point again and again. He interprets Jesus’ words figuratively and to him, that is what the Bible says. That is what the Bible means. His interpretation is the right one. It is because it is. He submits to no one. Or, he submits only to those who agree with his interpretation, which means he submits only to himself. This is Protestantism.
His only response to this was a version of the tu quoque–“you too”–that the Catholic only submits to the Church because he agrees with it, but in fact that is not the case, as Dr. Bryan Cross (and others) have demonstrated again and again. However Nate did not understand that his argument was rebutted, and so he kept table-pounding it throughout the debate.
The bottom line is, you must discern how best to help someone discover the truth in its fullness. Sometimes, arguments are needed. Historical quotations are needed. Philosophical arguments are needed (substance, form, accidents, causes…). At all times, but sometimes primarily, prayer is needed. Nothing can move a human heart but God’s grace.
And so I pray that Nate and all Protestants are moved to believe in the Real Presence of Christ, through their assent of faith to Christ through His Church, so that they will receive Him in the Holy Eucharist and enjoy all the manifold blessings that come through that intimate union with Christ in the Sacrament of sacraments.