From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Transignification is an idea originating from the attempts of Roman Catholic theologians, especially Edward Schillebeeckx, to better understand the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in light of a new philosophy of the nature of reality that is more in line with contemporary physics.


Transignification suggests that although Christ's body and blood are not physically present in the Eucharist, they are really and objectively so, as the elements take on, at the consecration, the real significance of Christ's body and blood which thus become sacramentally present. As Joseph Martos articulates, "The basic philosophical idea behind it was that significance or meaning is a constitutive element of reality as it is known to human beings, and this is especially true of human realities like attitudes and relationships. Such human realities . . . are known through the meaning those actions have for people". Thus, "the reality of the bread and wine is changed during the mass not in any physical way but in a way which is nonetheless real, for as soon as they signify the body and blood of Christ they become sacramental, embodying and revealing Christ's presence in a way which is experienceably real. In other words, when the meaning of the elements changes, their reality changes for those who have faith in Christ and accept the new meaning that he gave them, whereas for those without faith and who are unaware of their divinely given meaning, they appear to remain bread and wine."[1]

The concept draws from ideas in the linguistic fields of structuralism, developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, and that of semiotics to elaborate on the process of the Eucharist.[2] These fields consider all meaningful signs as being divided into two complementary but indivisible parts, those of signifier and signified, both of which are determined by their psychological reality. In this framework, the Eucharistic Sacrament of the substance of Christ's Body and Blood appearing under the respective accidents of bread and wine would rather be interpreted as the signified (meaningful concept) of Christ's Body and Blood appearing under the signifiers (sensible, perceived impressions) of bread and wine.

It is thus contrasted not only to belief in a physical or chemical change in the elements, but also to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that there is a change only of the underlying reality, but not of anything that concerns physics or chemistry (see transubstantiation). Consequently, the theory has been rejected by the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, in particular in Pope Paul VI's 1965 encyclical Mysterium fidei.[3] However, it is considered to be similar to the Anglican position set forth by Thomas Cranmer in the Thirty-Nine Articles (Number 28).[4]

However, some theorists of transsignification, such as Edward Schillebeeckx, interpret the concept as being a complement, not replacement, to the doctrine of transubstantiation. For Schillebeeckx, the question of the transubstantiation requires a grounding in human perception: perception, he says, exists in a differentiated unity, consisting of both an openness to receiving true reality (the mystery that is God's milieu) through phenomena, and a human giving of meaning to that reality. Consequently, he says, the phenomenal is that "not only the sensory, but also everything that is expressed of the reality itself or concretely appears to us, which is, then, inadequate to what is expressed (the reality as a mystery)." In other words, an objective, mysterious reality exists beyond man and is offered through the stuff of reality, but because all human existence is situated in the limitedness of human senses, it is constituted in human perception by relative meanings--the meanings through which human beings interpret reality--even as this inherent meaning persists. Following from this notion, he concludes that Eucharist is objectively the real presence of Christ, appearing to man as sacramental nourishment, but the "re-creative activity of the Holy Spirit" causes the phenomenal forms of bread and wine to refer to a different reality--and, as a consequence, this change in signification prompts a new human experience of the Eucharist. In other words, while Christ is objectively present in the Eucharist, the human experience of the Eucharist occurs because of a miraculous alteration in meaning.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martos, Joseph. Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Triumph Books, 1991. 259-261.
  2. ^ Eucharist in Postmodernity Archived 2011-07-11 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Mysterium Fidei
  4. ^ Anglicans Online - The Thirty-Nine Articles
  5. ^ Schillebeeckx, Edward. The Eucharist. Burns & Oates, 2005. 150-151.