In the Western Latin or Roman Church, the last great father/theologian before the Dark Ages was St. Augustine, who summarized Church teaching on a number of matters including the concept of sacraments. Augustine summarized the sacramental theology of the four centuries prior to his own as “a sign of a sacred thing” and “always efficacious even when they were not spiritually fruitful.” (Martos, 46) Interestingly, though, Augustine’s definition of sacramental practice was remarkably broad: praying the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the Nicene Creed, making the Sign of the Cross, and receiving the ashes of penance were considered as actions that effected the presence and saving power of God.
Augustine's native North Africa was severely disarranged by Vandal invasions in the fifth century, and then later by the ascendancy of Islam on the African continent. Western Europe was similarly disrupted for the balance of the first millennium. Christianity did not come to an end, to be sure. As a rule, the Church would eventually come to grips with the new demographic, in many cases quite spectacularly if one considers the Franks (think Pepin and Charlemagne) and the Irish. Church missionaries took with them the practices of the mother church, which held the basic principle that a powerful God effected good things in particular rites, practices, and customs. At times missionary work did boil down to whose god was more practically effective; arguments over religion were not settled in university colloquies, at least not in 600 A.D. It is also true that new cultures inevitably added new interpretations and customs to the ancient Christian lifestyle. Ireland’s adaptation of personal and repeatable forgiveness is a good case in point.
In his Doors to the Sacred (2014) Martos also notes that there was a kind of interplay between the theory of the sacrament and the practice of the sacrament. Sometimes the practice reshaped the theory, or vice versa. When Augustine laid out the nature of original sin as transmitted by conception from the line of Adam, the urgency of baptizing infants became part of the Christian life, and the local (parish) priest was entrusted with this time pressured responsibility. However, the laying on of hands to confer the Holy Spirit was believed to be the obligatory responsibility of a bishop, and given the dangerous travel and distances of the time, bishops might not see their villages for years at a time. Thus the anointing of the Spirit became a “stand alone” sacrament which in turn would develop its own raison d’etre. Any of us confirmed in the 1950’s to become “soldiers of Christ” can vouch for that.
As is often the case it takes a good controversy to jumpstart a powerful theological debate, and by the 1000’s the Church could worry less about the Vikings and turn to one of the landmark sacramental developmental moments, the teaching of Berengar of Tours (999-1088 A.D.) and the Church’s response. The Wikipedia article linked here gives evidence that very early medieval churchmen and thinkers had been wrestling with the nature of the Eucharistic sacrament for perhaps a century. In brief, Berengar wrote and taught that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass did not literally become the body and blood of Christ. He did not deny that a Christian received the real presence of Christ, but that this took place in a spiritual way. To Berengar, the realities of bread and wine remained just that, signs of the Body of Christ; the communicant would receive both the real bread and wine (the sign) and the invisible but real Mysterium of the sacrament, the invisible working of God, the feeding of the soul unto everlasting life.
Berengar was a much respected churchman and scholar. He was not a renegade, though he could be pugnacious. His problems arose from his resistance to what might be called exaggerated realism in matters of the Eucharist. In the ninth century a scholar had claimed that Christ’s Eucharistic body was the same as his glorified body in heaven. Churchmen of the day understood that this proposition was not quite right, but they struggled to explain why. Berengar drew from Augustine’s definition of a sacrament as a “visible sign of invisible grace,” to provide a possible solution. For him the visible sign was the collective bread and wine; the invisible reality was union with Christ. In his thinking it was not necessary to proclaim a miraculous change of material substance.
As far as we know, Berengar himself died in the good graces of the Church. Despite several Church trials and censures, history’s final judgment of Berengar may be that he erred in attempting to achieve a kind of sacramental consistency. Augustine’s dual description—outer sign, inner grace—would not quite be enough to describe the complexity of the sacramental system, and the process of how sign and reality interworked. The Eucharist presented unique challenges in the sense that of all the sacraments, only in the Eucharist do the signs becomes divine (the bread and wine become the Second Person of the Trinity.) No one ever claimed that baptismal water or sacred chrism became divine, so to speak, though the believer certainly experienced God if so disposed.
Berengar was among the first of the medieval scholars to introduce the complexities of the sacramental experience. While the sacramental model of outward sign and inward reality would maintain virtually to our present day, the precise elaboration of this process would be considerably challenging for each sacrament. One of the significant challenges of the age of the medieval universities was rethinking and reformulating a variety of aspects of sacramental life, not least of which was determining a universal understanding of what precisely which experiences were sacraments, an issue finally resolved at the Second Council of Lyons (1272-1274) with the number seven, as we know them today. (St. Thomas Aquinas died en route to this council.)
Berengar’s definition of the Eucharistic process, by the way, came to be known as “consubstantiation.” The official doctrinal Catholic term for the change of the bread and the wine was and remains “transubstantiation,” meaning that the bread and wine cease to exist in their substance as food and become the actual body and blood of Christ. Consubstantialists would hold that the bread and wine remains intact but that one communes with God all the same in the act of receiving communion. Many Protestant churches hold to some resemblance of consubstantiation in their theologies of communion.
The term “transubstantiation” calls for belief in an actual change of substance. Many historians hold that the Latin phrase from the Mass which changes the bread into the Eucharist, Hoc est enim corpus meum (or “this is my body”) became an object of ridicule among enemies of the Church, from which comes the magician’s phrase, “hocus pocus.”
To satisfy my own curiosity, I checked to see if there is research on what Catholics today believe regarding the Eucharist. I came across a CARA study in 2008 (entire study here) which addresses our issue with Berengar:
Nine in ten weekly Mass attendees (91 percent) say they believe that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist, compared to two-thirds of those who attend Mass less than weekly but at least once a month (65 percent), and four in ten of those attending Mass a few times a year or less (40 percent). Among Catholics attending Mass at least once a month, the youngest generation of Catholics (born after 1981) has similar beliefs about the Eucharist as Pre-Vatican II Generation Catholics (born before 1943).