Missal Moments VII: “… consubstantial with the Father…”

Hitherto in the Nicene Creed at Mass we have professed faith in Christ who is “of one Being with the Father”; from now on we shall be professing faith in Christ who is “consubstantial with the Father”.

This is probably the most controversial change in the Creed, even more than the oft-maligned and usually misunderstood change back to “I believe” at its beginning (which is the subject of Missal Moments I). No links will be given to critiques online, firstly because the more coherent ones usually complain mainly that the change is bad English, and secondly because many critiques themselves, or more often the comments attached by others to them, ending up being rants of the most unhelpful kind, all heat and little light.

In fact, when one has pruned away the excess of polemic and hyperbole in most critiques, the criticisms seem mainly to consist of three principal objections:

  1. that “consubstantial” is an ugly, jarring word, less mellifluous than “of one Being”
  2. that “consubstantial” is an unfamiliar word, whereas “being” is a word familiar to all
  3. that, moreover, “consubstantial” is incomprehensible to most people, and is an example if literalism in translation taken to an extreme.
As it is, one can accept points one and two. It is a clunky word, and quite unfamiliar to most people. Accepting those points, however, one is forced to state also that, however true, they are irrelevant in the context. As to the third, the word, though relatively unknown, is quite comprehensible, and if transliteration has been used with a heavy hand, it is a for a very good reason, and one that is relevant in the context. So let us take each point at a time.

Regarding (1), while “consubstantial” is a less than elegant word, that is of little importance in the context of the Creed. The Creed is said at Mass as a renewal of each individual’s baptismal profession of faith, by which Catholics affirm to the Church there gathered that are able to approach the altar and receive the Lord’s Body. Having professed the Catholic faith and being baptised into the Church, they are in communion with the Church and so able to receive the sacrament of Communion. The Creed is, thus, a summary of the essential dogmatic faith that Catholics share. The Creed, though it can be sung (and we do sing it here), is not a hymn. It is a theological statement. In theology lyricism has a much lesser value than precision, if it has any real value at all.

Moreover, we should remember that in the early Church, from which our Creed emerges, people fought and died and were anathematized over the words used to describe the nature of Christ and his relationship to the Father, to the Trinity, to his mother Mary, and to us. Words mean a lot in theology and in faith. That is why it is essential to ensure that the words we use are accurate in expressing the faith of the Church. In the Church’s basic and essential summary of faith, of all places, there is no room for ambiguity or vagueness.

So if “consubstantial” does not roll sweetly of the tongue, that is of little importance. The word is a precise and accurate rendering of the doctrine of the Church on Christ’s divine nature, and to it we must subscribe if we are to be Catholics in fact and not just in name. By way of analogy, to complain of the inelegance of “consubstantial” would be as relevant and pertinent as a patient complaining about being diagnosed  with  chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. What ugly inelegant words. Yet how irrelevant an observation that is. The precision of the name allows the doctor to prescribe the best course of treatment, for the treatment would perhaps be different from that for chronic myeloid leukaemia. Precision of diagnosis is what is important here, not its elegance. The principle holds true for the Creed.

Coming now to point (2), which derives somewhat from the first point, we can ask the question now whether the familiarity of the word is relevant here, and if so, in what way. On one level, the observation that the word “consubstantial” is unfamiliar is irrelevant. On a purely human, daily level, are we to ignore and eliminate all words we use or come across because they are unfamiliar? If so, however would we learn language? Children’s vocabularies grow only by encountering unfamiliar words, learning their meaning, and so being able to use them. What is more, the vocabularies of adults grow in the same way. That is why we have dictionaries. In the realm of faith, this is why we have the Catechism. If we encounter a theological word that is unfamiliar, we should look it up and learn what it means. This is how we grow in depth of knowledge of our faith.

Yet on another level, the familiarity of “consubstantial” has some relevance. For it begs the question that if this is a basic theological term used to express a foundational dogma of the Church, why then is it so unfamiliar to some Catholics? Perhaps it says something of their own knowledge of the teachings of the Church of which they are professing members. It might just as well reflect the inadequacy of much religious education in recent times. To that extent the familiarity of “consubstantial” is of some relevance.

Lastly, regarding point (3), I suspect that often people are extrapolating from unfamiliarity to incomprehensibility as they these two words were synonymous. They are not. To say “I have never seen this word before and so this word is incomprehensible to me” is to an irrational conclusion. That a person does not know the meaning of a word does not make that word of itself incomprehensible. An incomprehensible word is one that no one understands. It is clearly demonstrable that many do understand the word “consubstantial”.

What is more, in the context, we all know what this word is replacing, namely “of one Being”. That itself provides the best clue as to the meaning of this word. Of course, if you did not understand what “of one Being” meant in the previous version of the creed, then you will not understand the word used in the revised version. But that is hardly the word’s fault; it would be yours.

Of course I suspect that many Catholics could not adequately explain what “of one Being” really meant. The few times I have pushed the point, I have found that many people end up interpreting “being” according to its most familiar usage, in “human being”. Not a bad start, except that for many people an unthinking equation is made between human being, and human individual, and so on to human person. But one thing the Son is definitely not one person with the Father! The Trinity is three separate Persons, and the Son is one of them. They are all divine persons, and that is what they share – the divine nature, or divine essence, or divine substance, or divine being if you must. In this context, “being” is an imprecise and ambiguous term. As noted above, what the Creed must never be is imprecise or ambiguous. The Creed expresses the very basics of Christian truth, basics of which we can be certain.

So while the word “consubstantial” might not win prizes in a linguistic beauty parade, it is nevertheless an accurate translation of the Latin and a precise theological term that accurately expresses a fundamental and indispensable truth that we should all know and be familiar with. If the word causes us to search for our Catechism or ask a priest or theologian what it means then surely that is no bad thing. Our faith would have been deepened and strengthened in that very normal and human process. Perhaps some might discover that they did not know this teaching quite as well as they thought they did.

As a general principle perhaps we should be humble enough to accept that, perhaps, if we do not understand an aspect of the teaching of the Church, then the problem not with the teaching but with us. Such humility can only be faith-building and enriching.