Saturday, November 28, 2020

David Starkey attacks the Real Presence

The 'commixtum': High Mass for the LMS Pilgrimage
to Our Lady of Guadaloupe at Bedford

Having been “cancelled” by various charities and academic institutions for racism, David Starkey has taken to a new, British, anti-woke magazine, The Critic, to snipe against the “trans” phenomenon, as the champion of common sense against the “experts”. How does he do this? By comparing gender ideology to Catholicism.

In case anyone of intellectual self-respect was inclined to feel sorry for Starkey, allow me to fisk this strange article for you. The idea, you see, is that when transsexuals tell us that they can change sex just by saying so, so the Church says that the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ just by a priest saying some words. This is terribly neat because Starkey can then say that trans ideology is taking us “back to the Middle Ages”.

I should point out in passing that his characterisation of trans ideas is off the mark. As I understand it they take more or less the opposite view to that attributed to them by Starkey: they think that sexual identity is discovered, not invented or asserted, and it is discovered by feelings, not by words. Be that as it may, Starkey’s characterisation of Catholic doctrine is extremely strange. Catholics do not believe that bread and wine can be made into the Body and Blood of Christ by mere assertion: a process, as he puts it,

in which words replace action, the abstract the concrete and pseudo-grammatical structures are imposed (in Russell’s phrase) on “the world-structure”.

The crucial idea entirely missing from Starkey’s article in the action of God: for transubstantiation to take place God must intervene to change the substance of bread into the substance of Christ’s Body, just as Christ changed water into wine, but in this case leaving the bread looking like bread.

In truth it is not clear exactly what Starkey’s objection to transubstantiation actually is. At one point it seems to be the fact that the Consecrated Host still has the appearance of bread: as if it were impossible for one thing to look like another. A crocodile can look a lot like a log floating in a river: if there is a problem here Starkey needs to explain what it is.

At another point Starkey quotes Bertram Russel’s criticism of the notion of Aristotle’s theory of substance, in which Russell claims that substances are subjects of sentences—essentially, nouns—in order to claim that Aristotelians confuse language with reality. But not all the things picked out by nouns are substances in Aristotle’s theory, and while he thought there was a connection between language and reality, the idea was that language and thought reflect reality, not the other way round.

Starkey’s fundamental misunderstanding resembles the idea popular in the Protestant polemics of times past that Catholic theology is super-subtle nonsense and ordinary Catholics are its dupes. This trope may appeal to Starkey’s dislike of experts, but it implies a very low view of ordinary Catholics. The real problem with the polemic, though, is that complex theology and philosophy generally do not lead Catholic doctrine, but follow it.

In this case the point is easy to prove. The use of the term “substance” in relation to the Real Presence did not begin with the followers of Aristotle. In order to be reconciled to the Church, the former heretic Berengarius affirmed in 1079 that the bread and wine “are substantially changed”, and thereafter are the Body and Blood of Christ, not just symbolically, but “in truth and substance”. Yes, it’s all there in Denzinger, §355. When Starkey says that Aristotle’s theory of substance “was adopted wholesale by the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages”, he is referring to a process which began when Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics first appeared in Latin, almost exactly a century later.

Starkey refers to Thomas Hobbes’ attack on Catholic teaching:

it took a lot of learning to spout such nonsense. On the other hand, [Hobbes] observed, the “common sort of men seldom speak insignificantly”.

But the Catholic teaching on the Real Presence has always been understood and defended by the ordinary Catholic faithful, the “common sort of men”, because it’s meaning is perfectly clear. The Consecrated Host, whatever it looks like, really is the Body of Christ, just as Jesus Christ said it was in the Gospels. Technical language was not necessary to convey this truth to Catholics for the first ten centuries of the Church; it became necessary in response to people like Berengarius, or Wycliffe as quoted by Starkey, who sought to turn a simple assertion of fact—a mysterious, miraculous, fact, but a fact all the same—into something terribly complicated about symbolism, which they apparently found easier to believe.

If Starkey wants to defend common sense against the experts, he must ask himself why he has joined the ranks of desiccated intellectuals such as Wycliffe, Hobbes, and Russell to mock the beliefs of the simple faithful. 

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  1. Dr. Shaw, I have written about this issue in the introduction to my humble book Against the Alchemists (, and make the suggestion that alchemy (in which I include the idea of "trans") is the simulation of the only true transformation of essence: transubstantiation. I think Tolkien had the same idea regarding Truth and evil: Truth (the Creator) can make, but evil can only warp or ape. Case in point: Orcs are only twisted and perverted Elves. They are not a newly-made species.

  2. Starkey is another Brendan O'Neill. They're both wannabe reactionary heretics, dressing up their broke tranny-bashing in respectably woke, traditional anti-Catholic bigotry. It's not logical, thoughtful, or educated. And so far as one can tell no one is even fooled by the sleight of hand.

  3. If you think deeply about Starkey you realise that by making such nonsensical claims (as he does about many subjects) enables us to strengthen our Faith in Transubstantiation because there is ALWAYS someone who tries (usually unsuccessfully) to negate the truth. Perhaps Almighty God allows such unbelievers to test our Faith & make it stronger.

  4. Aren't you making rather a meal of the fact that an atheist doesn't believe in the Real Presence? He wouldn't, would he? Instead of impugning his integrity how about praying for his conversion?