The most controversial word up to that date in Christian theology was the Greek homoousios, enshrined at the Nicea council called and presided over by the first Christian (?) Roman emperor, Constantine, in the year 325.
This council said that we must confess that the Son is homoousion with the Father.
What did it mean? Same ousia. Does that clear it up?
OK, here’s more: same being-or-substance-or-essence-or-nature-or-something!
Whatever it was supposed to mean the “Arians” didn’t like it, and at the time, that was good enough. It was supposed to imply that Son, like Father, was “true God”, of divine status – however, unlike the Father, from true God.
Some were concerned in the immediate aftermath that the new formula was somehow modalistic (“Sabellian”). Aside from that fact the the word was first used by a modalist in the 3rd century, you can see why. If ousia is taken to mean individual entity, then it can be read as asserting Father and Son to be numerically identical – so that anything true of one has to be true of the other. However, it’s far from clear that at the time most took it that way.
When they translated the Nicene creed into Latin, homoousion became consubstantialem. In older English translations of the Catholic missal, this was “consubstantial“. But in the post-Vatican II era, there was an urge to clean up, modernize, and clarify liturgical language. Thus, since 1970 they’ve been saying (in English language masses) “one in Being with the Father”.
Some criticize this for suggesting modalism. (Nothing new under the sun, people!) In any case, this translation is on its way out.
The new version will go back to the old rendering:”consubstantial”.
People are criticizing this as being unfathomable to the average Catholic in the pew. Maybe so. But what translation isn’t?
A priest quoted in the New York Times story is more optimistic:
Father Hilgartner said, “We know that people aren’t going to understand it initially, and we’ll have to talk about it. I’ve said to priests, we will welcome and crave opportunities for people to come up and ask us about God. It’s a catechetical opportunity.” (emphasis added)
This, of course, supposes that the priest knows what it means!
One attempt I’ve seen, doesn’t inspire confidence. Here’s the exposition on “consubstantial”:
The Eternal Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, is neither “like” the Father nor “practically the same substance” as the Father. The Eternal Son enjoys the very same substance as the Father. The Son possesses fully the Godhead of the Father.
Ehh… so it means that the Son isn’t like the Father? But he completely has the Father’s… “Godhead”? Clear as mud, I’m afraid.
Here’s a none-too-convincing argument that the new translation is better. Yes, much, much better.
And here’s an odd argument that the old “one in Being” just had to go.
“‘One in being’ is vague and open to misinterpretation,” said Father Roy. “The Father is the source of all being. He is the sole Being whose essence is his existence, and he gives all of us our being and existence. So, to a certain extent, we’re all ‘one in being’ with the Father. That doesn’t say anything unique about Christ.”
But if God is the source of all being, why would it follow that we’re “one in Being” with him? Unless, we’re talking about pantheism!
From the same piece, a priest makes a better point, though I’m not sure it really supports the change in question:
“Just because ‘one in being’ is three simple words in a row doesn’t mean that the average person understands what the phrase means.” (emphasis added)
That’s right. Apples noodle currency.
Maybe they should just be glad they didn’t change it to “of the same substance”.
But wait – if that phrase is even less intelligible, maybe it’d be all the more suitable! Check out another priest’s argument:
“When people first hear they’ll be saying ‘consubstantial,’ their first response is, ‘I don’t know what that means. Why can’t we use a word I understand?’” said Father Hilgartner. “But we’re talking about a mystery that no one fully understands and that can’t be fully articulated. In some ways the use of the word helps us confront the mystery, to stand before the mystery.”
I sort of agree with the spirit of this remark. Some initial confusion can be a good thing, if it stimulates inquiry and learning. But that “initial” is important!