Why the Eucharist is confusing for many Catholics (and survey researchers)


A fundamental difference in the centuries since the Protestant Reformation between the teachings and practice of the Catholic Church and that of most Protestant denominations has centered on what one believes happens at the celebration of the Eucharist.

Unlike (most of) their Protestant brethren, Catholics profess that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine on the altar really and truly become the body and blood of Christ.

In addition to pointing toward the reality of Christ (in the sense of a symbol), they are also themselves a source of sanctifying grace (a sacrament) because Christ is really and truly (not merely symbolically) present in them.

But do Catholics really and truly believe that?

A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that “most self-described Catholics don’t believe this core teaching.

In fact, nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69 percent) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’”

In other words, “just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31 percent) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”

“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Flannery O'Connor

That result might dismay Flannery O’Connor, and it also leads to a fair amount of consternation among catechists, pastors and people in the pews because it suggests an institutional and pastoral failure to communicate a core doctrine of the faith to several generations of Catholics.

It also led to some alarmed and some gleeful headlines and online clickbait.

  • “Most U.S. Catholics Reject the Idea That Eucharist is the Literal Body of Christ”;
  • “Poll: 7 in 10 US Catholics Don’t Believe in Real Presence”;
  • “Majority of Catholics believe the wine and bread are simply symbolic.”

Not new, and maybe not that accurate

But this is not new.

In a 1994 article in The New York Times, religion correspondent Peter Steinfels reported the following: “Yet when a representative sample of American Catholics were asked which statement came closest to ‘what you believe takes place at mass,’ only 1 out of 3 chose ‘the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s body and blood’.”

In other words, the percentage of U.S. Catholics who expressed a belief in the Eucharist that entirely lines up with the Catholic Church’s teaching on transubstantiation has not changed at all in a quarter of a century.

Even apart from the clickbait headlines suggesting Catholic belief in the Eucharist has recently collapsed, there are other problems with this survey and the way it has been reported.

For example, 43 percent of the respondents in the Pew survey both believed that the Eucharist is a symbol and thought that is what the church teaches.

In other words, while only 1 out of 3 Catholics gets the theology right, another 4 out of 10 understand themselves to believe what (they think) the church teaches.

Far from “rejecting” belief in the Real Presence, many of these Catholics would likely affirm it, if their understanding of church teaching were clarified or if the question were more exact.

One reason to expect that many of the “disbelievers” Pew found might really be believers is that other recent surveys with differently worded questions got very different results.

As Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate explains, a study in 2011 found that 46 percent of Catholics understood the church’s teaching and believed in the Real Presence, and another 17 percent believed in it without understanding the teaching. (This agrees with data from CARA surveys in 2001 and 2008, which found that around 6 in 10 Catholics believed Jesus was really present in the Eucharist.)

What might explain the difference?

The surveys that found higher agreement used the terms “really becomes” or “really present,” whereas Pew used “actually becomes.”

And when describing the “symbol” option, they were a bit clearer about what that meant too—the 2011 survey described that option as the bread and wine being “only symbols,” and in the 2001 and 2008 surveys, the option was the “bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present.”

When language more familiar to Catholics is used and the surveys are clearer about what is being denied by the “symbol” answer, belief in the Eucharist is nearly double what Pew found. Continue reading

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

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