In July, the Pew Research Center, a widely respected polling firm, released a report: “What Americans Know About Religion.” The report discovered that among people who self-described themselves as Catholics, 31 percent believed that during the Mass “the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” The remaining 69 percent answered that the bread and wine “are symbols of the body and blood of Christ.” It is noteworthy that among those who answered that the bread and wine are symbols, 22 percent knew that the Church teaches that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Jesus, but do not believe it.
This is deeply discouraging news. The Eucharist, the bread and wine at Mass, is truly the body and blood of Christ. The Church teaches that our communion with the Lord at Mass, united with our brothers and sisters in the Lord, is the “source and summit” of our faith life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The other sacraments, and indeed all of ecclesial ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are orientated toward it.”
The release of this study caused discussion among Catholic educators. Some helpful observations have surfaced. Broadly speaking there are two tendencies which commentators have cautioned against.
The first tendency is to conclude that there is a “loss” in the belief in the Eucharist. The study did not compare the number of self-described Catholics who believe in the Real Presence today and with those in years past. In order to conclude this, however, there would have to be a previous study for comparison. There does not appear to be one in order to draw conclusions about where belief in the Real Presence has declined and, if so, to what extent.
We may wish to think that there was a Golden Moment in Church life when everyone knew and believed what the Church teaches, but that would require data to support that thought, otherwise is an opinion, not a fact. The Pew report does indicate that Catholics over the age of 60, most of whom were educated before the Second Vatican Council, reported a somewhat higher belief in the Real Presence than younger Catholics, but even among this older group only 53 percent knows what the Church teaches and only 35 percent believes it.
The Pew Study now provides a study which can be used to compare beliefs with a future study but there would have to exist a pervious study before a conclusion could be reached as to whether belief in the Eucharist has declined and to what extent.
The second tendency is to suggest there is a “silver bullet” which would increase belief in the Eucharist. We may wish to identify that if some action was done, belief would greatly increase. For example, some would suggest that if only people would not receive Communion in the hand, or if only there were public displays of our belief in the Eucharist, etc., things would be different.
Again these are opinions, not fact. In order to show that these would make a difference, then it would be necessary to show that in those places in Europe where people do not receive Communion in the hand, or where there are public displays of faith in the Eucharist, that belief in the Eucharist is stronger. For example, there are countries in Europe where the Feast of Corpus Christi, the day when we celebrate that the Eucharist is real, is a public holiday celebrated with significant processions. It would be interesting to know if in those places belief in the Eucharist is higher than in the US, especially since in some of those same places in Europe attendance at Mass is abysmally low.
No, the issue is much more complicated than a silver bullet solution. One statistic in the Pew study which caused me great concern is that 22 percent of Catholics know the teaching of the Church and do not accept it. Although it is essential to provide a sound education in the faith, (and I plan to write more on the Eucharist in some future articles) education in the Church teaching of the Real Presence, important as it is, alone is not sufficient. The challenge is more complex. The Pew report shows that knowledge of the Church’s teaching of the Real Presence does not necessarily lead to belief.
All this will require considerable reflection, prayer and effective efforts in a variety of ways. The Lord has given us the priceless gift of His body and blood. We must do our utmost to take this teaching to heart, share this teaching with others, and call people to belief in the Lord’s own words: “This is my body … this is my blood.”