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Tim ReidyOctober 18, 2010

From our friends at CARA, an analysis of Catholic attitudes on transubstantiantion:

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey has unearthed evidence of an identity crisis among American Catholics. “More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ” (Pew, p. 8).  Among the American public overall, “about half of those polled (52%) say, incorrectly, that Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine used for Communion are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus” (p. 24).

Unlike the discussions surrounding the last major Pew study with significant implications for the Church I have no doubts of the discourse regarding the latest Catholic results. It is very likely the case that only about 55% of Catholics are aware of what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the Real Presence. At the same time, as someone who has been surveying Catholics nationally for nearly a decade I know there is still a deeper story to tell.

There is a gap in Catholics’ knowledge of their Church’s teachings and what their beliefs are. It may be a classic case of source amnesia. Other recent surveys (including CARA’s) indicate six in ten to three-quarters of Catholics believe in the Real Presence. This is most likely among those who attend Mass frequently.  Strangely enough, many Catholics believe what their Church teaches without realizing that their Church teaches it.

Catholics fit into four groups regarding the Real Presence. The first are the Knowledgeable Believers who know what the Church teaches regarding the Eucharist and also express a belief in this teaching. Because majorities of Catholics believe and know of these teachings it is also the case that some percentage of Catholics falls in the group of the Faithfully Unaware. These are truly rebels without a cause who believe in the Real Presence but believe they are doing so (wrongly of course) in opposition to what the Church teaches. It is also the case that some percentage of the Catholic population must be unaware of the Church teaching and also unbelieving in the Real Presence. Although disappointing, there is hope in these “Uns” (unbelieving and unknowing) as these Catholics may come to believe what the Church teaches if they became aware of it. The Church will likely have a more difficult time winning over the Knowledgeable Doubters. These Catholics are aware of what the Church teaches but say they do not believe it.

Tim Reidy


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Bill Collier
13 years 9 months ago
Catholics so un(der)-catechized that they don't understand Real Presence?

Real Problem.
Stephen Murray
13 years 9 months ago
They will find out for themselves eventually either in this world or the one promised.
Andy Buechel
13 years 9 months ago
I'm not sure, but the phrasing of some of these questions is confusing to me.  Did the questioners ask if the Catholics believed in the Real Presence?  Or that the species becomes the Body and Blood of Christ?  It seems that many who would affirm the former might be more hesitant about the second, not for lack of belief, but because of difficulties in terminology. 

The Eucharistic species do become the Body and Blood of Christ at the level of their essence, but not their accidents.  Yet, for most moderns, that which is philosophically accidental (i.e., appearance, etc.) may be what they think of when they are asked, ''Is this the body and blood of Jesus''?  Our ''substance'' (akin to ''stuff,'' what is empircally discernable) is not the same as substantia (a philosophical principle of unity).  When asked, Does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, are some Catholics thinking, ''Well, clearly it doesn't insofar as it's not skin and literal blood, with the consistency and taste (like in some of the medieval Eucharistic miracles)''?  Following from this, the Eucharist elements ARE symbolic (though not ''merely'' symbolic).  The physical, risen Jesus is not standing in front of us, but is truly present under another mode.  But for modern, common sense epistemology, it is the physical which the substantial. 

In other words, it seems that on issues as complicated as this, the phrasing of the question is extremely important, and asking about what something ''is'' or ''isn't'' when one is dealing in realms of symbol, sacrament, and modern notions of physicality may not be sufficient in getting at what people really believe or know.  The language of Real Presence helps to avoid some of these difficulties, it seems to me.
David Nickol
13 years 9 months ago
''In other words, it seems that on issues as complicated as this, the phrasing of the question is extremely important . . . . ''


Below is the actual question from the survey, including the instructions to the person asking the question. The fact that the difference between the number of Catholics who got it wrong and the number of the general public who got it wrong was a few percentage points is an absolutely devastating indicator about how ignorant Catholics are when it comes to one of the most fundamental teachings of their own religion. There's no getting round it. 

44. Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for communion?
1 The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or
2 The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ
3 (DO NOT READ) Other
D (DO NOT READ) Don't know
R (DO NOT READ) Refused
Joss Heywood
13 years 9 months ago
Given David's explanation of the actual question and Andy explanation of the philosophy behind it, which is so far from everyday understanding of "actuality", I suggest that in fact both statements in the questionnaire are incorrect, and that it is time a new theological language was developed to make the doctrine more comprehensible to all varieties of Catholics.
Craig McKee
13 years 9 months ago
Not to worry, I am sure that the NEW ROMAN MISSAL translations will clear up all these theological misunderstandings.
Andy Buechel
13 years 9 months ago

I think that you're right about the general status of Catholic knowledge on the question.  Though I also agree with Joss's view that we need new language.  If I had been asked the question, I would have found that both 1 and 2 are completely accurate statements of Catholic belief, in their own ways (especially because the all important ''merely'' is not there in option 2).  And again, as Joss points out, that word ''actual'' might mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. 

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