Explainer: Why the Eucharist is confusing for many Catholics (and survey researchers)
In The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, a letter from O’Connor to a recipient identified only as “A” recounts the story of a dinner party O’Connor attended in 1955:
Well, toward morning the conversation had turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.”
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.
Flannery O'Connor on the Eucharist: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."
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.’”
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 (no, we won’t link to any of them here): “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.
While only 1 out of 3 Catholics gets Catholic teaching on the Eucharist right, in a recent survey, another 4 out of 10 understand themselves to believe what (they think) the church teaches.
Confusion of terms
Another issue is that the terms often used in church teaching can be confusing because they have multiple meanings. For example, The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “[i]n the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’ This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” In other words, the Catholic Church believes that the bread and wine do really become the body and blood of Christ, but that does not mean the characteristics that make them bread and wine for us are no longer there in a real way.
Another problem is a philosophical one. The Catholic Church traditionally expressed its understanding of the Eucharist using the terms of Thomistic theology, itself derived from the philosophical ideas of Plato and Aristotle. In this framework, every created thing has both a “substance” (its true reality) and “accidents,” those characteristics that we actually perceive, such as its physical appearance.
In that sense, at the consecration the “substance” of the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, while the “accidents” remain those of bread and wine—which is why we experience them physically as being unchanged. This distinction between substance and accidents, however, is a feature of technical language about metaphysics, not everyday description. And even as technical language, “substance” and “accidents” are no longer in widespread use among philosophers and theologians outside of Thomistic circles (except, perhaps, in reference to the Eucharist).
When the words “really” and “actually” are used, as they were in these surveys, without drawing attention to technical metaphysical distinctions, contemporary people probably jump to something like “empirically” as their meaning. But the difference between “really” and “empirically” is exactly what the doctrine of transubstantiation draws our attention to.
That is why some Catholic theologians in the second half of the 20th century, while affirming the church’s teaching on the real presence, tried to come up with new ways to describe the Eucharist that used language closer to contemporary philosophical and theological understandings of reality. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., advanced a theory of “transignification,” while Karl Rahner, S.J., suggested “transfinalization,” but these approaches found little traction when up against the weight of centuries of Thomistic language used to describe the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church traditionally expressed its understanding of the Eucharist using the terms of Thomistic theology, itself derived from the philosophical ideas of Plato and Aristotle.
The reality may be that for most Catholics approaching the Eucharist, a theologically accurate description of what “actually just happened” on the altar is less important than faith in the sacrament, a sense of sharing in the community, an experience of thanksgiving—which is the literal meaning of the word “eucharistos” in Hellenistic Greek—or a prayerful experience of communion with the divine. The theology of the Eucharist is a bit like what the Catholic Church’s greatest thinkers have said every time someone has tried to define the doctrine of the Trinity: It is a mystery.
The Australian systematic theologian Gerald O’Collins, S.J., gave a fairly commonsense answer to America in 2015 to the question of how to understand the Eucharist: “As the greatest of the sacraments and the central act of worship in the life of the church,” he said, “the Eucharist can never be neatly summed up.”
More America resources:
- “A Eucharistic Church,” by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.
- “What one man’s honest, uncensored response to the Eucharist taught me about faith,” by Danielle Vaclavik
- “What Christ in the Eucharist teaches us about time and eternity,” by the Rev. Terrance W. Klein
- “Practicing Eucharist,” by Valerie Schultz
- “Flannery O'Connor and Walter Ciszek on the Eucharist,” by James Martin, S.J.
- “Catholics, Lutherans and the Eucharist: There’s a lot to share,” by Timothy P. O’Malley