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

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich elevate the Eucharist during Mass in the cathedral in Fulda, Germany, on Sept. 23, 2014 (CNS photo/Jorg Loeffke, KNA).

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Surpassing understanding

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:

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Fred Keyes
3 months 4 weeks ago

Well, yes, re smaller gatherings, but certainly in the image of Jesus reclining with the 5,000 to share a meal there is a prefigurement of larger celebrations, à la Mass in St. Peter's Square. Why put limits on Jesus?

Joe Mcmahon
3 months 4 weeks ago

Thanks to the authors for several excellent elucidations in this article, particularly dating the Flannery O'Connor quote and putting it in context. My puzzle has been that the eucharist in the NT seems to be a verb form εὐχαριστήσας, not an adjective or a noun. We hear about The Eucharist or Eucharistic Adoration, not about giving thanks. What we hear tends to be thing-y, not the action of breaking, sharing, and giving thanks. In my view, the Mass at the altar table trumps the monstrance in a Adoration Chapel. "Dominus vobiscum" is real, true, the Lord Emmanuel.

Anton Dennis
3 months 4 weeks ago

Thank you for an excellent article and the responses have been very educational for me. The response about actually 'chewing' the host and drinking the wine - has spurred me to taking wine the next time I am at Mass. A priest once said to me in Confession that if I was in a state of mortal sin (and he considered my sin of 'impure' action a mortal one - I did not) it would be a sacrilege to receive Holy Communion without first going to Confession. I didn't think that was correct especially as I have received differing responses to this question. But, in light of the Eucharist being 'the Real Presence' - I wonder if that priest was correct, after all?

John Kotre
3 months 4 weeks ago

When I say Amen to the priest's "Body of Christ" I say Amen to whatever Jesus meant when he said, "This is my Body." His words come to us through several languages, several cultures, and a philosophical system or two. So I can't tell you precisely what Jesus meant with his words. I simply bow before them.

I also bow before other "real presence" words of his: "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me."

Thomas Farrelly
3 months 4 weeks ago

In this, as in many doctrinal matters, I've come to prefer the approach of "...and now we see through a glass darkly...". Who knows what precisely Christ meant or what is the best way to explain it.

Crystal Watson
3 months 4 weeks ago

Reading the comments, I'm reminded what bothers me about this. People are told as kids stuff about Jesus that just isn't in the NT and they believe it because they trust the people who told them. But what the church teaches about transubstantiation is not what's in the gospels. That actually matters to me.

Randal Agostini
3 months 4 weeks ago

In all my years I have not come across a single instance where either the body or the blood of Jesus Christ has ever had an adverse effect upon someone who believes, or even does not believe. A friend - a priest, a reformed alcoholic consumes the wine at every single Mass and does not touch alcohol in any other form. The body and blood of Christ can only heal - not hurt.

John Chuchman
3 months 4 weeks ago

Sorry, but it cannot be a Core Doctrine, if not believed by a majority of the people.

German Otalora
3 months 4 weeks ago

I was as confused and ignorant as most of those answering the surveys. Of course the Thomistic explanations were quite clear to my philosophical trained mind. Nevertheless, recently I found an explanation for the Eucharist that really made sense to me. It ws given by Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Wisdom Jesus. In creation there was a kenosis of God into all the creatures made thus in his immage and resemblance. In Incarnation there was a full kenosis of God into an individual physical human being, Jesus. In Eucharist there is a full kenosis of Christ into the bread and wine and in Communion there is a full kenosis of Christ into myself. She is an Episcopal priest and theologian practicing Centering Prayer.
In this kenosis Christ and God are really present within my inner self, feeding and conforting my entire humanity. In order to understand what kenosis (emptying) means, go to Paul who frequently uses the term.

Pedro Henrique Quitete Barreto
3 months 3 weeks ago

I'm sorry, but that catastrophe is due not mainly to the poor cathequesis, but also due to the changes made to the Mass. We cannot demand an understanding only through cathequesis, which is not that habitual, but also through Mass. It is important that the people SEE everyday the dignity of the Holy Sacrament and what really happens when the priests says the Sacramental formula. That does not happen with today's Mass, celebrated versus populum and with a table-like altar. It is only a meal. Maybe an important meal, but just a meal. Nothing that extraordinary. There is nothing that shows us, through our senses, that what is happening is sacrifice.

John Mack
3 months 3 weeks ago

The pseudo-scientific explanation of the Eucharist taht is transsubstantiation is the source ofa lack of credibility to the teaching of the Catholic chiurch about the Eucharist. It is quite possible to believe in the Real presence of Christ without transsubstantiation (which is merely a fetishized explanation of the unexplainable). Just ask any orthodox priest. Then the real meaning of the Eucharist can be emphaiszed: the uniting of the person in love with Christ, and with the people assembled in the congregation, and with God's lovingkindness towards all of humanity.

John Chuchman
3 months 3 weeks ago

How could the actual body of Christ be restricted by one corrupt religion to those who obey its rules?

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