If we want Catholics to understand church teaching on the Eucharist, we need a fresh approach
A Pop-Tart, Jerry Seinfeld once observed, never goes stale because it was never fresh. I thought of that joke as I watched the furor generated by a new survey of U.S. Catholics conducted by the Pew Research Center. “Nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69 percent),” according to Pew, “say they personally believe that during the Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’” In other words, Pew explains, “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.’”
You can imagine the reactions this news elicited among the Twitterati and Catholic commentariat—everything from reactionary denunciations of U.S. Catholics for their de facto heresy to revolutionary calls to chuck the whole way in which the church talks about this mystery and bring it kicking and screaming into modernity. If that all seems familiar, it’s because we have been here before.
Like the Pop-Tart, this story doesn’t go stale. Every year or two, a new survey tells us that Catholics supposedly reject this core tenet of our faith.
Like the Pop-Tart, this story doesn’t go stale. Every year or two, a new survey tells us that Catholics supposedly reject this core tenet of our faith. But this story is a lot older than the science of polling. More than 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical, “Mysterium Fidei” (“The Mystery of Faith”), in order to address this confusion among the faithful. The Real Presence “is called ‘real,’” the pope wrote, “because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.” But long before that, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council was convoked in part to address the issue; it bequeathed to us the term transubstantiation. In the fifth century, Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia, felt the need to tell his people: “The Lord did not say: This is a symbol of my body, and this is a symbol of my blood, but rather: This is my body and this is my blood.”
That history suggests that the struggle to grasp the church’s teaching about the Eucharist is nothing new and that the present confusion among the faithful is caused neither by a lazy scientism, as some suggest, nor by the use of outmoded philosophical categories, as others suggest. Plenty of people were confused about the Eucharist when Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics was the only game in town. Otherwise, why 20 centuries of clarifications?
And lest anyone be confused about the extent of the confusion, my colleagues James T. Keane and Samuel Sawyer, S.J., made this observation in a recent article: Fully “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 one out of three Catholics gets the theology right, another four out of 10 understand themselves to believe what (they think) the church teaches.”
Catholics in the 1940s may have been able to recite the Baltimore Catechism word for word, but it is not at all clear how many of them knew what those words meant or could correctly answer survey questions about them.
Where does that leave us? First of all, I think we need to cut people a break. As Mr. Keane and Father Sawyer observe, “when language more familiar to Catholics is used [in other surveys] and the surveys are clearer about what is being denied by the ‘symbol’ answer, then belief in the [traditional teaching about the] Eucharist is nearly double what Pew found.” Still, the confusion is real, and it is probably not a matter of semantics alone. It also stands to reason that the postconciliar changes in catechesis should not be scapegoated for this problem either. Catholics in the 1940s may have been able to recite the Baltimore Catechism word for word, but it is not at all clear how many of them knew what those words meant or could correctly answer survey questions about them.
It would be helpful if the academy took up this question, if it could help people to better understand and articulate something that, if Mr. Keane and Father Sawyer are correct, they already accurately intuit. I know theology and catechesis are different kinds of work; but because of theology’s present emphasis on ethics, questions of sacramental or fundamental theology are sometimes overlooked and opportunities lost. I remember a conversation with a theologian at a Catholic university some months ago. We were discussing the Eucharist. I asked whether he might write an article for America. His response? “That’s not really my field.” Now, this fellow is a fine scholar, but if you are a Catholic theologian and you cannot write 2,000 words for a general audience about the Eucharist, then something is awry. And that’s not the fault of the respondents in the Pew survey.
For my part, I think Pew did us a favor, even if their method was flawed. If we are going to help Catholics receive fully the gift that is the church’s rich, life-giving theology of the Eucharist, then we need first to understand what and how people believe and not simply denounce them for their ignorance or shrug it off. In other words, we need a fresh approach.