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Matt Malone, S.J.August 21, 2019
An extraordinary minister of holy Communion in Brooklyn, N.Y., distributes the Eucharist during Mass in this 2008 file photo. A new Pew study about the level of Catholic belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist showed that a majority of Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine used at Mass become the body and blood of Christ. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) 

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.

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Paul Diczok
4 years 9 months ago

Ok, first, we don't knock today's Pew respondents, but we do knock 1940's Catholics who knew, believed and could set forth Baltimore 1? Second, we refer to the Eucharist as this "substantial" reality and as a mystery, implying it's beyond symbol, but leave it there, with a vague imprecation to the "academy" for further explication? Btw, as I read the Gospels, Paul and Acts, Christ often spoke in tropes, and it is not absurd to suggest that the institution was one. What does the Church teach?

J. Calpezzo
4 years 9 months ago

Very thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Thank you.
It is possible that, in the old human way, that most Catholics view "symbol" and "Real Presence" as more or less synonymous. Either way, it is a sacred mystery inviting us into the heart of the suffering and victory of the body and blood.

Michael Bindner
4 years 9 months ago

It is a more substantial than we think. Are the sacraments faith or magic? Transubstantiation sounds like alchemy. From it comes adoration. While adoration & iconography can be a focus for prayer, grace is conveyed by reception. It is an encounter with God. Iindeed, when my Baptist former boss went to Mass with me and received, he felt the Pressence that was not there for him in his own Church. Miracle or magic? They are not the same.

Does absolution work on an unconscious person? Is infant baptism really effective or a sign of sacredness? We know adult baptism & confirmation are real, but they are experienced. Jesus said his flesh is real food. He never said this food is real flesh. Are we a Church or a coven? Is papal infallibility relative to the Church or absolute? If the former, then there is no bar to the ordination of women.

Morality is part of this. Does God reward us for our beliefs or our relationships? Is morality for God or for us? Was the Crucifixion vision quest or a requirement for bloodshed? Is God an Ogre? This question says everything about ourselves as well as our beliefs. The one question leads to them all.

Paul Hierholzer
4 years 9 months ago

"Every year or two, a new survey tells us that Catholics supposedly reject this core tenet of our faith," (along with many others).

“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.” He said a number of things which He likely did not intend to be received literally eg) “No one comes to the Father but through me.”

Christine Corrigan
4 years 9 months ago

Though culturally and ethnically from Catholic Christian traditions, in light of the concerns the Church has been facing, I remain a practicing Catholic because of the miracle of the Eucharist passed down from Jesus to Peter and to all priests from there. It is the worldwide daily miracle (or miracles, I should say) that gives us daily nourishment. Without the miracle of Jesus in the Eucharist, we could be any number of Christian faiths.

Maria Alderson
4 years 9 months ago

Yes, Catholics have always struggled with this, as Fr. Malone's column shows. The difference now is that previous generations continued to pray, attend Mass, go to Confession, and keep their fat flopping mouths shut, because until now, not every person in the pew thought of himself as a genius theologian.

Dennis Doyle
4 years 9 months ago

Fr. Matt and I see Bishop Barron both seem to think young people don’t believe in the real,presence because the Church has failed to correctly teach it. And a fresh approach is needed. While the current Church leaders are pathetic this is not an issue which can be attributed to them. Today’s young people have been educated to think critically. To demand proof . This is a subject for which there is no proof. No chemist will opine that the Eucharist is other than bread and wine. Chemically, nothing happened. But what is the big deal ? Yes. It is a big deal to those that believe and feel marginalized that 20 percent of the young people think they are wacky. Yes. It is a big deal to the male ordained who thought their ordination conferred special powers no one else possessed and 80 percent think they are just like them. True believers focus on the essence of Christianity . God died for our sins. Everything else is window dressing.
Nobody is going or not going to where they want to go based on whether they swallow the mystical.

A Fielder
4 years 9 months ago

It is hilarious to think that theologians should study this issue because Fr Matt says so, In reality theologians and scripture scholars have written much, much, much on this topic. Let's start with an insight elaborated by Sandra Schneiders, IHM, STD. Consider that a symbol (is not a sign and) participates in the reality which is represents. In this way, the Eucharist can be considered both (1) the real presence of Christ, body, blood soul & divinity, and also (2) a symbol of God, because even though its form (bread and wine) has not changed, its essence does truly participate in God. And since this mystery belongs to the realm of faith (not science) there is no use wasting time to prove something which transcends our human senses.

Crystal Watson
4 years 9 months ago

Isn't Jesus real and present when we pray? I don't believe that when Jesus handed around the bread/wine and said "do this in memory of me" that he intended that future priests should transform hosts into his body. And the early agape meals didn't include that.

John Chuchman
4 years 9 months ago

A teaching of the Church not accepted by the vast majority of the people is not valid or even licit.

Jay Zamberlin
4 years 9 months ago

This article, from the "part of the problem" magazine, aka Amerika, (or a merde ca......latino-understood untertones of
'dung' ) is absolutely what one would expect, I mean, if one can really see, at all, and that means perceive with any sort of non biased, non modernist psychobabllish overlay and brainwash the church modernists have foisted on the weak and disenfranchised, mostly in the name of promoting a homosexualist agenda, when you cut through all the crap. And, as one would expect, the "teachers" in this American Catholic Church millieu are not joining in the what-would-be-expected weeping, or breast beating, are, no....not that, they are celebrating and explaining to those they'd deem 'unenlightened' - the real joy here, the victory, the escape from Catholicism's darkness of her superstitions and blood fetishes...... Yes, Amerika has it right, especially with the picture here included, female lay "Extraordinary" ministers of what once was the "holy" Eucharist This is their pathway forward, and Catholic tradition and her pesky adherents better be put on notice, and quick.

Lisa Weber
4 years 9 months ago

Jay - your comment conveys hostility toward America magazine and female Eucharistic ministers but is otherwise unintelligible. What are you trying to say?

4 years 9 months ago

Uh, perhaps the "fresh approaches" of the past 50 years are responsible for the religious illiteracy that leads to Catholics not knowing what the "source and summit" of their religious life IS. I suggest, in lieu of a "fresh approach," we get back to basics. 50 years of "new approaches" and catechesis by coloring has not produced impressive results.

Lisa Weber
4 years 9 months ago

I understand church teaching about the Eucharist though my level of belief is, “If you say so.” The Eucharist is a mystery and will always be difficult to grasp. Perhaps the church should be happy if people know what the church teaches about the Eucharist and not worry too much about their level of being convinced it is true.

A Fielder
4 years 9 months ago

Lisa, your bar is far too low. Sorry. IMO, an authentic Eucharistic spirituality could transform the world in the best way possible. Knowledge is not enough, people do not make sacrifices to serve others or work for justice because of "knowledge," we do this work because of what we believe.

Anne Chapman
4 years 9 months ago

Most of the people I know who work for justice and sacrifice to serve others are not even Catholic. Of course,some are Catholic, but in my circle of friends and neighbors and family, a majority are not Catholic. Some are not even christians. So it would seem that belief in transubstantiation is not generally a motivating factor in their service to others, nor in their working for justice.

Perhaps you could clarify?

A Fielder
4 years 9 months ago

Anne, it sounds like you would agree might agree with Thomas Aquinas. He concurred with Aristotle that faith is certainly is not required to be a virtuous and just person. Anyone, regardless of creed or religiosity can be a good, virtuous and happy person with the practice of the cardinal virtues: justice, courage, temperance, prudence. The theological virtues of faith and hope build on this foundation for those people who are friends with God (charity). It is this friendship with God that makes up the qualitative and eternal possibilities like heaven. I am paraphrasing of course,

I'm not sure I would use the trans-substance word in conversation. Rather, I would emphasize the belief that God is with us personally and bodily, and more specifically, what the Eucharist, in particular, teaches us about the quality of that relationship which God offers to us. Because the Eucharist is also a symbol (and also the real presence), it can communicate layers of meaning that might otherwise not be perceptible. Bread, for example, can be broken and when this happens fragments are created. Yet all of those fragments, as imperfect as we all are, can belong to the one loaf, the one Church. This is the kind of relationship God wants to have with us personally and as a community. And I believe that people who are friends with this God, whether they call themselves Christian or not, will want to respond in kind to the rest of creation.

Crystal Watson
4 years 9 months ago

You can have virtue and faith without believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation and without being Catholic. Jesus is with us all the time and is accessible though prayer any time. You don't need a priest to do anything to a host for that.

bill halpin
4 years 9 months ago

It is difficult for me these days to hold on to the precise and specialized language of what becomes what and when concerning the Eucharist.
It seems that contemplative mystics bypass the language and know that all of creation is the real presence. And if one chose to attend a particular eucharistic celebration with its structured and formulaic outline, surely what occurs is the recognition of Christ's presence in that setting.
For me, driving to our state prison on Friday mornings, holding the buttered english muffin up to the two-lane, passing drivers, livestock, houses, trees and farm land, affirming that this, all this, is the body of Christ -- is holy recognition.
I appreciate the desire of the church to safeguard and transmit a proprietary ownership of an otherwise universal vision -- but the attempt to isolate and control what has been freely given in creation as creation suffused with Christic presence will only narrow and continue to reduce the cosmic mystery to a private subsidiary and become, unfortunately, increasingly irrelevant.
John Fowles opened his novel Daniel Martin with the words: "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation."
It occurs that Christ is whole sight; that whole sight is Christ. This prospect elicits, for me, gratefulness and thanksgiving.

Tim Donovan
4 years 9 months ago

I certainly don't understand how bread and wine when consecrated by a priest truly becomes the body and blood of Jesus. I accept the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as I accept other miracles of Jesus, such as healing ill people and most importantly rising from the dead to conquer sin and bring life to His followers. I think it's very sad and unfortunate that most Catholics believe that the bread and wine after consecration merely are symbols of Jesus' body and blood. I made my first Holy Communion in second grade, and remember singing a beautiful hymn, "I received the living God," meaning that we received Jesus' body and blood when we received the Eucharist. In the Gospel of John it says, "Jesus said to them, 'Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." ( John 6: 53). Many of Jesus' followers who heard this,said, "This teaching is too hard, who can listen to it?" However, Jesus did not say that his words were merely symbolic. Undoubtedly when confronted with such opposition to his teaching he would have recanted his words, but he, did not. In John's Gospel, it continues that because of Jesus uncompromising clear teaching that many of His followers turned back and would not go with him anymore. So He asked the twelve apostles, "And you, would you also like to leave?" But Simon Peter answered Him, " Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. "
Like most if not all of we faithful, I am prone to sin in a,number of ways (eating unhealthy food which damages,my health, impatience and not being kind to some people, and lustful feelings). Because,of these and other sins/failings, I am fortunate that my pastor or his associate visits me each month at my request at the,nursing home where I live. I then receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus ,in the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Sick. Each Sunday morning , I watch Mass on my television, and on holydays am able to watch Mass on EWTN on a "community" television in our library in the evening. Also, an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist from a,local parish conducts a,Communion Service each Sunday morning, with prayers, the First, Second readings and the Gospel, General Intercessions, the Our Father, the Sign of Peace, and then we residents of the nursing home may receive Communion. I only receive the Eucharist if I'm in a,state of grace (unfortunately, often I'm not)! But the Church teaches that when one has,committed a,mortal sin, that he,or she should not receive Jesus in the Eucharist. This,is based,on the teachings,of St. Paul, who wrote, "So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord." ( 1 Corinthians 11: 27).

4 years 9 months ago

To understand how Catholics understand the Eucharist, please read this story about a remarks made by Fr. Chuck Canterna at a Men's Conference in Baltimore in 2018: https://www.archbalt.org/former-yankee-superstar-and-mount-st-joseph-graduate-headlines-catholic-mens-conference/. He relates a story about Cardinal Keeler and a death row inmate who understood the mystery of Eucharist better than most. He saw what the Eucharist did to a person like Cardinal Keeler. Perhaps Fr. Canterna would submit his thoughts to America magazine's readers.

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