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Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 27, 2023
A priest elevates the host during a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City April 18, 2020. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Gregory A. Shemitz)

Maybe the crisis of disbelief in the Eucharist is not as dire as previously thought?

A new report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University aims to dive deeper into what Catholic adults in the United States believe happens during Mass when the priest consecrates bread and wine. The research follows a similar survey from 2019 conducted by the Pew Research Center that found just 31 percent of U.S. Catholics believe what the church teaches: that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

That report set off a flood of hand-wringing and public commentary.

Bishop Robert Barron said at the time that the findings demonstrated “a massive failure” on the part of “Catholic educators, catechists, evangelists, teachers.”

The religion journalist Peter Steinfels lamented that the findings were being used as cudgels in the liturgy wars rather than prompting reflection on the state of Catholic belief.

Maybe the crisis of disbelief in the Eucharist is not as dire as previously thought?

The Pew study even played a part in spurring the U.S. bishops to launch a three-year National Eucharistic Revival, which culminates with a large meeting of Catholics next year in Indianapolis.

But the new report, while not finding unanimous acceptance or understanding of church teaching on the Eucharist, suggests that Catholics in the United States have more complex beliefs about the sacrament than described in 2019, and finds that a majority seems to believe what the church actually teaches.

According to the new report, released Wednesday, Catholic adults in the United States are split when it comes to what they believe the Eucharist to be. The church does teach that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, but the philosophical and theological language used to explain the mystery can be confusing.

“There is substantial confusion about what the Church teaches about the Eucharist,” the report states.

The CARA report addresses concerns about the Pew survey head on, stating that the way Pew framed the question did not give Catholics adequate space to consider both what they believe about the Eucharist and what the church actually teaches.

The question asked by Pew researchers in 2019 was: “Regardless of the teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion?”

“There is substantial confusion about what the Church teaches about the Eucharist,” the report states.

Respondents were then asked to choose from three answers about what happens to the bread and wine during Mass. The options were: They “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” they are “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” or no answer.

At the time, several theologians and analysts questioned the usefulness of the survey, pointing to what they said was a problematic formulation of the question. (Though Pew was hardly the first outlet to try to collect data on Catholic attitudes toward the Eucharist and have its methodology questioned. A similar question asked by The New York Times in 1994 yielded similar results—and similar controversy.)

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The whole Christ is truly present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine, the glorified Christ who rose from the dead. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist.”

The CARA report argues that both the first and second option in the Pew study could technically be considered correct, as church teaching on transubstantiation, the process by which the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, contains more subtle distinctions than the Pew question suggested.

Hoping to offer a more nuanced look into the beliefs of U.S. Catholics, the CARA survey first asked an open-ended question about the Eucharist, avoiding words such as “symbol” and “real presence.”

Researchers then grouped the answers into four categories. They found that 35 percent of Catholics answered that at the consecration, the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus, while just 8 percent said they are a symbol and nothing happens. The remaining answers either described something procedural that happens during Mass, such as distributing Communion, offered an answer that did not fit into the other categories or skipped the question.

Hoping to offer a more nuanced look into the beliefs of U.S. Catholics, the CARA survey first asked an open-ended question about the Eucharist, avoiding words such as “symbol” and “real presence.”

The open-ended question was then followed by what the authors described as “an improved closed-ended question,” asking, “Which of the following statements do you personally believe about what happens to the gifts of bread and wine once consecrated at Mass?”

The choices were: “Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine,” “Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, meaning that Jesus is only symbolically present in the consecrated bread and wine” or “Neither of the above.”

“We believe this more accurately reflects the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist,” the report states. “The first option being correct that Christ is Present under the appearance of bread and wine. The second option indicates Christ is only symbolically present.”

This question showed a split, with 44 percent choosing the “truly present” option while 48 percent went with “only symbolically present.”

But when the survey asked a final follow-up question, “Just to clarify, do you personally believe that after the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, that Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine upon the altar?,” the survey found that most Catholics agree with church teaching.

A majority of Catholics (57 percent) answered yes, with 21 percent saying no and 22 percent stating that they “don’t know.”

“After examining each respondent’s answers collectively, 64% of respondents provided responses that indicate they believe in the Real Presence,” the report found.

Further, researchers noticed that some respondents answered the open-ended question with phrases that suggested they believed in the real presence of the Eucharist but nonetheless chose the “only symbolically” in the follow-up question. That prompted a deeper analysis of the data.

“After examining each respondent’s answers collectively, 64% of respondents provided responses that indicate they believe in the Real Presence,” the report found.

As to understanding what the church teaches, rather than personal belief, Catholics were about equally split, with 49 percent of Catholics correctly identifying that the church teaches, “Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.” But 51 percent of Catholics believe, incorrectly, that the church teaches that Jesus is “only symbolically present.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, frequent Mass attendance correlates with a higher degree of understanding in the church’s teaching on real presence, with about nine in 10 weekly Massgoers correctly identifying what the church teaches.

The survey found that 35 percent of Catholics attend Mass at least monthly, with 17 percent attending at least once a week. As of 2019, the percentage of weekly Massgoers was 24 percent. (The survey, undertaken in July and August of last year with 1,031 participants, also found that 5 percent of Catholics attend Mass online or on television.)

Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly are more likely to believe in the real presence (95 percent) as are those who go at least monthly (80 percent). Other cohorts who believe in the real presence at higher rates than the overall sample are Catholics who enter the church as adults, those active in parish ministry and individuals who attended Catholic schools.

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