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Aug 16, 2019

How Accurate Is the Pew Survey on the Eucharist?

Fr. Thomas Dailey, OSFS

The headline screamed for attention:  “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ.”

That’s how Pew Research pushed a “fact-tank” article about transubstantiation. The jarring conclusion came at the beginning:

“In fact, nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69%) 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.’ Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”

Shock waves soon followed.  

Among those apoplectic about the assertions is Bishop Robert Barron, arguably the most well-known Catholic apologist of our day. In an “animated” video response, he considers the PEW data to confirm two distressing realities about the present state of evangelization.

The bishop’s own words turn up the fire on what he calls, in general, the “massive failure” on the part of educators (of all sorts) in the Church to carry on our own traditions. More specifically, he points to the inherently futile mentality in the Church that thinks we can divide apologetics (the defense of ideas) and pastoral friendliness (being nice), and should separate concern for doctrine (core beliefs) from that of social work (justice in action).

The bishop is right.  

Our faith is born from and expressed in theology (speech about God).  Theology, in turn, remains a matter of “faith seeking understanding,” as St. Anselm once defined it. What we believe, we try to understand further; when we understand further, we believe more deeply. To grow in the faith means to engage in this cyclical process of seeking God.

Different Survey, Different Results

In terms of understanding how research reports fit into this search process, we need to appreciate how data is derived. Otherwise, headlines become harbingers of truths that may not hold true.  

One factor to consider here is sample size. The Disciple Maker Index, administered by the Catholic Leadership Institute, has currently surveyed 131,845 Catholics around the country about multiple themes connected with parish life.  (By contrast, the PEW survey was based on 1,835 Catholics in a total sample population of 10,971.)  

When asked about doctrines of the faith, seventy-two percent of the DMI respondents strongly agreed with the statement “I personally believe the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Another nineteen percent agreed with that statement. That’s almost 120,000 Catholics claiming they do agree with what the Church teaches, compared to the 569 respondents highlighted in the PEW headline. (We note that the DMI respondents report a significantly high rate of weekly Mass attendance [ninety percent], which likely contributes to the higher level of agreement with Church teaching than reported in the PEW study.)

Words, Words, Words

A second factor to consider concerns the wording of the survey. As Mark Gray from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) points out, data gathered depends on the questions asked.  

The PEW Research referred to the “actual” presence of Jesus in the bread and wine compared to the bread and wine being (mere) symbols of that presence. Gray theorizes that asking instead about Christ’s “real” presence in the Eucharist would have yielded different results, since “actual” in common parlance tends to mean “factually present as proven by empirical observation.” We’ll see if that turns out to be true when CARA tests the question later this year.

Until then, Catholic theologians and teachers will always have work to do in communicating belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, since the notion and reality of transubstantiation remains “an inexhaustible mystery.” But the challenge does not absolve us of the responsibility to inculcate in every generation the central truths of what we believe.

Empty Faith Leads to Empty Pews

So, too, the faithful have a responsibility to seek an ever more mature understanding of what they believe. That understanding doesn’t devolve from headlines, nor is it formed by data. It takes continuing education, well beyond what was taught in parochial school or catechesis. If our faith really matters, we will desire to appreciate what it truly means.

A veteran teacher in a local Catholic elementary school recently reminded me why this topic is so important. Looking ahead to a project-based learning series on the Eucharist for her new students, she pondered aloud the potential impact of this lesson plan: 

“People don’t go to Mass because they don’t believe in the Real Presence, and they don’t believe in the Real Presence because if it were true, then wouldn’t the churches be full?”

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

What can you and your parish community do to increase the faith Catholics have in the Real Presence? Share your ideas in the comments at the bottom of the page.

The Ascension Blog thanks Catholic Leadership Institute for contributing the is article.

You May Also Like:

Toward Recovering a Love for the Eucharist

7 in 10 Catholics Don’t Believe in the Real Presence. How Do We Feel about That?

The Eucharistic Miracle Overseen by Archbishop Bergoglio (Pope Francis)

About Fr. Thomas Dailey

Fr. Tom Dailey, a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS), serves as a research fellow and spiritual advisor at the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne, PA.  He holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He writes a monthly column and does occasional podcasts for  Check out his feature on

Featured painting, “The Communion of the Apostles” (1886-1894), by James Tissot sourced from Wikimedia Commons

This article was modified on September 17, 2019.

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  • I attend the Latin Mass on a regular morning basis and the Solemn Mass make believing in Transubstantiation much more likely .
    The Church has gotten away from its roots with the English Mass.

  • Failure all around in so many ways.The Church has made so many mistakes that it is a wonde that it has survived now. It is a testimony to God’s on going Grace given to it. The issues are book length.I will give a few.

    Clergy Scandal is first.The fact that as vocations fell mid century the adverse selection by peds due to relaxed screening killed us.Now you have to clean the mess.Next the Culture has pulled down the youth in regards to religión In general and you don’t have the Will’s and skills plus the numbers of priests etc to right the ship. The culture has also destroyed the family which is the first teacher and model for Faith
    .Then the crazy state of Catholic education which is now a shell of it’s true mission of CATHOLIC education.The teachers in both school and PREP are part of the pew numbers…They don’t know the Faith.How can they teach it? .the number of schools is in total decline.

    Lastly the pew numbers show how misplaced the emphasis Is on Evangelism when what you need is back to catechism! Bringing people into the church or back to the church is not going to happen when you don’t know what you are talking about.No one will listen.
    More bad news…TIME is running! The real true believers are dying faster then WW2 vets….

  • Thank you for this article. Most Catholics don’t understand and it’s obvious as they leave their pews during the Consecration. Shouldn’t we show that same respect during the Consecration that is shown at baseball games? Baseball ushers keep ticket holders from moving down to their seats when a batter is in the box. I think we need to hear an explanation from the altar about this sacred time. The bells ringing ought to be a clue.

  • “What can you and your parish community do to increase the faith Catholics have in the Real Presence? Share your ideas in the comments at the bottom of the page.”

    How about getting back to kneeling before Christ the King and receiving him on our tongue and doing away with the Eucharistic Ministers whose hands (fingers) have NOT been consecrated and, thereby, are unworthy of touching Him? More reverence from the priests would be nice, as well. I have seen a consecrated host dropped at a Novus Ordo Mass and all that was done was it was picked up – no sense of horror – no purification. Contrast that to when the same thing happened at a Latin Mass: Father quickly picked up the host, placed it on the corporal on the altar, placed a purificator over the spot the host hit, and continued distributing Communion. After Mass, I had my boys go up and kneel close to the Communion rail to watch as Father, very meticulously, purified the area where the host fell – making sure no particles were left to be trampled upon. When Our Lord is treated casually, the sense of the Divine and True Presence erodes. Pay Him the respect He deserves. Kneel and receive him on the tongue from a Priest!

    • Spot on, Greg M, but please note that the correct name is Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. The only Eucharistic Minister is a priest.

  • I’m a cradle Catholic who got my early Catholic instruction back in the 50’s and 60’s. I was an alter boy from 1958 to 1963. Of course this was all during the time of the Latin mass, all pre Vatican II. I served mass literally every single weekend for 5 years. Every church had a communion rail and at communion at every mass I would hold a gold paten under the chin of every communicant kneeling at the communion rail so the paten would catch the smallest particles of the host that might otherwise fall to the floor. After communion the priest would use his consecrated fingers to wipe the paten over the chalice then mixed with some water would consume it. Back then only the consecrated hands of a priest could EVER touch a consecrated host.
    Fast forward to today. Unconsecrated hands of Eucharistic ministers and lay communicants are free to touch consecrated hosts with no concern whatsoever. It has been reported that people have found hosts on the floor and even in parking lots outside church. This is how one treats the true body and blood of Christ? Having spent some time in Protestant churches for various reasons, particularly Episcopal churches that I must say the similarities are such that communion in the Catholic Church and non Catholic Churches seem eerily the same and that shouldn’t be. Being the only church that believes in transubstantiation it should be different, more reverent.
    A visiting foreign priest from South America noted to his American host priest, “in my country many go to confession but not so many go to communion. But here very few go to confession but everyone goes to communion.”
    As I see the entire church get up to go to communion at mass I have asked myself, “ Is everyone really in a good enough state of grace to receive communion? Of course that is really not my place to ask, that’s between each person and God. The Catholic Church has drifted away from its roots. Any wonder that church attendance is dropping. The sex abuse scandal has not helped either. I miss the older more reverent Catholic Church. The way things are going it feels like the Catholic Church is drifting toward protestantism.

  • I do not think Jesus is weaker in the Novus Ordo Mass, but the way He is presented to the people is watered down and weaker. Latin is more serious, modern is laid back – many Churches took the tabernacle right off the alter and put it in a side room.

    I feel Latin Mass is more on the assertive side, and the Novus Ordo Mass (which is even named in Latin) seem to be more passive to me.

    I’ve been Catholic my whole life, aside from the time I left the Church and became Protestant (for a few years) because I didn’t understand the deep richness and beauty of the Faith. I didn’t meet Catholics who lived their Faith, other than the nuns who taught me in elementary and the priests at Church, until I became involved in the pro-life movement (or maybe I just didn’t notice until then??) after experiencing a crisis pregnancy – where God spared my child from abortion.

    I don’t know what happened, I do not know everything, but the Church went downhill after the changes were made, not before. Before that, the Mass had been the same for over a thousand years. Maybe it was coincidence? Maybe there was way more to it? Only God knows.

    Again, why did 6 Protestant get to change the Mass, and why weren’t all Bishops included in the changes? This has me very guarded. It doesn’t make sense. Has this ever been done before?

    The wording in reference to the Eucharist being Jesus, is much stronger in the Latin Mass – the Novus Ordo is less offensive to Protestants who do not believe in Jesus’s true presence.

    I just know that I feel Jesus is given way more respect in the Latin Mass, priest is facing Jesus, Jesus is the center of attention, we are on our knees for most of it, we receive Jesus humbly on our knees. I am brought to tears as it’s so beautiful. This is the most reference I have ever given Him at Communion. It has just truly clicked with me that He truly is the King of Kings, Lord of Lords (I would say the word from time to time, but they didn’t feel right until this experience) – because I feel like He is treated that way during this form of the Mass. It’s just that the reverence is at an all time high.

    Even veiling feels special, mysterious, humbling, beautiful. It quiets my spirit and calms me. There is also a hint of joy and anticipation for the Mass.

    This is how it is for me. I feel home, safe, protected. I felt absolutely abandoned when all the churches closed. I have gone though some great hardships, as many people have, and I turn to Christ in my distress.

    The shut downs were extremely stressful for everyone, I understand. I just personally, felt abandoned. Scared, alone, forbidden to get close to our Lord in the Eucharist – when I needed Him most.

    The Latin Mass churches were the only ones who did not back down. They are the only ones telling what time it is. Their priests are not afraid to speak out against the persecution of the Church, the truth, talk about the hard cases, take on exorcism, encourage their parishioners to turn away from abortion, contraception, sexual immorality, 70+ genders, or to encourage us to be willing to stand up and die for our Faith – as many of the Saints have.

    I just feel they are the fearless leaders, and why? Why is that? Why are they so different? Why are they orthodox and up hold Church teaching to a higher caliber than many NO parish priests? (There are very good NO parish priests too, but they are often far and in between. The younger priests seem more solid. This is the opinion I have after attending many different Catholic Churches.)

    Why won’t the parish priest at my pre-Covid church ever speak out against abortion? He claims he doesn’t want to upset women who have had miscarriages or may have participated in abortion. (Also a chance to share the gift of Gods mercy and forgiveness ) He would rather spare upset feelings over sparing a child the brutal violence and pain of abortion, and spare the emotional, physical, spiritual wounds it causes the mother – often for a lifetime.

    And at a Catholic parish in Dearborn, the visiting priest gave a homily before the election and stated that we have to consider where a candidate stands on abortion before we vote. We must vote pro-life. And then the parish priest came back the next week and apologized to everyone and told them to disregard what the visiting priest had said!! What the heck?!

    Could you imagine a visiting priest asking people not to vote for a candidate that supports the Holocaust or slavery (things very against the Catholic Church’s teachings) and then the parish priest coming back to tell everyone to disregard what was said? Those lives do not matter? Without life, nothing else matters. Other issues have no bearing on dead people, life has to come first – then other issues.

    I’m done. Life is way too short! Eternity is way too long. I have children I need to get to Heaven. I don’t have time to waste. I already lost one to the new age, LBGTYQZ123, communist revolution overtaking many of our Catholic youth theses days in their Catholic high schools and colleges. (So has another orthodox (practices and believes all Church teachings) Catholic family I know, lost their daughter – praying for conversions!!! ❤️)

    Even Mother Theresa said that she could never be on board with receiving our Lord in her hand and thought it to be offensive to think that we could ever possess God – which is what holding Him in our hands does. According to her. I don’t know, I’m just a regular insignificant person who has been blown away by the beauty of the Latin Mass and have found a deeper meaning, respect, and love for Christ in this form of worship… and now it’s being taken away and shut down – just like the Churches were for so long. (And still are in Canada) I will not be abandoned again, especially in the face of Christian persecution so great, that we will be loosing our lives to follow Christ.

    I don’t know what to do, other than to pray.

  • Unfortunately, the author calls attention to “transubstantiation” as if it were the doctrine. The doctrine is that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ. Transubstantiation is an attempt in theology/philosophy to explain how this takes place. In fact, the document that Fr. Dailey quotes says, in full: “The presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist is an inexhaustible mystery that the Church can never fully explain in words.” The presence of the risen Christ, not transubstantiation, is the mystery. Secondly, there must have been a better work of art to use than one as anachronistic as the one used here.

  • Since catechesis is so poor in the Church today perhaps it would help if the following were added to the Nicene Creed read at Mass:
    We believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
    We believe that at Mass priestly consecrated bread and wine becomes in truth the Body and Blood Soul and Divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
    We acknowledge one Baptism… (It should not be a problem since we already added a Protestant addendum to the Our Father?)

  • I love the Church and our Lord Jesus. Above and in Catholic News Media such as EWTW and the KOC Columbia magazine, being led by the USCCB, is using the word “evangelization and catechesis” as the needs of the day (c.f. the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis). But it seems like the bishops are more often using the word “evangelism” in reference to their own parishioners. It is a sad day for the Church when Christians need evangelizing! There is a word not being used in this discussion that is a vital, seminal, and biblical word, integral to the Great Commission: DISCIPLESHIP. “Go, make disciples of all nations….” (Matt. 28:18) This is what catechesis is about. This is what the Church needs to focus on from the cradle roll to mature adults.
    It appears that the fact has been that Catholic parishes across America did not do Sunday School for decades, and now the evidence of that lack of fruit is showing in this era.
    I was born a Catholic and baptized as an infant in a Catholic parish. But I was raised in a Protestant church not merely because of a divorce, but because the Catholic churches did not have Sunday school in the city we lived, according to my mother, as she recently recounted to me.
    But by the grace of God, none are lost. The Catholic church is commended for having good parish and inter-parish schools. All these students receive a more complete catechism of the blessed Christian faith than those who were raised in the Church but did not attend a Catholic or other Christian school nor had opportunity for Sunday school.
    Is there a history of the Sunday School in the Catholic Church in America? I would be interested in learning more.

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