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.
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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 CatholicPhilly.com. Check out his feature on CatholicSpeakers.com
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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