By William Schmitt
The backstory of the National Eucharistic Revival planned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) includes surprising statistics from a Pew Research Center study revealing beliefs on a subject at the heart of the Church’s mission.
Pew, a nationally recognized, secular, nonpartisan organization that says its objective research is dedicated to “holding a mirror to society,” conducted a 2019 online survey of religious views held by Americans citing membership in various faiths.
Among its findings:
“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.’ ” Instead, 69% of self-described Catholics believe “the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ ”
This conflicts with the Catholic teaching known by many as transubstantiation — the doctrine that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially” present in the Eucharist. Christ becomes present by the transformation of the whole substance of the bread into His body and whole substance of the wine into His blood.
Among all the Pew respondents, regardless of their faith, 34% were correct in saying Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Meanwhile, 55% called the sacramental teaching symbolic, and 11% had no answer.
The Pew survey dug deeper among Catholic respondents regarding the teaching of Christ’s real presence. Researchers found that most Catholics who believe in transubstantiation know this is Church teaching. Most Catholics who believe the sacrament is symbolic do not know about the teaching.
Only 50% of Catholics answered this question correctly:
Which of the following best de- scribes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? (Actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Not sure/ No answer.)
“Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the Church,” Pew reported on its website.
Probing further, the researchers said, “About six-in-ten (63%) of the most observant Catholics — those who attend Mass at least once a week — accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. Still, even among this most observant group of Catholics, “roughly one-third (37%) don’t believe the Communion bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood.”
Among Catholics who do not at- tend Mass weekly, “large majorities” say the sacrament is symbolic only. And 22% of all Catholics reject the idea of transubstantiation even though they know it is Church teaching.
Belief in the real presence “is most common among older Catholics,” although those reducing it to symbolism constitute majorities in every age group, according to Pew. Among those age 60 and over, 61% say the bread and wine are only symbols.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 1374 and 1375, describes the real presence this way:
“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as ‘the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.’ In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ, is truly, really and substantially contained.’
“… It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.”