Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley carries a monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament as he leads a eucharistic procession in Panama City Jan. 23, 2019. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

No signature phrase from the Second Vatican Council is so completely affirmed across the entire theological and political spectrum of the Catholic Church as that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Liberal Catholics are particularly wont to quote it, either in support of the Council’s reform of the liturgy, or in lament that many of the faithful, for want of sufficient numbers of ordained ministers, are deprived of the Eucharist.

That is why the liberal Catholic reaction to recent findings about Catholics’ understanding of the Eucharist is so puzzling. Last summer, the Pew Research Center announced with some fanfare that a recent survey of Americans’ religious knowledge showed that only 31 percent of self-identified Catholics believe that at Mass the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” By contrast, 69 percent told the Pew pollsters that the bread and wine are “symbols” of Christ’s body and blood. Weekly Mass-goers were the only group of Catholics in which a majority (63 percent) chose “actually become” rather than “symbols.”

Naturally the Pew announcement sparked some sharp reactions. As might be expected, conservative Catholic leaders expressed alarm. More surprising, to me at least, was the rush of liberal Catholic commentators to pooh-pooh the findings.

Efforts to explore how ordinary Catholics understand the Eucharist are not new. I myself am responsible for one of them. Twenty-five years ago, when the New York Times was about to conduct a survey of American Catholics, they asked me, as the paper’s senior religion correspondent, for advice. I expressed dissatisfaction with the standard polling that seemed to assume that “hot button” questions about contraception, women’s ordination, priestly celibacy, etc., were an adequate measure of Catholic faith. I urged at least one question about worship. After much discussion about wording we settled on this: “Which of the following comes closest to what you believe takes place at Mass: (1) the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, or (2) the bread and wine are symbolic reminders of Christ.” We hoped that the “comes closest” phrase might cover a multitude of theological subtleties.

The results were not all that different from Pew’s latest. Of all self-identified Catholics, 34 percent said “changed into the body and blood” came closest; 63 percent said “symbolic reminders.” Even weekly Mass-goers favored “symbolic reminders” (51 percent) over “body and blood” (44 percent).

Frankly, those results startled us. They began coming in over a weekend, and the non-Catholic overseeing the survey was so taken aback that she called me at home. Had we made some terrible mistake in the wording? 

Which was of course possible. One friend argued that the Times survey should have included the catechism formula “under the appearances of bread and wine” in its first choice. Similar surveys taken since then have varied in asking whether Christ’s body and blood become “actually” present or “really” present. As far as I can see, the biggest difference emerges between two kinds of questions. The first simply ask Catholics, yes or no, whether they believe the bread and wine are really changed into Christ’s body and blood. The second, like the questions from the Times or Pew, give Catholics a choice of alternative understandings. Very roughly, the first variation reverses the results, with about two-thirds affirming the church’s teaching and one-third not. One might suppose that this, too, should disconcert guardians of church teaching, but it is at least reassuring compared to the Pew findings.

(It should be interjected here that, to my knowledge, we have no measures of ordinary Catholics’ belief about Real Presence before, say, World War II. It is simply assumed that everyone knew and held what the church teaches. I had a good friend in college whose very devout parents were American-born, one of pious Irish immigrants and the other of pious Italian immigrants, but none of these people had been beneficiaries of Catholic schooling. When my friend came home from parochial school and told his parents what he had learned about the Eucharist, they were astonished, even appalled. They made an appointment with the pastor to find out whether what their son had reported was actually church teaching—and therefore true! That may have been an exceptional case. But we don't really know just how people generations back would have answered poll questions about the Eucharist.)

Obviously we should learn more about all this, and CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) has promised a new survey. But will the reactions be any different? I can understand conservatives’ alarm, even if I don’t agree with a number of their remedies. Less understandable is a reaction among liberal Catholics that I have observed over many years: an almost reflexive hostility to disturbing findings about Eucharistic belief and practice.


Let conservatives approve of something and liberals start sniffing for the hidden agenda, probably something to roll back Vatican II.

Consider the lengthy story on the Pew survey in the August 14 National Catholic Reporter. Written by Heidi Schlumpf, it is in many ways an admirable piece of reporting, probing the complexities of polling on this topic and the insights of theologians about the Eucharist. But as so often in news reporting, the key choice was how the reporter defined the “problem” being examined. In this case, the problem was not what Catholics believe about the Eucharist but the poll itself and the alarm it might be stirring, especially in conservative ranks. The headline asks a question, “Do Catholics ‘Actually’ Believe in the Real Presence?” And the subhead replies, “Scholars question recent headline-making survey.”

The story’s first sentence warns that the poll’s “purported” findings “had commentators blaming Communion in the hand, lay Eucharistic ministers, and even the Second Vatican Council.” The article does not cite any such commentators, though I’m sure that, somewhere in the angry corners of the Internet, they exist. Instead the article cites the Episcopal Apologetics-Meister Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Dwight Longenecker articulating debatable but much less far-fetched reactions.

From there the article turns to “sacramental theologians, liturgists, and pollsters” who contrast Pew’s question to that of other polls and offer other less “dichotomous” ways of viewing terms like “real” and “symbol.” Eventually, the article warns against insisting on church teaching about “transubstantiation”—a word that in fact the Pew question never used.

If Catholics leave Mass “charged with charity, compassion, and justice,” one theologian is quoted as saying, “they’re getting it, even if they are not drawing on the distinctions of Aristotelian substance and accident.” Another theologian advises that Eucharistic change in the bread and wine must serve a larger change in the people. “We are supposed to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for the life of the world. That’s the real change that ultimately matters.”

In the same issue of NCR, executive editor Tom Roberts rolls his eyes at the idea that the Pew findings show “we have to get our catechetical hair on fire.” Schlumpf’s article, he writes, is an antidote to “the breathless indignation of church elders,” e.g., Bishop Barron, “the hip hierarch of evangelizers,” whom Roberts expects to soon be marketing a new video on the Eucharist.

What’s common to these reactions?

1. A scramble to dismiss the poll’s finding as both dubious (“purported”) and insignificant.

2. Immediately situating the findings in the right-left Catholic combat zone, linking them with allegedly extreme conservative hysteria (“hair on fire,” “breathless indignation”) and even opposition to Vatican II.

3. Attributing the low support for “actually becomes the body and blood” to the philosophical difficulties of the Aristotelian-Thomistic language of transubstantiation. 

4. Confidence that, regardless of polls or theological theories, most Catholics “get it” with, in Roberts’s words, “an innate and compelling understanding of real presence.”

5. Subordinating the question of Christ’s presence in the transformed bread and wine to the question of Christ’s presence in the (hopefully) transformed worshipers, who will manifest that transformation in ethical conduct.

Here’s another first-rank liberal Catholic commentator (and friend), the Jesuit Thomas Reese, in his column at Religion News Service. The Pew findings, he writes, have caused “a lot of clerical hand-wringing.” But in fact they represent “an impoverished idea of what the Eucharist is really all about.”

He then launches into a critique of transubstantiation, a 13th-century legacy, he explains, of an era when few Catholics received Communion. Using such Aristotelian terms today “is a fool’s errand,” he declares. “When was the last time you met an Aristotelian outside a Catholic seminary?” (Note to Tom: Actually a number of Aristotelians occupy prominent places in contemporary scholarship.)

Reese does not suggest that Catholics would benefit from some alternative explanations. “I don’t think we have a clue what Jesus meant when he said, ‘This is my body.’ I think we should humbly accept it as a mystery and not pretend we understand it.”

He continues

The Mass is not about adoring Jesus or even praying to Jesus…. We pray to the Father through, with, and in Christ…. The Eucharistic prayer asks that the Spirit transform us so that we can become like Christ…. Ultimately, the Mass is more about us becoming the body of Christ than it is about the bread becoming the body of Christ…. About making us more Christ-like so that we can continue his mission of....bringing justice and peace to the world.

Now I probably suffer from “an impoverished idea of what the Eucharist and the Mass is really all about”—I’m still working on it—and some of that impoverishment is no doubt inherited from all those centuries when peasant Christians didn’t receive Communion and had nothing to do but adore from afar. Yet Reese’s elimination of adoring or even praying to Jesus from his description of the Mass seems exorbitantly severe and sits oddly with texts from the Kyrie to the Communion invitation by way of parts of the Gloria and Sanctus, as well as the Memorial Acclamation and the Agnus Dei. It also seems unduly abstract from human reality in drawing sharp lines between the intimate movements of heart and mind that can be labeled adoration, prayer, thanksgiving, praise, petition, or recommitment. Even if that were not the case, I would hesitate to dismiss the devotional Eucharistic spirituality of all those centuries, however conditioned by cultural circumstances or vulnerable to sentimentality or excessive individualism. 

Nonetheless, Reese’s column is very eloquent, even in the abbreviated form I have presented here. It sparkles with explanatory insights that don’t usually surface in a news service like RNS. A condensed theology of the Mass and its Trinitarian orientation in 750 words. No mean feat. 

But note: it also fits into the framework above. The poll results are denigrated (“an impoverished idea”) and associated with the conservative excess (“clerical hand-wringing”). Whatever might be troubling in the poll’s results stems from what is troubling in the definition of transubstantiation (“using Aristotelian terms…in the 21st century is a fool’s errand”). The need for any intellectual explanation or fancy pants apologetics à la Bishop Barron is rejected out of hand (“I don’t think we have a clue…. We should humbly accept it”). And the focus shifts from the question of the transformation of the bread and wine to the moral transformation of ourselves (“making us more Christ-like so that we can continue…bringing justice and peace to the world”).


Why did liberal Catholics seem so resistant to any possibility that there has been a serious erosion of Catholic belief in the Real Presence?

It was not until early October that I encountered a full-throated conservative reaction to the Pew finding: the September 29–October 12 issue of the National Catholic Register with its 60-point headline, “Eucharistic Wake-Up Call.”

The issue contained no less than fourteen articles on the Eucharist, including articles on the production of hosts and Eucharistic wine and sidebars on Eucharistic miracles, Eucharistic books and DVDs, and Eucharistic papal encyclicals.

Nowhere did I find any outright blaming of the Second Vatican Council, although there was a lot of familiar grumbling about the post-conciliar “spirit” and lack of catechesis. If many of the articles could have fit into my pre-conciliar childhood, they were less dogmatic and more conscious of contemporary challenges to understanding the sacred. Most of the articles were more positive in proposing remedies than negative in targeting enemies.

Not that there weren’t grounds for disagreement. The Register articles were full of references to liturgical reverence but not to liturgical participation. There was a lot about the centrality of the tabernacle but not about the mystery of the altar. The transformation of bread and wine often seemed detached from the drama of salvation through death and resurrection, the Mass less a sacrificial meal ritually memorializing Christ’s Passover than a solemn means to “confect” the Blessed Sacrament, enabling worshipers to adore and implore Jesus, whether briefly entombed in their bodies or more lastingly enthroned in the tabernacle.

So liberal Catholics might well be critical of what could be considered a cramped as well as nostalgically pre-conciliar view of the Eucharist. But why were liberal commentators (and not for the first time) so quick out of the blocks with quips about “hair on fire catechetics” and “clerical hand-wringing”? Why did they seem so resistant to any possibility that there has been a serious erosion of Catholic belief in the Real Presence? Why are they not more bothered by findings like Pew’s, or even less drastic than Pew’s? 


The puzzle is all the greater because over the years I have participated at countless liturgies of large and small groups of overwhelmingly liberal Catholics, and their belief was palpable, their fervor sufficient to energize St. Peter’s Basilica. So here are my own best answers. 

Simple polarization. Let conservatives approve of something and liberals start sniffing for the hidden agenda, probably something to roll back Vatican II. (Conservatives entertain parallel suspicions about anything endorsed by liberals.) To acknowledge that anything at the heart of Catholic belief and practice has eroded since the Council risks handing ammunition to conservative critics. A series of surveys done over many years by William D’Antonio et al. for the National Catholic Reporter always insisted that Catholics were hewing to “core beliefs.” Dissent was limited to questions like contraception, conscience, ordaining women, and so on. An impression of continuity was strengthened by the design of those periodic surveys, which missed the growing number of young people dropping out of the sample in each generation.

Fear of extra-liturgical, para-liturgical, or devotional diversions. The liturgical renewal recentered Catholic spiritual energy on participation in the Mass, after centuries of obstacles to participation had dispersed that energy into devotions, including those surrounding the Blessed Sacrament like Solemn Benediction or Forty-Hours Adoration.

Commitment to social justice and Gospel witness. Do concerns about Catholic belief in the Real Presence reflect an otherworldly, individualistic spirituality of personal salvation? Does so much focus on the sacramental change in the bread and wine eclipse the necessary change in the recipients—and in the world they should be serving?

Naïve or materialist interpretation of Eucharistic change. The history of Christianity has been marked by some strange and distorted understandings of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. “Barbarian” warriors wanting Jesus to lead them into battle put consecrated bread on their lances. Reports of miraculously bleeding hosts have stirred the imaginations of pious but literal Catholics who envision a tiny Jesus, as physical as on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, crouched within or behind the white veiling of the consecrated bread.

These are all legitimate worries, but they strike me as overwrought. Or, if not overwrought, suggestive of the need for precisely the kind of theological explanation or catechesis that liberal commentators have been swift to spurn.

Reflexive polarization needs no rebuttal. As for devotional and para-liturgical backsliding, a half-century after Vatican II the reformed liturgy is well established. Active participation at Mass is not threatened by every silent prayer of veneration before the Tabernacle or celebration of Solemn Benediction. Investigation might even show that fervent participation is increased. This is not a zero-sum game.

That is also true about belief in the Real Presence and commitment to social justice. The erosion of the former hardly means growth in the latter. At Mass the Lord is present, in distinct ways, in the Word proclaimed, the bread and wine transformed, and the congregation sent forth. There is no reason to assume that playing down one of these transforming modes of presence will strengthen another; no reason to think that the risk of otherworldly individualism—or the commitment to justice and healing—is any less among those choosing a “symbolic” understanding of the Eucharist.

Finally, the constant temptation to concretize a spiritual mystery almost to the point of gross superstition or intimations of cannibalism should warn liberals against dismissing rather than pursuing theological reflection about Real Presence. Such theological reflection, and its corresponding catechesis, must be humble about the inevitable limitations of our language and intellects; but “we haven’t got a clue” is no substitute for rethinking our understanding of transubstantiation. An article by Brett Salkeld in a recent issue of Church Life Journal is an enlightening example of such rethinking and a good advertisement for his ecumenically sensitive new book Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (Baker Academic).


One ray of common sense in this controversy came from Fr. Raymond J. de Souza in that issue of the National Catholic Register. De Souza contrasted the Pew findings about all self-identified Catholics with much higher levels of belief in the Real Presence found by Pew among weekly Mass-goers. Another poll put the figure among the latter at more than nine out of ten.

So in the end is this all about Mass attendance? I have always believed that many pioneering liturgical reformers were overly confident that the renewed, vernacular liturgy would be its own catechesis; consequently, little was required to instruct people in the pews. But the reformers were surely right about belief in the Real Presence. Again and again throughout the Mass, word and gesture proclaim the Real Presence, even more so, I believe, in the renewed liturgy than in the mumbled Latin ones I knew as an altar server. In this sense, Roberts and Reese are probably correct: most Catholics simply “get it,” without any further need for catechesis or theological explication. If, that is, they are regular Mass attenders. As fewer and fewer are.

Father de Souza has further things to say about secularism and the way “the entire sacramental system has lost its hold.” But he ties this in with the challenge of remedying the massive drop in Catholic Mass attendance, about which he offers more common sense: “Successful programs of parish renewal stress a welcoming community, a sense of belonging to a common mission, good music, and good preaching.”

Much easier to spell out that agenda than accomplish it, for a lot of reasons. Still, I cannot imagine liberal Catholics disagreeing. So why should we view possibly disturbing poll findings about belief in the Real Presence as a dubious distraction? Why not as a compelling call for parish renewal, with all the implied challenges for mission, music, and preaching? Why not as a “wake-up call” for bringing people back to the Eucharist?

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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Published in the February 2020 issue: View Contents
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