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.