This news story may have slipped under the radar, but the Pew Research Center recently studied the role of the Eucharist in the current practice of American Catholics. The results were released on Monday past. PEW, an independent researcher, dared to ask questions that the Catholic research center CARA may have feared to go, for the subject of this study cuts to the heart of a central Catholic belief.
Pew has done a number of studies on the Church before, and its religion staff is highly competent in matters Catholic. It has tracked the decline in Mass attendance in the U.S. over the years, and it may have been the dramatic statistical decline in Mass attendance that led its staff to examine a correlation between attendance and the most significant act of Sunday worship, receiving the Eucharist, the actual Body and Blood of Christ in holy communion under the form of bread and wine. It appears that a majority do not think of the Eucharist in this fashion.
In a sampling of over one thousand self-identified Catholics around the country, Pew discovered that only 31% of Catholics believe in Transubstantiation, the doctrine which holds that the bread and wine, by virtue of the Eucharistic Prayer, becomes the true and living Body and Blood of Christ, human and divine. The majority hold that the consecrated bread and wine, and its distribution, constitute a useful symbol of fellowship but do not believe that Christ is truly alive in the sacred food. Pew went on to question further how personal belief was formed along these lines. In looking at all available subsets—frequency of Mass, age, education, etc.—50% of Catholics do not know what the doctrine of Transubstantiation is, let alone that it is a central doctrine or essential teaching. Put another way, those who identify as Catholics do not know that communion is a real encounter with God. The full Pew statistics are here.
As I mentioned above, this story is getting erratic coverage. I have gone to many of my ordinary Catholic sources and come up pretty much empty. The news page of the USCCB has a link and presumably a commentary, but you must be a member of the Conference on-line services, which cost about $125 when I last checked. Only the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s newspaper had a news story, and its prime source is a YouTube video featuring a response by Bishop Robert Barron, a piece that appeared within a day or so of the Pew’s study publishing.
Barron is a member, of course, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [or USCCB] in his active status as Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles. But prior to his episcopal ordination, Barron developed the outstanding “Word on Fire” ministry of Catholic catechetical and evangelical ministry on YouTube from his home base of Chicago. Even after his elevation to the American College of Bishops, he continues to speak out clearly and forcefully on issues in the Church. I reviewed his Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis a few weeks ago here at the Café, a work which should have been written by the entire USCCB.
When the Pew study hit the streets a week ago, Barron—speaking again in his own name, as was true of his book—was first bishop to publicly acknowledge the results. In his post on YouTube this week, we see a very angry man, a righteously angry man. He states for the record that he is not angry at Pew but at the Church itself, citing a breakdown in religious education and the failure of clergy and bishops to preach and explain a belief that, theoretically, should hold us together. I agree that the content, format, and quality of religious education has reached a point where anything resembling a handing on of faith is grinding perilously to a halt. I suspect that Bishop Barron, fresh off his book about sex abuse, realizes that the Church’s credibility to teach its key beliefs has been so sorely wounded by events of recent decades that its teaching tradition may take generations to restore. This is my guess—very few of his bishop colleagues want to acknowledge this.
The results did not surprise me. In fact, the next time you attend Mass, observe the body language of those in the congregation—entering, genuflecting, socializing, dress styles, etc. Do we look and act like a people in the presence of the Almighty? One blog poster caught my eye in a humorous vein: a woman wrote that if we believed that God was really in the tabernacle and the bread and wine we consume at Mass, we would be genuflecting on both knees at least three times in the parking lot before we reached the door of the church.” Hyperbole, to be sure, but the point is taken.
The term “transubstantiation” to describe the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ deserves a better treatment than I can provide today. Some of the ultraconservative websites are calling for a return to the pre-Vatican II ritual and the elimination of lay eucharistic ministers, communion in the hand, lay persons’ [particularly women’s] removal from the sanctuary, installing communion rails, etc. as “remedies” to lack of understanding of the Eucharist. My suggestion—a strategy I actually incorporated into the construction of a new church three decades ago—was the separation of the church building into the main worship assembly and a separate chapel for Eucharistic adoration. Most churches in use today are elongated Eucharistic reservation chapels where reverence for the sacred species must constantly be balanced with the communal nature of sacraments, like the elderly who attend Mass and embrace one another’s company without a thought in front of the tabernacle. One man’s disrespect is God’s delight.
Scripture, which is quite clear on the nature of the sacred food, is equally clear on the interpersonal nature of the Eucharistic sacrament. Real Presence is denied primarily when the Mass is celebrated by clerics and laity without charity and fraternal concern. As Bishop Barron concludes, those who most love the poor, most ardently love the Lord in the Eucharist as well.
For more discussion on this topic, here is a link to my former teaching colleague, Amy Welborn, and her blogsite Charlotte Was Both. Amy has been a first-rate blogger for about two decades now and worth following.