ATLANTA — Fearing that some in the pews think of the Eucharist as merely a symbol of Jesus or that it may evoke images of cannibalism, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine is offering a step-by-step question-and-answer format to Catholic teaching on the real presence of Jesus — “body, blood, soul and divinity” — in the Eucharist.

The full National Conference of Catholic Bishops is scheduled to vote on the pastoral statement at its meeting June 14-16 in Atlanta.

In their proposed pastoral statement, the bishops declare that the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Jesus each time the Eucharist is consecrated, although to all earthly appearance it remains bread and wine.

Once the bread and wine is changed over, the doctrine commit-tee's statement says, it can never be turned back again, and even those without faith who eat and drink the consecrated bread and wine receive the body and blood of Christ.

“The entire Christ is present, God and man, including both Christ's human soul and body,” the bishops' committee says in its statement.

The church is not talking about “actually chewing the body of Christ up,” said Father Joseph Komonchak, a consultant to the document and religion professor at The Catholic University of America. “It is a real presence, but it is a presence in sacramental form, not a presence in flesh and bone.”

But how one distinguishes a sacramental presence from a flesh-and-bone presence is a tough issue.

In attempting to bring a complex theological subject home to the average Church member, the committee set forth simple, direct questions individuals of any age would wonder about, and then answered them.

“Does the bread cease to be bread, and the wine cease to be wine?”

“Does the consecrated blood and wine cease to be the body and blood of Christ when the Mass is over?”

“If someone without faith eats and drinks the consecrated bread and wine, does he or she still receive the body and blood of Christ?”

The answers: Yes, no, and yes and no.

The Eucharist still looks, tastes and feels like bread and wine, the committee said, but it “is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

And once the bread and wine are consecrated, there is no turning back because “they are no longer bread and wine at all.” Instead, some of the hosts are kept in the tabernacle, where it will be used for distribution to the sick and dying, and as an object of adoration.

Catholics bend to one knee in front of the tabernacle because they believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist.

As for the thornier issue of how the sacrament is received by different believers, the bishops' committee said someone without faith who receives communion consumes the body of Christ, but the person would not receive the spiritual benefit, “which is communion with Christ.”

In jumping into the theological discussion, the bishops' committee admits the Church “can never fully explain in words” the mystery of how the risen Jesus is present in the Eucharist.

However, it said, within the mystery God has revealed certain truths about the Eucharist, and those truths are in danger of being watered down or lost today.

Both in the pastoral experience of Church leaders and in surveys showing that many Catholics treat the Communion host as only a symbol, “a grave situation” of confusion exists in the pews, the committee said.

Father J-Glenn Murray, director of the Office for Pastoral Liturgy of the Diocese of Cleveland, said there is a concern that receiving communion is becoming too casual in the life of the Church.

Talking about the body and blood of Christ gives believers a greater reverence and awe for the sacrament than if they think of it in terms of eating bread and drinking wine, he said.

But both Father Komonchak and Father Murray said there is disagreement over how serious the problem of Eucharistic ignorance is. Some survey questions, they said, tend to lead people into responding that the Eucharist is a symbol of Jesus.

If you ask an ordinary Catholic whether the consecrated bread and wine is Jesus, Father Murray said, “any Catholic will tell you without even thinking, ‘Of course, that's Jesus.’”

In their proposed pastoral statement, the bishops avoided the question of the benefit to non-Catholic believers of receiving Communion in a Catholic church.

Orthodox Churches' beliefs about the Real Presence are almost identical to the Catholic Church's. Some Protestant denominations say they believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, too.

However, the issue is so fundamental that intercommunion is restricted among Catholic and Orthodox Churches and Protestant denominations.

Protestants do not treat the bread and wine or grape juice they use in communion services as the real presence of Jesus. These churches generally permit any believer to participate in the rite.

Father Murray said the reason the Catholic Church does not share Communion with most other churches that believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is that they are not yet in full communion with one another.

Said Father Murray, “Communion is not only on the table; it's at the table.”