The news from the Pew Research Center on faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was more alarmist than accurate. The truth is something rather different from what Pew reported, but there is still plenty of cause for alarm.
Pew led with an apparent bombshell:
“In fact, nearly seven-in-10 Catholics (69%) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ 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.’”
The Pew numbers are different for those who go to Mass weekly. Among weekly Massgoers, belief in the Real Presence is 63%. That is double the general 31% figure.
A better source of data about what Catholics believe is from the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI), which conducts the “Disciple Maker Index.”
The CLI surveyed 131,845 Catholics about multiple themes connected with parish life.
The Pew sample is 1,835 Catholics in a total sample population of 10,971.
The CLI survey measures the beliefs of those who go to Mass weekly. In that much larger survey, 72% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement “I personally believe the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.” Another 19% agreed. So that is more than 90% of weekly Massgoers who agree with what the Church teaches about the Eucharist.
The situation is not as bleak as Pew suggests. But there is cause for alarm.
Most Catholics do not go to Mass every Sunday. And there we see the real lack of Eucharistic faith. Pew reports that among those who go to Mass only “monthly/yearly,” belief in the Real Presence drops to 25%. Among those who never go to Mass, belief in the Real Presence is 13%.
None of this would be surprising to any parish priest. Even in Catholic schools where parents pay for Catholic education, many — sometimes a majority — do not come to Sunday Mass.
The good news from the CLI survey is that high numbers of Catholics who go to Mass weekly believe what the Church teaches. That is in accord with the ancient maxim of lex orandi, lex credendi, (roughly, “how we pray shapes what we believe”) and vice versa. Those that go believe and those that believe go.
There is some genuinely alarming news from the CLI survey. When a church building closes (not necessarily the parish, but a church where Mass was being offered), some 40% of those who went to Mass there will simply stop going to church altogether. That means that even among those who do regularly practice, an additional sacrifice to receive the Eucharist at another church will be too much. So even if Eucharistic faith is strong among those who go to Mass weekly, we might suspect that Eucharistic devotion is relatively weak for many.
How, then, did we get here, where most Catholics no longer believe and don’t go to Mass and where those that do may also have decreased Eucharistic devotion?
That’s too large a question to answer here, for it basically asks why secularism has become such a powerful force in our culture for decades, if not longer. And that question is much larger than the Catholic Church, let alone faith in the Eucharist.
I would make two observations.
First, the entire sacramental system has lost its hold. Baptisms are down, marriages are dramatically down, and very low percentages of even weekly Massgoers receive the sacrament of confession. Death without the sacraments is the norm, not the exception, and, increasingly, a funeral Mass is not desired for the deceased.
What to do about all that? Successful programs of parish renewal stress a welcoming community, a sense of belonging to a common mission, good music and good preaching.
One notes the absence of the sacraments in that list. And that’s for a reason. When Catholics are surveyed about what makes for a vibrant parish or what they desire in their parishes, that’s what makes the list. The sacraments do not. Perhaps they are taken for granted.
The electronic world in which we have been living for nearly 75 years — accelerated by digital communications — is profoundly anti-sacramental. Marshall McLuhan had that insight more than a half-century ago, namely that electronic communications take tangible realities — bodies, images, voices — and make them less tangible in order to make them present at long distances.
The sacramental understanding of things is that intangible realities are made tangible to make them present at close range. Presenting the sacraments in an anti-sacramental age is therefore a profound challenge.
A second observation is that there is grounds for hope despite the discouraging data.
Over the past 25 years, Eucharistic adoration has been markedly on the rise. Just visit a parish website — very often, alongside the usual listings of Mass and confession times, Eucharistic adoration will be listed. Youth and campus ministries in particular emphasize Eucharistic devotion. Perpetual adoration was rare 25 years ago; now it seems that most dioceses have several parishes that offer it.
Could it be that in the Eucharist we see less breadth but greater depth of faith and devotion? That would seem to mirror the life of the Church as a whole, which is fitting, as the Church draws her life from the Eucharist and exists for the Eucharist.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of