Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

8.08.2019

Real Presence or "Actual Presence"


You’ve likely heard the news… “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ.” File this one under the challenges of translating complex theology into straightforward survey questions.

Pew asked Catholic respondents the following questions:

Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? The bread and wine…
1.    Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ
2.    Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ
3.    Not sure


Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion? During Catholic Mass, the bread and wine…
1.    Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ
2.    Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ


These questions produced the following results:


This is significantly different than what sociologists of religion found in 2011 in the United States. Their results look like this (described in a previous post):
 

Has the percentage of Catholics who know the Church teaching on the Real Presence and who believe in it fallen from 46% in 2011 to 28% in 2019? That is a very dramatic shift. Has the percentage who are unaware of the Church’s teaching yet who believe in the Real Presence gone from 17% to only 2%? Overall, Pew’s study, in contrast to the earlier survey, would seem to indicate the share of Catholic not believing in the Real Presence has spiked upward from 37% in 2011 to 65% in 2019.

It is important to note that the 2011 study used slightly different question wording:

Which of the following statements best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for communion?
1.    The bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ
2.    The bread and wine are only symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ


Do you believe that at the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ?
1.    Yes, believe
2.    No, don't believe


The differences between results in the surveys may reflect a real shift in belief or they may be an artifact of the difference in question wording. I think it is about Real Presence and “Actual Presence” (Note: CARA has used different wording to ask about the Real Presence in 2001 and 2008: “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist vs. Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present”).

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “the Catholic Church professes that, in the celebration of the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the priest.” This is also described as “an inexhaustible mystery.” Further, the bishops note, “In the celebration of the Eucharist, the glorified Christ becomes present under the appearances of bread and wine in a way that is unique, a way that is uniquely suited to the Eucharist. In the Church's traditional theological language, in the act of consecration during the Eucharist the ‘substance’ of the bread and wine is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the ‘substance’ of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the ‘accidents’ or appearances of bread and wine remain.”

Thus, many Catholics may understand that the bread and wine do not “actually” become the Body and Blood of Christ in the way we may use that word in everyday life (i.e., factually present as proven by empirical observation). You can’t take the Eucharist and put it under the microscope and see cellular flesh. No chemical analysis will show the presence of hemoglobin (with the exception of belief in Eucharistic miracles). At the same time, the Eucharist is not just a “symbol.” The presence of Christ is “really” there. The USCCB notes, “This kind of presence corresponds to the virtue of faith, for the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ cannot be detected or discerned by any way other than faith.” In this way, the Pew religious knowledge question on this item is incomplete at best.

My hunch is that if you replace “actually” with “really” in the questions (or better yet use “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist vs. Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present”) you’ll see a different result. It’s subtle. It’s also just a hypothesis. CARA will be testing this during the Fall and should have an update soon.

Creative Commons image of stained glass courtesy of Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

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