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.


Christian belief in and knowledge of Transubstantiation

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey has unearthed evidence of an identity crisis among American Catholics. “More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ” (Pew, p. 8).  Among the American public overall, “about half of those polled (52%) say, incorrectly, that Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine used for Communion are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus” (p. 24).

Unlike the discussions surrounding the last major Pew study with significant implications for the Church I have no doubts of the discourse regarding the latest Catholic results. It is very likely the case that only about 55% of Catholics are aware of what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the Real Presence. At the same time, as someone who has been surveying Catholics nationally for nearly a decade I know there is still a deeper story to tell.

There is a gap in Catholics’ knowledge of their Church’s teachings and what their beliefs are. It may be a classic case of source amnesia. Other recent surveys (including CARA’s) indicate six in ten to three-quarters of Catholics believe in the Real Presence. This is most likely among those who attend Mass frequently.  Strangely enough, many Catholics believe what their Church teaches without realizing that their Church teaches it.

Catholics fit into four groups regarding the Real Presence. The first are the Knowledgeable Believers who know what the Church teaches regarding the Eucharist and also express a belief in this teaching. Because majorities of Catholics believe and know of these teachings it is also the case that some percentage of Catholics falls in the group of the Faithfully Unaware. These are truly rebels without a cause who believe in the Real Presence but believe they are doing so (wrongly of course) in opposition to what the Church teaches. It is also the case that some percentage of the Catholic population must be unaware of the Church teaching and also unbelieving in the Real Presence. Although disappointing, there is hope in these “Uns” (unbelieving and unknowing) as these Catholics may come to believe what the Church teaches if they became aware of it. The Church will likely have a more difficult time winning over the Knowledgeable Doubters. These Catholics are aware of what the Church teaches but say they do not believe it.

The only way to know how many Catholics are in each cell of the table below is to ask these two questions in combination (…and if anyone is interested in doing so they could do so in an upcoming CARA Catholic Poll).

The identity crisis unearthed by Pew is by no means limited to Catholics. Another recent survey, the American National Election Study of 2008, shows that other Christians offer up equally mystifying responses to questions regarding the Real Presence.

The ANES asked all Christians (who are citizens of voting age as this is an election study) the Transubstantiation question shown in the table above: Do you believe that when people take Holy Communion, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or do you believe that does not happen? 1) Yes, does happen or 2) No, does not happen.  

Seventy-four percent of Catholics surveyed indicated a belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. That is reassuring (and fairly consistent with other surveys regarding this subject). The surprises are in the number of non-Catholic Christians who also state they have this same belief.

Nearly six in ten Protestants (59%) surveyed expressed a belief in Transubstantiation. The Pew survey indicates only 35% of Protestants are aware that the Catholic Church teaches this doctrine. Seven in ten Lutherans express a belief in Transubstantiation and this is not all that surprising considering the teachings within this denomination are sometimes more similar to those of the Catholic Church than those of some other denominations (e.g., “Christ's true body and blood in the Lord's Supper are "hidden under" the earthly forms of bread and wine”).                                                                                             

What is perhaps most surprising is that a majority of all significant sub-groups of non-Catholic Christians in the United States (i.e., those with a sufficient size that the number of interviews allows for an estimate) express a belief regarding the Eucharist that is consistent with Catholic Church teachings. The Pew results also indicate that they do so with little knowledge that the belief they affirm is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Again we may have another case of source amnesia—believing something you once heard but without memory of the source of that belief. The Catholic identity crisis is interesting. I must say the Protestant case even more so. Should the Catholic Church be more concerned that people don’t know what it teaches or surprised that so many non-Catholic Christians believe it—often in opposition the teachings of their own denominations?

How do so many Protestants—including those who identify themselves as “born again” come to believe a Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist? This teaching was at the heart of anti-Catholic criticisms and caricatures of the Catholic faith for hundreds of years. Other than source amnesia what could this be attributed to? Perhaps another set of Pew survey results provide a clue. Some 59% of Evangelicals say the Bible is the “Word of God, literally true word for word.” If this is the case, many Evangelicals may take a literal reading of the passage such as Matthew 26:26-28 and incorporate this into their beliefs without realizing the literal interpretation is consistent with Catholic teachings that their particular denomination may not agree with (...and there is evidence for this link...).

The exploratory analysis above has its limitations. It is based on two separate surveys and the ANES does not include non-citizens. It is also the case that both survey questions cannot possibly capture all the nuances of the teachings and theology of the Catholic Church on this matter (although both questions are intentionally attempting to reflect these teachings specifically). Despite these limitation it definitely points to a need to explore this issue further.

I have a few more reflections on other aspects of the Pew knowledge study that will follow in the next post…

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