Cause for hope in new data on Eucharistic faith?

Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

A recent poll conducted by Vinea Research says that “69% of Catholics who attend Mass at least yearly believe that the Eucharistic elements become the invisible substance of Christ.” But there is a serious problem with the language used.

A priest elevates the host during a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 2020. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

In 1992, I commissioned the first public opinion poll through George Gallup on belief in the Holy Eucharist, revealing that fewer than 30% of practicing Catholics held to the full truth of our Eucharistic faith. In 2019, Pew Research conducted a similar survey, with the very same results.

Last September, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (generally reliable) showed an exact flip of the data, with 64% supposedly expressing a correct understanding of the Sacrament.

And now, we are treated to the latest survey, conducted by Vinea Research, which informs us that “69% of Catholics who attend Mass at least yearly believe that the Eucharistic elements become the invisible substance of Christ.”

How are we to explain the sudden change? A change harder to fathom than transubstantiation!

Jesuit Father Tom Gaunt of CARA suggests that the low figure from the Pew survey may have resulted from the wording of that survey because it posed a false“either/or” question. He goes on to offer this curious defense: “Pew also made the mistake of confusing a lack of knowledge with disagreement.”

He continues: “They [communicants] don’t explicitly know what the church teaches when you ask them directly. But implicitly or intuitively, they hold to the real presence.” Would we ever make that argument in any other area, as though facts are incidental to reality? If the average Catholic doesn’t “know” what the Eucharist is, why is that?

Ironically enough, I think the average non-Catholic does know what Catholic Eucharistic belief is. If you polled the first 100 commuters arriving in Grand Central Station by asking, “What does the Catholic Church teach about Communion?” the vast majority, while disagreeing with the teaching, would say, “Catholics believe the bread is the Body of Christ.”

Which leads to the just released Vinea survey. I never heard of that organization until today, nor of their director, Hans Plate, who is described on the Vinea website as a “Confirmation catechist” and as having “start[ed] the Greeters Ministry” in his parish.

His data proposes a five-percent leap over CARA. So, what question did he ask to elicit such an encouraging result? Plate notes that using Pew’s wording, only 41% chose the first answer that the bread and wine “actually become” Christ (so not too far off from the earlier polls). Using different language, he got a different response. The re-wording went like this:

Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?
a. Jesus Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist
b. Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not truly present
c. Not sure

We learn that 69% chose the first option that Jesus is “truly present.”

However, there is a serious problem: The first option presented is heretical (as is the second, of course) as worded. Jesus is not present “in the bread and wine.” That position is called “impanation” (panis, “bread” in Latin) and was rejected even by Martin Luther!

The doctrine of transubstantiation holds that the entire substance of the bread is changed into the entire substance of the Body of Christ and the entire substance of the wine is changed into His Blood. In other words, bread and wine no longer exist, except in their outward appearances (see CCC 1374ff). At least Luther taught that the bread and wine co-existed with the Body and Blood of the Lord (consubstantiation).

So, rejoicing over the miraculous change in Eucharistic faith must be short-lived.

At the same time, we find ourselves in the final days of the national “Eucharistic Revival,” a well-intentioned project which, I think, has gone nowhere. Three years ago, I penned a reflection for this site on elements of liturgical praxis that needed attention, if we were to restore true Catholic faith in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Twice, I sent that article to the chairman of the Revival and once, to the Committee in general; I never received the courtesy of even an acknowledgment. Why? Because I identified eight hot-button items that have become “sacred cows,” unable to be discussed. The two most important, in my estimation, were use of lay distributors of Holy Communion and reception of Communion in the hand.

If the reader goes to the Eucharistic Revival website, he will find no mention of any need for liturgical reform, leading one to conclude that everything is just “hunky-dory”. But we all know that it really isn’t. If the promoters of the Revival think that organizing processions around the country are going to change things, they are sorely mistaken. Do not misunderstand me: I love processions, have participated in hundreds, and re-introduced them in all the parishes I have served. As beautiful and impressive as these processions have been, however, anyone on the ground admits that they have attracted the already-devout; in other words, we are saving the saved (and maybe some curious souls looking on from the sidelines).

If the signs and symbols of the liturgy do not reinforce that doctrinal assertion, nothing can or will change. Don’t expect a second-grader to believe that “Jesus is present” when the Sacred Host is treated like a Frito in all too many parishes.

Cato the Elder famously ended every one of his addresses to the Roman Senate (regardless of topic) with the urgent demand: “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). He was accused of being a “Johnny-One-Note,” but he was right, as history demonstrated. And I suspect that I shall go to my grave raising the same hot-button issues, with the same institutional response (or non-response).

I can only hope that the next generation of clergy will see that processions and congresses (as nice as they are) cannot achieve what honest assessment (and reform) must do, namely, admit that many mistakes have been made in our Eucharistic praxis and that, unless and until those issues are addressed, we shall continue to have commuters at Grand Central Station know more about the Holy Eucharist than practicing Catholics.