Real Presence: surprising consensus

Christians’ beliefs about the Real Presence in this CARA report are surprising. 64% of all U.S. Christians believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Yes, you read that right: the vast majority of all U.S. Christians, almost 2/3 of them, Protestant and Catholic, believe in the Real Presence.

This is even more interesting: 100% of Roman Catholics hold an orthodox belief on the eucharist. Here is the question Pew asked: “Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for communion? 1) The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. 2) The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Yes, 100% of Catholics chose either 1) or 2). And since both answers are orthodox, we hit 100%. Amazing.

Alas, the good folks at CARA and Pew offer another interpretation. They seem to think that only 1) is a correct answer. That answer was selected by 55% of U.S. Catholics. CARA quotes Pew: “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.” The key word “merely” comes from the Pew report, but was not in the question Pew asked people.

This data is fascinating, and we’re grateful to Pew and CARA for presenting it. But they’re stronger on sociology than they are on sacramental theology. If only everyone could get that symbols are real, and that the way Christ is really present is precisely by being symolized in bread and wine. Reality and symbols are not mutually exclusive!

You’re heard the old simplistic divide, Catholics=real, Protestants=symbol. Thankfully, good sacramental theology does much to overcome the divide. So, apparently, does the American populace in all its muddled and confused beliefs. That is very good news indeed.


  1. +JMJ+

    Yes, both answers are correct about the bread and wine used for Communion. Of course the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood! The symbolism works on many levels.

    Perhaps the question should have been focused post-Consecration.

  2. Jeffrey, I think they probably mean “bread and wine used [=distributed] for Communion,” i.e., they meant post-consecration. I hope we all agree that it can be called bread and wine after the consecration, since the Roman Canon does precisely that. Some will say “the accidents of bread and wine,” others will use other philosophical systems, but that’s a different matter.

    1. +JMJ+

      Yes, they can be called bread and wine after the Consecration. But that doesn’t mean they are still bread and wine, symbolizing Christ’s Body and Blood. And that might be what some Catholics think.

  3. The REAL good news, however, in your Roman-Protestant divide is that for nearly 500 years since the Reformation, Lutheran Christians have held to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. While Roman Catholics like to name our doctrine as “consubstantiation” or “impanation”, we totally reject those characterizations. Come to my parish in Phoenix and see the tabernacle behind the altar for the reserved sacrament (refrigerated in the sacristy for the Precious Blood).

    I also take issue with the response about “symbolize” as an inadequate statement of Roman or Lutheran theology, but more of a Zwinglian expression.

  4. These findings are not surprising for Catholics or Protestants

    Sociological research has consistently shown Americans to believe in God, and have many other Christian beliefs: 73% believe that Jesus is the Son of God; 54% believe that Satan absolutely exists (+20% probably); 53% believe that Hell exists (+20% probably); 45 % believe demons exist (+22% probably); 62% believe heaven exists (+20% probably); 61% believe Angels exist (+21% probably). If you include the “probably” there is a solid majority in the US for a traditional religious world view!

    The above results are from the Baylor 2005 Survey (What Americans Really Believe by Rodney Stark). Many people who hold beliefs in Satan, Hell, and demons come from liberal Catholic and Protestant churches. Not many liberal clerics talk about these subjects, however the traditional world view is very evident in the scripture readings

    Prior to the recent Synod on the Word, a 13000 respondent multi-nation study found high respect for the Bible. As an Italian prelate summed “it is widely held that the Bible contains the word of God, that it is an inspired work capable of giving meaning to life, and that it has far greater authority than other ecclesial manifestations.” Catholic and Protestant differences were not evident in the study.

    Today both Catholics and Protestants are mainly getting their religious education in Church from the Bible during the Liturgy of the Word and from their fellow Christians.

  5. I find the CARA discussion of “identity crisis” and “source amnesia—believing something you once heard but without memory of the source of that belief” amusing. This interpretation assumes that everyone gets their religious education from the religious educators of each denomination. That is disappearing despite many religious education programs.

    Most Americans believe in God, heaven, hell, angels and demons because most everyone else does. They also get their beliefs from Scripture both in Church and from reading the Bible and discussions with fellow Christians. We live increasingly in families which participate in more than one denomination. Some participate in community bible study. People are picking up practices and literature across denominational lines. The Purpose Driven Life was very popular among Catholics whom I know.

    The Liturgy is the fundamental catechesis. Both Catholics and Protestants are going to get the idea of Real Presence from Scripture. However if we are going to integrate Scripture with the traditional Catholic understanding of the Real Presence we have to do that at Mass with the readings.

    Beyond the Mass, I like Little Rock Scripture Study as the next fundamental catechesis. We need to explain everything around Scripture because as the Italian Prelate above says “ it has far greater authority than other ecclesial manifestations.” It also allows us to talk with Protestants in a much more fruitful way. Those conversations are now a regular part of life for many.

  6. Fr. Ruff,

    I share your enthusiasm that so many Christians believe that Christ is present in the Eucharistic elements.

    The study, however, seems to have asked the question somewhat ambiguously. After the consecration of the bread and wine, the elements certainly symbolize the Body and Blood of Christ. But part of the beauty of the mystery of the Eucharist is that it is what it signifies.

    I would be very reluctant to claim that everyone who answered with response #2 (The bread and wine are symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ) understood the term “symbols” in the theological sense that you and I understand it. This causes me to tend to agree with the interpretation given by CARA and Pew even though the question is obviously ambiguous.

    In a comment posted above, you said: “I hope we all agree that it can be called bread and wine after the consecration, since the Roman Canon does precisely that.”

    Unfortunately, I find myself unable to agree with you here. That which the elements are has been totally changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Your reference to the Roman Canon could be misunderstood. It does not actually use the word “wine” and when it uses the word “bread” it adds the words “of life.” There’s a big difference between “bread of life” and “bread.” “Bread of life” is obviously a title of our Lord. When we use the words “bread” and “wine” by themselves to refer to the consecrated elements, I fear we are in danger of…

  7. Actually, the survey did not ask people what they believed personally, but what “best described the Catholic teaching”.

  8. If what Fr. Anthony says – that both are correct – is true, will somebody please tell the Bishops? This is reminding me of that project from USCCB a few years back that was to provide parishes with a list of acceptable hymns and songs… and, as I recall, there was discussion at the time about removing all eucharistic songs that refer to “bread and wine” instead of “body and blood” (Anyone else remembering that?)

  9. I think if you simply asked Christians of all sorts “Is Christ present or is Christ absent at the Eucharist celebrated in your church?” most would say Christ is present. Only once did I ever encounter a Protestant (an evangelical who was a former Catholic) say Christ was absent. I think presence or absence is a good place to start the dialogue.

  10. The only way to judge the orthodoxy of 2) would have been a follow-up question on what the respondent understood by symbol. This is another of the inanities to which those who specialize in liturgy subject the faith of the Church.

    1. Paul – If I may ask, what is the “this” you refer to in “This is another of the inanities…” As one who specializes in liturgy, I’m not sure if you mean people like me or what you think the inanity is. I’d like to know before reply to you, so that I don’t miss your point or overshoot.

  11. I’d like to express agreement with Paul Pluth, and add something that may address the question posed by Anthony Ruff.

    Saying that Christ is “really present precisely by being symbolized” is ambiguous in the extreme, and seems to stretch the ordinary meaning of “symbol” beyond recognition. I’d also say that, as a Catholic who is not a theologian and not familiar with current theological usage, I recoil from the formulation.

    Behind Anthony Ruff’s discussion seems to be a desire to wish away disagreements about the Eucharist by inventing clever-sounding formulations that seem to make the disagreements disappear. But the differences are real, and they are reflected in everything that the different historical churches do: in their liturgy, in their architecture, in their music.

    And the differences are alive in the Roman Catholic church of today, and can be felt in discussions of all of those issues.

  12. It seems to me a thorough and proper understanding of what a sacrament really is will clear up any ambiguity on the Real Presence. (at least for the faithful Catholic) This mode of presence of the Lord is unique, and the concurrent “symbol AND reality” nature of the sacrament can be explained in a such a clear way that, (whether or not one accepts the doctrine), there should at least be no confusion as to what is being taught. Alas, due to the cultural inroads of relativism, the modern mind is often allergic to concepts that are presented with such clarity, and a “shrug” is now considered a satisfactory response to a Reality that should shake our world. Perhaps this is influencing both the way the question was asked and the thinking of the respondents. When we’re clear on what Jesus taught, and the church always believed, then we can then begin the hard work of accepting it in faith. As for myself, I cast my lot with Peter…”Lord, to whom shall we go….”

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