A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that less than a third of U.S. Catholics believe that in the Eucharist bread and wine “become the actual body and blood of Christ.” On the other hand, 69% say that the bread and wine “are symbols of the body and blood of Christ.” Roughly half of those surveyed identified official Church teaching as holding that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, while the other half either thought the Church teaches the bread and wine are symbols (45%) or were unsure what the church teaches (5%).
Predictably, heads exploded in some quarters, and the reformed liturgy and practices such as communion in the hand were blamed. Those who have read this blog for a while may know that I am an ardent defender of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but my head did not explode upon reading this, because I think that it was a badly framed question. At the same time, I do not think these findings should simply be shrugged off.
The question is badly framed because both answers are correct. One might say that, if the choice is forced between “symbolic” and “actual,” then the latter is true simpliciter, while the former is true secundum quid. Catholic teaching is that the Eucharist is not a symbol of Christ’s body and blood in the way that a flag might symbolize a nation state; rather the bread and wine are truly Christ’s body and blood in a literal and non-metaphorical sense. But the rite of the Eucharist is a symbolic action, and within that action the bread and wine have a symbolic function (this is what the scholastics meant by speaking of the bread and wine, along with the eucharistic ritual, as the sacramentum tantum). So Catholics who go to Church and participate in ritual replete with symbolic actions might be forgiven for thinking that the answer with the word “symbol” in it is the correct answer. Likewise, if they think “actual” means “physical” or “material” then they might likewise be forgiven for thinking that the answer containing this word was wrong, since the bread and wine clearly do not undergo a physical change.
But, before we grow too calm about all this, the bread and wine are only symbols secundum quid (in a certain sense) and one would like to think that, when faced with a badly-posed question, more than a third would have been able to suss out which was the more correct answer. More disturbing is the fact that 22% identified Church teaching with the view that the bread and wine are actually Christ’s body and blood, but identified their own view with the “symbolic” view (and downright baffling are the 2% who think the church teaches the “symbolic” view but themselves take the “actual” view). Do these folks really understand what the Church teaches? Do they think that the Church teaches something absurd and unworthy of belief? Even if their understanding of the “actual” view is a distorted one, is it a problem that they dismiss what they at least understand to be the Church’s teaching on a central ritual of the Christian life?
There are other interesting findings:
- Not too surprisingly, adherence to the “actual” view is more prevalent among weekly Mass-goers (63%), perhaps suggesting that exposure to the Church’s liturgy fosters correct Eucharistic belief (lex orandi, etc.), or perhaps confirming Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment (“If it’s a symbol then to hell with it.”).
- Adherence to the “actual” view also increases with educational level (26% among those with a high school education or less; 37% percent among the college educated), suggesting perhaps that a more nuanced understanding of the Church’s teaching makes people more ready to accept the “actual” view.
Since this blog’s focus is liturgy, we could also ask ourselves how best to celebrate the Eucharist so as to embody and convey the true teaching of the Church: that Christ’s presence is both “symbolic” (i.e. sacramental) and actual. Are Eucharist-as-meal and Eucharist-as-real-presence-and-sacrifice a zero-sum game? Are practices like standing for communion or receiving in the hand part of the problem? Do “smells and bells” incline people away from simplistic symbolic understandings of the Eucharist, and, if so, do they do so at the cost of leading them to fall into simplistic magical understandings of the Eucharist?