A national survey of over 1,000 Catholics found that nine out of 10 people who attend mass at least once a week believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
The survey found that 17% of Catholics attend mass weekly; of this group, nine out of 10 said they believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
The survey, conducted by the Center for Applied Research (CARA) at Georgetown University, analyzed how well Catholics understand Church teaching about the Eucharist. CARA conducts “social scientific studies of the Catholic Church” and published its findings in September 2023.
The survey asked both multiple-choice questions, and open-ended questions that allowed participants to write out their answers. The study found that forty-nine percent of participants responded that they believe that the Church teaches that “Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.”
The study found that participants who entered the Church as adults are “especially likely to believe in the Real Presence.”
The slight majority of fifty-one percent responded to the survey that they believe the Church teaches that “Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, meaning that Jesus is only symbolically present in the consecrated bread and wine.”
According to the survey, “Results of this question indicate that there is substantial confusion about what the Church teaches about the Eucharist with slightly more adult Catholics not knowing this correctly than those correctly identifying the teachings.”
Five percent watch mass digitally, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason, despite all U.S. bishops having removed dispensations for “attending” mass from home. Eighteen percent of the participants attend mass at least once a month. Twenty-six percent attend mass only a few times a year, and thirty-five percent “rarely or never attend mass.”
The majority of participants said that they learned their beliefs about the Eucharist–whether as a symbol or as the Real Presence–from their parents. The remaining participants said that they learned from sacramental preparation or parish religious education, at mass, or at a Catholic school.
Timothy O’Malley explained what makes CARA’s survey different from the 2019 PEW survey that prompted alarm about declining belief in the real presence. O’Malley argued that CARA’s results were more encouraging because the questions’ wording was more precise.
O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, which partnered with CARA to conduct the survey.
In the 2019 PEW survey concluded that only 31% of Catholics believed in the real presence, but O’Malley argued that the questions were likely confusing to participants.
As a result, CARA’s survey questions “are a bit clunkier than what you find in the Pew Survey, but such clunkiness is the way to avoid imprecision,” O’Malley wrote. “And we wanted people to be able to express in their own words what they believed about the Eucharist.”
However, one’s ability to articulate the belief should not necessarily determine their religious commitment, O’Malley noted.
One should be careful in too closely eliding religious commitment and the capacity for theological articulation. For example, many in our parishes profess on a weekly basis that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. This doctrine has Trinitarian and Christological implications. The Son is the very same God as the Father, and therefore when Jesus Christ cries out in agony in the garden, it is God’s very solidarity made present to us.
Imagine, though, that a survey was given at your average parish for which the goal was to assess whether the Son is consubstantial with the Father. I suspect that many Catholics might even say that they personally believed in something other than what the Church teaches on this particular doctrine. This is not because they are religiously uncommitted. It is because the teaching is difficult.
“Yet, these very same persons might in fact have a personal devotion to Jesus Christ that expressed the doctrine, even if they could not articulate it in the words that were offered on a survey,” O’Malley wrote. He added that the open-ended writing questions in the CARA survey had this rationale: “Catholics often know more than they can say or articulate. And the language of the heart can reveal belief where a survey question cannot.”
Although the CARA survey results are encouraging, O’Malley added that Eucharistic revival efforts should continue on: “After all, as the Second Vatican Council retrieved from both the patristic and medieval Church, the Eucharist is no mere ritual exercise. Rather, in celebrating the Eucharist, the deepest identity of the Church is made manifest.”