ROME — More than two-thirds of U.S. Catholics do not believe in what is arguably their Church’s most distinctive teaching: that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Pew Research Center has found.
Seven in ten American Catholics (69 percent) believe that what they receive in Holy Communion at Mass on Sundays is ordinary bread and wine that merely symbolizes the body and blood of Christ, Pew revealed.
The Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine used in Mass actually become the body and blood of Christ during the consecration, when the priest repeats the words that Christ uttered at the Last Supper: “This is my body… This is the chalice of my blood… Do this in memory of me.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.”
Citing the Council of Trent, the Catechism goes on to state that “by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
Yet fewer than one third of U.S. Catholics (31 percent) say they believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”
In its survey, Pew found that most Catholics do not reject the Catholic teaching on the nature of the Eucharist; they have never been taught what their Church actually believes.
“Most Catholics who believe that the bread and wine are symbolic do not know that the church holds that transubstantiation occurs,” Pew found. “Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the church.”
A much smaller percentage (22 percent) reject the idea of transubstantiation while knowing that this is what the Church teaches.
As might be expected, U.S. Catholics’ belief about the Eucharist varies considerably according to their practice of the faith.
Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week accept the Church’s teaching on the nature of the Eucharist.
Among Catholics who do not attend Mass weekly, significant majorities say they believe the bread and wine are symbolic and do not actually become the body and blood of Jesus.
Belief in the nature of the Eucharist has been one of the key doctrinal differences between Catholics and most Protestant Christians for centuries.
According to the Pew survey, it would appear that the beliefs of a majority of U.S. Catholics regarding the Eucharist are more closely aligned to Protestant beliefs than to those of their own Church, often because they have never been taught what Catholics believe.