Knowing is believing–and sometimes not knowing is believing, too

Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown has some interesting findings on his blog today about Catholics and their knowledge of the church's teaching on the real presence in the Eucharist. According to newly published research on American Catholics, it is more common for Catholics to believe Christ is present in the Eucharist without actually knowing the church teaches that fact than to know the church's teaching but not believe it to be true.

After a 2010 Pew Forum study found that 45 percent of Catholics didn't know the church's teaching on the real presence, this new study finds the number to actually be 50 percent. And yet, 63 percent of Catholics personally believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ at the consecration–including 17 percent who had no idea that the church actually teaches that this is true. Here's a helpful graphic from the study that breaks down the numbers:

Gray points out that the "knowledgeable doubters," that is those who know the church's teaching on the subject yet don't believe it, are a very small minority. Yet I think the 50 percent who don't know the church's teaching on the real presence are a more interesting group to analyze.

First, as someone who been involved in religious education at the parish level, I am somewhat stunned to hear that a full half of American Catholics could be unaware of the fact that Catholic doctrine says Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist. I could understand not knowing the how and why, or just having a hard time wrapping one's head around the fact that the bread and wine changes right before our eyes into Christ's body and blood. And I wouldn't have been shocked to read that Catholics are aware of this teaching and just don't believe it.

But knowing what the church teaches about the real presence should really be the bare minimum when it comes to knowledge of Catholicism–after all, we're expecting second graders to at least know when they are receiving their first communion that they are receiving Christ himself. Is the problem that we don't enforce that teaching enough beyond second grade and many Catholics are just forgetting what they've been taught? Or were they never told in the first place that Jesus is present in the Eucharist? Either way, it should raise some red flags about our current methods of faith formation, both for children and adults.

And yet, perhaps even more amazing is the fact that 17 percent of Catholics have believed that when they receive the Eucharist it is truly the body and blood of Christ despite not knowing the church teaches this to be true. Though it carries the embarrassing fact of Catholics being unaware of their own faith tradition, the church should still be proud of what this number says about the faith of the church and the validity of its teaching on the real presence. Just like Jesus himself said to Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen (or in this case, heard) and yet still believe.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.