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Catholics and Communion

pope-benedict-massFrom time to time there is discussion about how much people ought to understand the Eucharist before being allowed to receive it. [Reminder: I’m at the end of the spectrum of the early church and the uninterrupted practice of the Orthodox Church – which is the same as my opinion about how much people ought to understand dental hygiene before brushing teeth, or how much people ought to understand digestion processes before being allowed to eat]. Now the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life adds an interesting perspective: “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.”

This fits with my experience just chatting with young Roman Catholics who have gone through a Roman Catholic schooling system, regard themselves as practising, and are intelligent and reflective and regularly have a university education behind them. They surprise me in their pick-and-mix beliefs and knowledge. There will be guilt about using contraceptives, and certainly abortion is regarded as wrong – but sex prior to marriage is not an issue for them, nor mostly is homosexual activity. That the RC Church teaches a vasectomy is wrong comes as a complete surprise.

Protestants didn’t do that much better in the survey. Not surprisingly, to me, agnostics and atheists appear to have thought about and know about religion more.

You can try the survey yourself
Here’s the results of the survey

ps. What was my score? OK – I did get one wrong: I had no idea which preacher participated in the period of religious activity known as the First Great Awakening.
pps. Boy it irks me when Catholic and Protestant are called “religions” – the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life gets marked down by me on that.

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17 thoughts on “Catholics and Communion”

  1. Thanks for this informative blog on Catholic teaching re: Communion. As a former Catholic who now is a Protestant Pastor, I sometimes am puzzled why Catholics don’t know their faith. I accepted Christ (in 1973) on the campus of a Catholic University (University of Portland, Portland, Oregon). However, many do not know their own faith, unfortunately. As an aside, I agree about calling Catholicism a ‘religion.’ Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Blessings!!

  2. Saw that survey heralded a couple of days ago with bold headlines claiming that “atheists know more about religion than the religious”

    What a crock – in the Catholic Communion question the wording was identical apart from two words and thus particularly if answered over the phone begging to be mis-answered – more particularly if the wrong answer comes second!

    If you go through the full report you’ll see that high scores are correlated with educational achievement.

    What a total surprise!!!

    I got 100% btw but that has nothing to do with my Orthodox Faith and everything to do with my education and flypaper memory for factoids.

    1. Thanks for your contributions.

      Just to clarify Andrei’s point, here is the actual question:

      Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?
      The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
      The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

      NB. the use of the words “best describes”. Also question and answer choices were rotated, “eliminating potential biases from the sequencing of questions or answers.”

  3. I once attended a first communion Mass where a children’s lectionary was used and the reading from the epistle was translated as “This is like my body” the priest looked genuinely perplexed when I brought this to his attention…so I’m afraid this does not come as much of a surprise to me

  4. As a Catholic I find it quite upsetting that many either don’t believe or don’t know about transubstantiation. I don’t mean the word, but the theory that the eucharist looks like bread and wine, but are in fact completely Jesus Christ. I think that if we had a greater amount of adoration of the blessed sacrament then perhaps the message would get through better.

  5. I wouldn’t be troubled if I were you Tess – this survey is just the cultural elite taking a swipe at the great unwashed who are religious.

    We have e.g a Hispanic truck driver (who are mostly Catholic) being asked multiple questions on world religions, with two about their his own against the educated elite (who tend to atheism or agnosticism). And they don’t do as well – big deal.

    Do you think knowing Vishnu is a Hindu deity (another question from the survey) will stand anyone in good stead when standing before the the dread judgement seat of Christ?

    I don’t.

    It’s all a matter of keeping the right perspective.

    1. I do not know enough to confirm or deny Andrei’s contention that the Pew Forum “is just the cultural elite taking a swipe at the great unwashed who are religious” – certainly that does not appear their purpose as they themselves express it here. Nor do I at all get the impression that the Pew Forum is of the opinion that these questions are the ones that we will need to know the correct answers to “when standing before the the dread judgement seat of Christ”.

  6. I did not get any wrong… Which was luck because there were a couple I really did not know anything about.

    Going back to communion and Eucharist, I received this from the Henri Nouwen Society today:

    “The beauty of the Eucharist is precisely that it is the place where a vulnerable God invites vulnerable people to come together in a peaceful meal. When we break bread and give it to each other, fear vanishes and God becomes very close.”

    If by listening to the Word, being part of a community and then receiving the Eucharist, we grasp that we come close to Godde’s love, receive that Love, accept it if we can (for isn’t it difficult to believe that Godde loves us as we are), and then share it… then maybe the Presence is with us not only during the Eucharist but all the time.

    Ah, the love of Godde is so overwhelming and beautiful and always available, ready to transform us… Why do we need to ‘make it legal or illegal’ …

  7. Well here is Reuters

    Atheists top religious knowledge survey

    _ More than four-in-10 Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually become the body and blood of Christ.

    – About half of Protestants cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person who sparked the Protestant Reformation.

    Shonky surveys are straight out of the Saul Alinsky playbook.

    There is a good chance in a telephone survey consisting of 32 questions that you or I would have mis-answered that question.

    That being said I do know at least one Catholic who doesn’t hold with transubstantiation.

    And quite a few Anglicans who are Arians besides but the survey didn’t test for either of those things.

    It was a religion general knowledge test.

    Designed for what purpose exactly? What does it really provide besides that headline

  8. Just a reminder: you stated that “I’m at the end of the spectrum of the early church and the uninterrupted practice of the Orthodox Church”, and that it was “the same as my opinion about how much people ought to understand dental hygiene before brushing teeth”, it should be strongly remembered that the early church had a one year period of instruction for all new believers before they were allowed to participate in the liturgy of the Table. Thus, they had a better understanding of the faith than many today are given.

    In Fact, Anglican theologian J.I. Packer is leading a campaign to re-introduce the concept of catechesis for all churches today, to educate all believers in the theology of their faith (one of his topics is “Theology is for EVERYONE”). A solid campaign that I hope bears much fruit.

    Peace and blessings
    Jim <

    1. Yes, Jim, if you have read my book Celebrating Eucharist (available free online here) you will realise I am a strong advocate of the catechumenate and the catechumenal process, and produced rites that mark stages in that process. Just to clarify what I’m sure you take for granted, but is a little confusing in your comment for those who do not: what you call “the liturgy of the Table” followed directly from baptism. All new believers completed their initiation by receiving communion at the same time as baptism, infants and babies included. I am also totally with you that all Christians be involved in study, training, and formation – this website, I hope, is just one resource that helps.

  9. maria procaccino

    I had taken the test and got 15 out of 15. Frankly, i guessed at the last one and got it right!! that person was NOT on my radar.
    As a catechist and director of ministry for the past almost 20 years, we have always known that we have many generations of uncatechized or certainly under-catechized believers.
    These same folks all know who won American Idol, where Paris Hilton is right now, who Ricky Martin is dating etc., etc. they probably DON”T know who they Senator is or who is the Vice President of the US.
    Today we blessed the animals for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi; my mother’s nurse who spends day after day in some evangelical church doing what ever they do there(but who i am sure was Baptized Catholic) had NEVER heard of this. some one failed to educate her long ago so now she spends hours on end worshiping…. somehow.
    i tend to fall more on your side, F.Bosco: do we have to know why we eat to know that we must eat? The Eucharist should be much the same: a primordial need to nourish our souls with the true presence/body, soul and divinity of God. i’ve taught it many ways: i try to live it many ways… we hope to get at least some of them to “get it.”
    i often discuss this with my priest friends: if i did not believe with my whole being in the fullness of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, i would have been ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church many years ago.
    i also think we need to make better use of the web and support more sites like this one getting to more kids and parents to expose them to the beauty of the faith and the truth of the Eucharist(thanksgiving) to our God.
    if you follow some of the more conservative Web sites in use, you will go crazy at some of the questions which persist from the faithful and which “they” continue to answer. For example: “Is is a sin to work on SUnday?” and that was one of the less offensive ones!!! There is, to say the least a generation/information/belief gap. i’m rambling now….;-)

  10. David |Dah•veed|

    Andrei’s comment is interesting regarding Catholic vs Christian. I take from it that he does not believe that all Catholics are Christians. There is a similar concept here in Mexico, but I think that it arises more from ignorance than Andrei’s obvious bias. Mexicans for some reason think of Christians as those who belong to churches other than the Roman Catholic church, even to the point that I have asked them if they were a Christian and they tell me, “No, I am a Catholic!”

  11. Andrei’s comment is interesting regarding Catholic vs Christian. I take from it that he does not believe that all Catholics are Christians.


  12. It’s a trick question on Eucharistic theology. The wording is “actually become” versus “are symbols.” The two are not mutually exclusive. Karl Rahner (a Roman Catholic theologian) has done work on what he calls “real symbols,” and applies this idea to sacramental theology.

    Thomas Aquinas (especially his Latin nuances) also implies Symbol for the Eucharist while not denying transubstantiation. Which, as a side bar he says is the best but not only description of what happens at Eucharist. There are certainly other theologians I could offer.

    A Symbol, when it works and is real, is a vehicle for multiple layers of meanings all at the same time, without the need to be explicit. What a sad thought if Eucharist were not also a Symbol (in the must full sense of course). And that is why I believe it is dangerous to have a cognitive barrier to it’s reception making the sacrament an intellectual exercise rather than letting the Symbol “be.”

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful response, Joel. I absolutely agree. I distinguish between signs and symbols. I also stop my students from using words such as “merely”, “only”, “just” – merely a symbol, just a story, only a metaphor. Along with the use of the word “religion” you are right in critiquing the Pew Forum’s survey on this point. They may defend by pointing to their seeking which “best describes Catholic teaching”. I underscore our need to get Christianity to move away from merely 😉 being “an intellectual exercise”.

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