America Comment

Why do so few US Catholics believe in the Real Presence? Look at the liturgy

(CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

A generation of pastors stripped the altars and passed out the Eucharist like a leaflet

The latest Pew study shockingly states that only 31 per cent of Catholics in the United States believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” Out of the 69 per cent of Catholics surveyed who believe that the bread and wine are mere “symbols,” only 22 per cent of those understand that they are dissenting from the Church’s actual teaching. The rest are accidental Zwinglians. 

It sometimes surprises students how little dispute over the Eucharist there was in the early Church. Certainly one could see how Donatism or Pelagianism or Nestorianism might touch upon Eucharistic understanding, but there were no serious disputes until the ninth century — when the aptly named Ratramnus taught Charles the Bald that the elements of bread and wine should not be regarded as “verily” Christ’s body and blood, but as “figures” which spiritually communicated the reality to us. Yet this never rose to the level of a grand ecclesial dispute. 

It was really later thinkers, in the eleventh and especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who used Ratramnus to advance a broadly symbolic view of the Most Holy Eucharist. Berengar of Tours unwittingly utilized Ratramnus in a dispute with Lanfranc of Bec, and he was condemned and excommunicated in 1050 for opposing the doctrine of the Real Presence. By 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council saw fit to confirm the term “transubstantiation” as the most apt for securing against such errors the Church’s teaching on the Most Holy Eucharist. 

Aquinas clearly has Berengar in mind when he raises the question in the third part of the Summa, whether the Eucharist is merely a figure, a sign or a symbol of Christ’s presence. He treats the possibility that perhaps when Jesus said “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood,” he intended only a spiritual meaning. Aquinas even attends to those objections which would twist the words of St. Augustine and St. Gregory to support the spiritualizing interpretation, but finds them wanting any contact with reality at all. Any attempt to make the bread and wine into mere signs which have no substantial contact with the reality of Christ’s actual body and blood on the sacrament of the altar utterly fails to square with the faith of the Church. Flannery O’Connor famous dinner party quip about the Eucharist — “if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!” — works very well as a summary of St Thomas. The Angelic Doctor is memorable in his own assessment of such Berengarian denials of the Real Presence, simply concluding, “this is a view to be rejected as heretical, since it is contrary to Christ’s words.”

St. Thomas, of course, held the correct view. The elements of bread and wine undergo a transformation so that they become “the presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament.” What changes? Certainly not just something in our understanding of signs. Rather, what changes is something objectively real. The substance of the bread and wine have become the true body and blood. The fact that this transubstantiation “cannot be detected by the senses but only by faith” is not something which makes the Eucharist less credible, though, as it might be for the rationalist and the materialist, but more credible for those with eyes to see: “since faith is in things unseen, just as Christ shows us his divinity invisibly, so too in this sacrament he shows us his flesh in an invisible manner.” 

By the sixteenth century, dissenting theologians had become more sophisticated in their denials — usually rejecting the view of the Mass as Sacrifice, rather than the Doctrine of the Real Presence directly. Lutherans stepped back from “transubstantiation” as the “most apt description,” yet tried to preserve some liturgical continuity with Eucharistic celebration, while Calvinists loosened the liturgical continuity even more so, tending to speak of Christ’s “virtual presence,” even as Zwingli went for his hyper-Berengarian “memorialism” that broke every real connection between sign and reality. Thus it took sixteen centuries to arrive at a truly massive ecclesial dispute over the Eucharist. 

Yet even in the sixteenth century, as historians such as Eamon Duffy have shown, it took time for the people’s understanding of the Eucharist to catch up with the theological and liturgical reforms of the theologians. But eventually, the people began to learn through the liturgical changes. They learned by hearing how the theologians and pastors spoke about the Eucharist, and they learned from the kind of reverence, or lack of it, given to the sacrament of sacraments.

What the Pew study shows is something like an echo of this protestant history, yet very much downstream from another set of reforms: a series of unnecessary and para-conciliar liturgical reforms that were implemented by Catholic priests in the United States to better accord with their view of what it meant to be “open to the modern world.”

Many have said that the Pew study reflects a catechetical failure. I fear the opposite: it reflects a certain kind of catechetical success. It is the result of an unwritten catechesis that American Catholics have been slowly learning. Through a deracinated, spiritualistic, and emotivistic treatment of the Eucharist, many Catholics have learned their faith from a generation of pastors who stripped the altars, razed the bastions of reverence around the Lord in the sacrament, and who generally treated the Most Holy Eucharist itself as something to be passed out like a leaflet rather than received in awe, as people prostrate before the fire of divinity. Far too many have received this kind of unwritten catechesis. 

It’s past time that our pastors preach what St. Cyril of Alexandria taught. Namely that the Eucharist is divine fire. Mistreat it, and it will burn you. The whole “razing of the bastions” theme has played itself out to disastrous effect in the Church. The bastions turned out to be things like altar rails, and liturgical actions which conform us to the reality of the Eucharist. The Pew study proves that it’s time to put the bastions back.