New Survey: 50 percent of US Catholics know what transubstantiation is

It may make a difference at which church these questions are asked.

I read at Crux,

Only half of US Catholics get Church teaching on Communion, study finds

I know that where I am, people know and believe.

ROME – Results from a new Pew survey show that Jews are the most knowledgeable among America’s religious communities about world religions, while only half of American Catholics know what their own Church teaches on core principles such as communion.

According to the survey, exactly 50 percent of Catholics in the United States correctly answered a question about Church teaching on transubstantiation – the belief that during Mass, the bread and wine become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

“The other half of Catholics incorrectly say the Church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion are just symbols of the body and blood of Christ,” and a small percentage are not sure, the study found.

Around 34 percent of Americans overall were aware of this teaching, but more than half showed knowledge of the Catholic concept of purgatory as a place of purification for souls who have died before they reach heaven. Nearly a quarter of participants said they believed purgatory was a place of damnation for evildoers.

Only 71 percent of Catholics got the purgatory question right, which, while not a perfect score, significantly outweighs the number of Catholics who showed a correct understanding of Church teaching on the Eucharist.

[…]

Imagine basic knowledge of other teachings, such as the resurrection and virgin birth.

This is a massive condemnation of basic the catechesis, preaching and liturgical ars celebrandi of the last 50 years.  Older priests and bishops should hand their heads in shame.

Younger bishops and priests now have 10 times the weight to carry as they trudge towards a dismal demographic horizon.

What can we do?

  • First, we have to know our Faith well.  As 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence”. Reach constantly for your good and reliable sources for your knowledge of the Faith, whatever they may be. Use them, review them. Talk about them.
  • Teach your children if you have them in your charge. If you have to work with extended family to do this, get to work. Godparents, this means you. Are you involved?
  • It is time to form “base communities” of authentic Faith. These could be small groups by invitation – never underestimate the power of an invitation – to meet at a coffee shop or home or park or the Top Of The Mark. Go through the Catechism of the Catholic Church or – why not? – old Baltimore Catechisms or individual volumes of the Navarre Bible [US HERE – UK HERE]. Go through something… anything… but move forward!
  • Perhaps the same group can approach the parish priests to learn or to celebrate for them the Traditional Latin Mass.  Be ready to supply for them everything they would need, including money to go to a workshop.

Fathers… Bishops… you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. You may want to say that a multitude of things press on you in the administration of the parish or the diocese. I suggest that, of all the things that you are ordained to do, celebrating the sacred mysteries, especially Holy Mass and hearing confessions, is supreme. And, because of supreme importance in the good ordering of life held by the virtue of Religion, unless celebration of the sacred mysteries has pride of place, every other effort and initiative will be enervated from the start.  Together with this must be preaching, and preaching the truths of the Catholic Faith.

What we’ve been doing for 50 years – at least – isn’t getting the job done.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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23 Responses to New Survey: 50 percent of US Catholics know what transubstantiation is

  1. Julia_Augusta says:

    i agree that Catholics need to be taught something as basic as transsubstantiation. But they won’t believe it unless priests treat the host as truly the body of Christ, and that means no more Communion in the hand and lay men/women distributing the host as if it were a cookie.

  2. L. says:

    A survey of Catholic clergy to see how many can define what transubstantiation is and how many really believe it would be interesting, if not shocking.

  3. monstrance says:

    Lining up to to receive our Lord in the hand as if He is an order of French fries hasn’t helped.
    Along with the casual and banal manner of Mass conduct.

  4. Actually, this is good news. When I was (associate) professor of religious studies and history at the University of Oregon in the 1990s, Pew did a similar (but actually more sophisticated) poll of Catholics under 40. It asked Catholics to choose between the Catholic (transubstantiation), Lutheran (consubstantiation), Calvinist (pneumatic presence), and Zwinglian (purely symboli) views. BUT it only described the views, not giving any denominational label or the formal name of the position. In that survey, 2/3 of Catholics choose the Zwinglian view. The next most common was Calvin. Only 5% choose transubstantiation.

    I could not believe this, so I did the same poll myself. It was exactly right for Catholics. Oddly, however, the Lutherans mostly choose the Catholic position and 2/3 of the Baptists choose either pneumatic presence or transubstantiation. The Catholics were the least “Catholic” of all the denominations in the class.

    I did this poll in my history of Christianity class when I got to the Reformation every year for five years and got the same result. It made for an interesting intro. to the Reformation controversies on the Eucharist. Then suddenly about 1998 (I went to Univ. of Virginia the next year), everyone started (more or less) picking the right view for their tradition. I called this the “return to orthodoxy.”

    Obviously, when you go from 5% of Catholics believing in transubstantiation to 50% this is a remarkable improvement, especially since in the new Pew poll the percentage of actually practicing Catholics is surely well down from the 1990s.

    The biological solution is working.

  5. Bob B. says:

    Having taught in Catholic schools for a number of years, it should be mentioned that the old Baltimore Catechism is virtually forbidden in Catholic schools and there is an incredible amount of “winking” that many teachers and administrators practice when it comes to matters of belief and doctrine.
    Anything considered traditional or old-fashioned is sometimes just plain outlawed and if you don’t conform, you’ll be eased out or let go. The ‘hearts and flowers’ nonsense contained in the grade-level religion textbooks always begged clarification by students to the point the books served virtually no purpose – students want to know but are fed tripe instead.
    The Pew survey isn’t very surprising, but it should be.

  6. acardnal says:

    Another worrisome fact is how many Catholics do not believe that missing Mass without a serious reason is a mortal sin. I remind them that mortal sin without repentance sends one to hell. But I then they respond that there is no hell or few are there which reminds me of what Bishop Sheen said, “if you don’t believe in hell now, you will when you get there.”

  7. I concur with the genial Dominican, Father Augustine, above.

    But here’s a cautionary thing. Over the years, I’ve heard priests and bishops say — of certain topics that are controversial or delicate to talk about from the pulpit — that the faithful “know what the Church teaches.” I hear or see this claim made frequently on the subject of abortion, for example. But those of us who are priests and bishops know full well that — between homilies, articles and teaching in religious ed or RCIA or wherever — we address the Eucharist a lot more than we do other hot-button, delicate issues. Even those of us who do try to touch on everything from time to time know this. (Why is this so? Because the Mass readings give frequent opportunities, and very few people in the pews will get furious if you talk about the Eucharist, not like they do about about certain other topics.)

    So if this is the result we get on a topic we actually do talk about a fair amount of the time — either from the pulpit, or in the bulletin, or in other communications — then what do you think happens on those subjects we rarely bring up?

    No, Bishops, no, brother priests, do not assume they already know what we believe.

    I look at it this way. Everybody’s heard of Coke, so why does Coca-Cola bother to run so many ads? Hmm, maybe there’s a connection?

  8. Ms. M-S says:

    Fifty percent? I wonder what percent the Pew survey will find after another fifty years of the same catechetics and preaching? As quoted in the blogpost above this one, by their fruits you will know them. Fifty years of exactly the same and the whole orchard will produce a scanty and crabbed harvest indeed, if anything.

  9. Benedict Joseph says:

    The deprivation of the laity of authentic and comprehensive catechesis was a deliberate program instituted decades ago in order to prepare for the “New Paradigm.” You can’t pour your new notions into skins filled with the perennial Magisterium of the Church. Critical individuals were thinking — no calculating — for their long term ambition to metamorphosise Holy Mother Church into a shadow of itself. A shadow in service to what?
    I was among the last to receive authentic catechesis. By the time I was a sophomore in high school it had been abandoned. If a phrase was determined to be ultra-Catholic the newly ordained cleric in the front of the class room would hurl the accusation of “pious nonsense” at the naïve teenager in front of him. By the time I was teaching high school religion a decade later I remember clearly one of my students asking “If the Romans were Catholic why did they throw the Christians to the lions?”
    Thank God for the evangelization I received in Catholic grammar school at the hands of the Sisters of Christian Charity. What would life have been without it? How would I ever recovered from the loose leash provided by the post-conciliar Church?

  10. ZestyLemonZach says:

    My early Catechism education consisted of coloring books, word searches, and the overall idea that Catholics and Protestants are basically the same thing. I didn’t know anything about my faith until I found Fulton Sheen in 2012. It’s an incredible shame that the Church now, at least as far dioceses are concerned, doesn’t bother to teach our youth anything substantive about the faith.

  11. Alice says:

    I’m pleasantly surprised that the number is up to 50%. I’ve heard 30% quoted in quite a few sermons. I assume this is because catechesis in your average Catholic parish started to improve in the 90s and early 2000s and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament became somewhat mainstream again. If I had a dime for every Catholic my age or a few years older who said “But nobody ever taught us that” be it about transubstantiation, birth control, or you name it, I could donate a new altar to my parish! So, Fathers, please make sure to review the basics. Many of us sitting in the pews are not well catechized and even those of us who are appreciate the review.

  12. Ferretti says:

    “L” asked the correct question: What would a survey of the clergy and episcopacy show? The carelessness and lack of respect for Our Lord, especially during the Consecration, speak volumes to the pewsitters, who can’t help but “hear”; nothing important is happening. But thank God, not all, and not everywhere.

  13. ChesterFrank says:

    If more Catholics attended Mass, more Catholics would (should) know what transubstantiation is. IMHO

  14. Dear Alice,

    For what it is worth, I don’t think improved catechesis in the 1990s was responsible, because I saw no evidence that it improved. I think the turn has to do with the need for Millennials to have an “identity.” And I don’t mean that negatively. One student of this period told me, after a presentation by a quite traditional rabbi about “Jewish customs”: “I just hate being a white-bread Protestant.” I think it was the young people searching for themselves how are responsible for the “turn to orthodoxy.”

    One example. At exactly the same time as the “turn” that I described was happening, the student-run Hillel House board hired a new rabbi who was willing to change the worship format to one they wanted. Hillel went from guitar songs and snacks on Friday night to traditional services in Hebrew on Saturday morning—albeit with women called to the Torah.

    These young people deserve the credit for the turn to traditional religion, not their elders. There will, in all cases, I think, be fewer who identify themselves with any “denomination” (note the rise of the “nones”), but those who remain will be “hard identity believers” (use us Fr. Z’s favorite phrase).

  15. Gerard Plourde says:

    I’m happy if Catholics understand that they receive Our Lord Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. And while I firmly believe that the Essence of the Elements change, I’m less worried if the average Catholic can recite Aquinas’s formulation regarding the Essence vs. Appearance than I am that they be encouraged to receive Our Lord while free of Mortal Sin so that He may make His dwelling within them and order their lives into His Way.

  16. iPadre says:

    The 50% knows what transubstantiation is, but the more important question is, does that 50% believe it?

  17. Sigh. “iPadre,” if one cannot know what something means, you cannot reject or accept it. So we are still better off than 25 years ago. Sigh.

  18. TonyO says:

    From my own experience (limited, obviously), it is very likely that a slightly higher percentage of Catholics know the basics of Communion to be able to identify the essential point of transubstantiation, than 25 years ago. But (a) fewer people identify as Catholic than used to: there used to be a whole swath of utterly uneducated cultural-catholics who had never been taught anything and who still CALLED themselves “Catholic” but shouldn’t have bothered. Now some of those people have stopped calling themselves that.

    There are also the people who have since found out what the doctrine is, and refused to believe it. That they can identify it is not helpful. Fortunately, this is too small a group to show up in the polls.

    I think there really is a bit better catechesis (on average), partly from significantly better resources (such as the CCC), and partly from a percentage of CCD teachers who actually know the truth and that’s why they are there. At least from what I have seen. I keep hoping that the drivel-mongers of the late 1960’s to 1980’s have just plain tired out and are (sooooo slowly) headed out to pasture, and nobody coming in behind actually wants the drivel. Outright heresy, maybe, but less of the centipede-to-butterfly drivel. I mean, you’ve got maybe TEN Catholic colleges out there where your kid has a chance to retain his faith, not one (as in 1972) or two (as in 1978). You’ve got the Dominican sisters in Nashville, running several schools. You’ve got two or three dozens of upstart independent high schools that are not tolerating any nonsense. Hardly any of that was available in 1975. And you have homeschooling. They are producing SOME noticeable numbers, even if not nearly enough.

    But I think the 50% is a mistake – it’s too high. Given that more than 75% of Catholics don’t go to mass frequently (much less every Sunday), I doubt that 50% actually recognize transubstantiation properly.

  19. JabbaPapa says:

    The criticism of our Eastern Orthodox brethren sometimes make against their Latin counterparts that our theology pretends to “explain” the Real Presence is not entirely without object, though in truth there is no “explanation” as such but there is found therein a description of various philosophical and theological consequences from the Reality of that Divine Presence.

    However, due to some occasional misunderstandings regarding such subtleties, there may be some, among even those who fully accept and worship our Lord in His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, who may suppose that they might “understand” the transubstantiation whilst the truth is that it is as much a Mystery as it is a Miracle.

  20. JonPatrick says:

    I think one thing that makes belief in transubstantiation harder is that we live in a very materialistic (in the philosophical sense) society that rejects anything supernatural. In addition there is this sense that it is up to each individual to make up his or her own mind as to what is true, a rejection of any kind of authority and the individual reigning supreme. So even good catechesis gets filtered through this material scientific world view plus the person’s own sense they are the final arbiters of what is true or false. It is a tough row to hoe in the 21st Century, although there is a sense that people are beginning to reject the totally material view and turn to various forms of spirituality, most often based on various Eastern religions or Paganism. We probably have to go back to basics and teach Christian apologetics first. At least there might be an opening amonsgst the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

  21. tho says:

    The Baltimore Catechism is a treasure that we should hold on to. The Sisters at my grammar school taught it every day for eight years. The presence of Jesus at the consecration was indelibly stamped on us. For an example, when our pastor, on occasion, made a sick call, when the whole school was at recess, he exited the sacristy directly into our playground. The whole school knelt on both knees, until he left in his car, and was out of sight. That kind of behavior was perfectly normal, in every parish. If the host was accidentally dropped during communion, a cloth was placed over where it fell, and after mass, our priest scrubbed and purified that area. No one touched a sacred vessel except a priest. We are reaping what the spirit of VII sowed.

  22. robtbrown says:

    Gerald Plourde,

    St Thomas’ explanation uses the substance-accidents couplet. Even so, his use of “substance” is not original. Transubstantiation begins to appear in theology in the 12th century, then is found at 4th Lateran in 1215 (Thomas is born in 1225). That notwithstanding, I don’t know of any official document referring to sccidents–the word used in appearances (species).

    Substance and Essence overlap, but are not the same thing.

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    Look, I love a good horrible statistic as much as the rest, but this is simply too little on which to build the case that 50% of American Catholics know what transubstantiation is. To begin with, according to the same Pew Research Institute, 93% of people in Latin America believe in transubstantiation (but can one say that they “know” what it is?). The facts are here:

    https://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/pr_14-11-13_latinamerica-03_revised-01/

    Even U. S. Hispanics are at 74%. The fact is that the two questions posed in the two surveys are designed differently. If the Latin America survey question had been asked of U. S. Catholics, the percentage would, I suspect edged to at least 75%. The fact is that the question in this general religious knowledge quiz from 2019 mentioned in the Crux article plays to the intermixing of ideas between Protestants and Catholics due to the false ecumenism warned about by Vatican II. It is bad ecumenism, it seems to me, that has lead to this mix-up in understanding what the Eucharist is. Given the high rates of inter-religious marriages and inter-religious “dialogue”, such mixing was inevitable. Yes, the weakening of catechesis is a contributing factor, but I suspect that the smearing out of Catholic identity by ecumenical interaction is the larger contributing factor – heck, according to the same survey, only 20% of Protestants know their teaching that salvation comes from faith, alone – and another 20% confuse Catholic and Protestant notions, hence, my comment, above about ecumenism.

    The Pew study can be found, here:

    https://www.pewforum.org/2019/07/23/what-americans-know-about-religion/

    The 50% of Catholics means, what? Self-identifying Catholics? Church attending Catholics? Catholics who haven’t been to church in 10 years? This is hardly proper sampling technique. The selection of the Catholic population is not reported in the survey with any degree of precision – it is, likely, self-report, which could mean anything from being a fallen-away Catholic, to a Cultural Catholic, to an Orthodox church-attending Catholic. Why, then, is it surprising that 50% of fallen-away Catholics don’t know their faith? Now, if 50% of church-attending Catholics didn’t understand transubstantiation, I would be more worried. Ultimately, this course-grained statistical sampling is good for a headline, but hardly useful science. It is good for stirring up comments, but hardly useful for understanding what and why things are. Either they should do the research properly or become a market survey company – that is a little harsh (sorry, for that), but they missed the opportunity to really make a significant contribution in understanding what and why the pew-sitters and pew-avoiders really think and the factors contributing to their differences. Hey, give me one million dollars and I will happily do the research.

    The Chicken