It has been widely reported in recent years that there is a divergence between what the Catholic Church believes about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and what many people in the pews believe. As reported in US Catholic, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has some new survey data on this problem:
The editorial in US Catholic concentrates on the fact that the number of knowledgeable doubters is quite small (4%) but that a significant number of Catholics believe in the Real Presence without knowing that htis is what the Church teaches. I suspect that this belief is grounded in Church teaching; the respondants simply no longer remember the proximate source of their belief. (Like all belief it must ultimately be grounded in faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit.)
What I find inexplicable is that 50% of Catholics surveyed report not knowing that the Church teaches the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I find it hard to believe that this is not the subject of homilies and catechesis on a regular basis, if only because it is A) orthodox, and B) relatively non-controversial. Indeed, drawing on personal experience, I can only recall one instance in which I ever heard a priest say anything that could be interpreted as denying the Real Presence. In this particular case the more charitable reading is that he was not trying to deny transubstantiation but was rather making a hash of describing Schillibeeckx’s ideas on transignification. I am sure that some of you can report anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but for the sake of argumentation, I am going to assume that such instances are rare.
This then leaves open the question of how it can happen that one half of all Catholics do not know what the Church teaches on this question. I want to suggest that it is a failure of pedagogy: Catholics are routinely taught about the Real Presence, but in such a way that it has no substantive meaning and is therefore not incorporated into their understanding of the sacrament.
I see this phenomenon regularly teaching calculus. To a mathematician, a derivative is a “rate of change”, but to many students, it is a formal algebraic manipulation that is done to certain expressions. Thus, if I ask students what is the derivative of f(x)=x^2, the vast majority will dutifully compute that f'(x)=2x. But if I ask them in some way to explain or interpret what this means in terms of a rate of change, a significant minority will not be able to do so. Early in my career I assumed that such students were simply too lazy or too stupid to understand what was “really” going on. Old age has brought, if not wisdom then a deeper understanding of how their failure to understand is also a product of pedagogy: they do not get it in part because the way I am teaching does not lead them to incorporate this deeper understanding into their overall mental construct of the derivative.This suggests that the solution to the problem is not simply more homilies on transubstantiation and the Real Presence: piling on words will not yield more understanding. Rather, I would suggest that the solution is to address what it means for us, what are the consequences for us as individuals and as a community, that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Pope Francis touched on this in an extemporaneous homily he preached at a parish in Rome. Engaging in a dialogue (heaven forefend: a dialogue sermon!) with children who recently made their first communion, he tried to convey the deeper meaning of the sacrament:
Jesus has saved us, but he also walks with us in life. Right? And how does he walk? What does he do when he walks with us in life? This is difficult. The one who gets it wins the derby. What does Jesus do when he walks with us? Speak up! First: he helps us. He guides us! Great! He walks with us, he guides us and he teaches us to go forward. And Jesus also gives us the strength to walk. Right? He sustains us! Good! In difficulties, right? And also in our homework! He sustains us, he helps us, he guides us, he sustains us. That’s it!
Jesus always goes with us. Very well. But listen, Jesus gives us strength. How does Jesus give us strength? You know this, how he gives us strength! Speak up, I can’t hear you! In Communion he gives us strength, he really helps us with strength. He comes to us. But when you say, “he gives us Communion,” does a piece of bread give you so much strength? That’s not bread? It’s bread? This is bread, but that on the altar, is it bread or not? It looks like bread! It’s not really bread. What is it? It is the Body of Jesus. Jesus comes into our hearts.
While clearly aimed at children, I think that these words would also have spoken to the adults present at mass. Now, of course, they will have a greater impact because they heard them directly from a charismatic pope in a relatively intimate setting. But I think the words themselves say something important. The question then is this: how can we expand upon these ideas so that they are heard and internalized by the 50% of Catholics who do not hear, or who hear but do not understand, what the Church is now saying about the Eucharist?