Pew Research Director Gregory A. Smith on Understanding American Catholics’ Belief in the Eucharist

A priest holds up the Eucharist. Photo by Robert Cheaib/Creative Commons

Gregory A. Smith is the associate director of research at Pew Research Center. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.


A recent opinion piece by Thomas Reese, “The Eucharist is about more than Christ becoming present,” states that Pew Research Center has “an impoverished idea of what the Eucharist is really all about.”

The center’s understanding is that the belief that the Eucharist is really the body and blood of Christ is central to the Catholic faith. As such, we sought to measure what U.S. Catholics believe on the subject.

In a recent survey measuring religious knowledge among U.S. adults, we included a question to that effect and worded it in such a way that it could be understood and appropriately answered by a broad swath of lay people.

The question did not include complex theological terms like “transubstantiation” or “real presence.” Instead, it simply asked respondents to indicate what they believe happens to the bread and wine used for Communion at Catholic Mass, regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church; do they believe the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ,” or are they “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

The survey found that 31% of self-described Catholics say they believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus, while 69% say they believe the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood.

We are aware that other surveys of Catholics have asked questions about the Eucharist. A 1994 New York Times/CBS poll, for instance, found that 1-in-3 Catholics at the time believed that “the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s body and blood,” while more than 6-in-10 believed that “the bread and wine are symbolic reminders of Christ.”

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Source: Religion News Service