When ex-Catholics answered a Pew poll two years ago about why they stopped going to church, 41% cited “religious institutions, practices, or people,” for example, they just didn’t like their church, or found it hypocritical. That kind of thing could happen at any church, of course. But the more interesting figure is the 12% who said that they no longer believed in God, and an additional 6% who said simply “they grew up” or “started thinking for themselves.” This leads us to the Eucharist or as it is also called, Holy Communion and the central Catholic teaching in transubstantiation (that the bread and/or wine actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus) and the Real Presence (that Jesus is actually present in the bread after the priest’s sacramental words have been spoken).
Let’s face it: for anyone who was not raised in this belief, it’s a tall order. So do Catholics really believe this or what? It turns out that not all do. Another Pew Forum study from 2010 found that 37% of Catholics rejected the doctrine that Christ is actually present in the communion wafer that they ingest every mass. A more recent study showed that fully half of American Catholics did not even know that was one of the Church’s teachings. One Catholic blogger, quite rightly, finds this astonishing because Catholic children in the second grade everywhere in America are supposedly taught this important information before their first communion. Why then is this piece missing from the Catholic consciousness?
Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is that the average second grader would be repelled by the idea of actually eating someone’s flesh and drinking their blood, even though it looks like a wafer made from wheat, especially if that someone were Jesus, who loved little children and healed so many of the sick. You’ve got to admit that as metaphysical notions go, it’s pretty strange, even repulsive. I would think it’s very likely that the priests are not hammering home the eating Jesus part in their prep classes, and by soft-pedalling the “This is my body,” they are drifting into the Protestant realms of the ritual as symbol.
The Eucharist is the cornerstone sacrament of the Catholic Church but these numbers show some movement away from this–….well, the word “medievalism” comes to mind. The Cathars in southern France were on the right track with this back in the 13th century when they tossed this sacrament overboard, but Pope Innocent III and his “crusaders” (with St. Dominic staunchly supporting them) had them wiped out, man, woman, and child. And so the teachings continue, that Jesus, every molecule of Him, is in each wafer, each drop of communal wine. But you can’t help thinking that if Innocent and been less Catholic and more humane, the Church would be teaching something much different today.