Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A failure of leadership

Americans are abysmally ignorant when it comes to religion. And for Christians, and especially for Catholics, the specifics are appalling:
More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity.[...]
I know what some of my fellow Catholics might be thinking: that this statistic is misleading, that lots of cultural Catholics or "C&E" Catholics or "CAPE" Catholics had to have answered questions about the Eucharist to have thrown things off that badly. But the truth is, that number or one just like it comes up again and again when we look at past surveys: somewhere around four out of ten Catholics just don't know what the Eucharist is, though this mystery is central to our faith.

We can, and should, blame decades of bad catechesis. We can, and should, blame the tendency of the modern homily to be a reflection about God's niceness to us and our niceness to each other instead of a weekly opportunity for religious instruction in which both the Gospel readings and key Catholic doctrines could be explained clearly, in simple, precise language, for the edification of the faithful. We can, and should, consider the role of many other things in weakening people's understanding of this mystery, including Communion under both species for the people at every Mass, the routine and ordinary use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and so-called "Eucharistic" hymns that continually refer to the Body and Blood of Christ in misleading terms.

But we also have to be honest, here. A failure of this magnitude is a failure of leadership. It is a failure of the men most entrusted to the care of the faithful, the bishops of the United States. And it is a failure that has been going on for quite some time now.

I don't mean to point a finger at every bishop in the United States; more than a few have merely inherited terrible situations from their predecessors, who thought, in those heady post-Conciliar days, that the Church was going to change her understanding of the Holy Sacrifice as she was apparently changing her understanding of other important things. In reality, as we know now, nothing important was changing at all. But priests and bishops of a certain age began to speak of the sacred mystery as "...doing liturgy..." or even "...doing Eucharist..." and uniting with those unfortunate phrases a deficient understanding of the Blessed Sacrament which believed that the Eucharist was somehow an extension of the faithful at Mass, who "became bread" for each other and thus helped bring about the Real Presence on the altar. It's hard to imagine how such a heretical notion ever arose; it's harder to realize how many people still hold it--even a few bishops, sadly enough.

But those bishops who have a proper understanding of the Eucharist must make it a priority that the faithful under their care also have the right understanding; that is, that they know that the Church teaches that at the words of institution the bread and wine offered by the priest at Mass become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, really and truly present on the altar. It is not necessary to expect that every person present at Mass is going to have a deeply theological understanding of this mystery, that they will be able to use the words "substance," "accidents," "appearance" etc. correctly--but they should know that every particle of what was bread and every drop of what was wine becomes, after the consecration, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ who is really present in the Blessed Sacrament.

I think if this were more greatly understood, the benefits would be enormous, in terms of the reverence and respect shown at Mass, the care with which Holy Communion is distributed, the selection of elegant songs to praise God for this great and mysterious gift, the careful attention to decent and suitable attire, and many more things that we like to complain about when we consider the experience of attending Mass in America. But I also think that the bishops need to be the ones to step up here, and to show that this statistic--four in ten Catholics not understanding the Eucharist!--is in no way acceptable to them, and that educating the people about this most basic and central tenet of our faith ought to take precedence in every diocese until every Catholic understands what our faith teaches about Christ's presence among us.

UPDATE: You can take the quiz here--write down your answers as you go!--and see how well you do. I got all 32 questions right, but I have to admit that there was one I only "knew" from seeing it mentioned in earlier news articles about the survey today. Without that one I know I would only have gotten 31 of them correct.

Post your results in the comments, if you like!


kkollwitz said...

"We can, and should, blame decades of bad catechesis."

Yes, and without minimizing the role bishops have to play, I encourage all knowledgable, faithful Catholics to enter the classroom as a catechist or aide, and turn this mess around.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Not only are many Protestants ignorant of Luther and the Reformation, but when you get into the Pentecostal and nondenominational megachurch varieties, they put so much emphasis on "obedience" that I occasionally ask, 'If that's what you believe, why aren't you Roman Catholic?'

I know, there is more to being Catholic than obedience, but as the end development of a movement that started as a rejection of obedience to duly constituted authority, it can become ludicrous.

Personally, I trace what I believe to John Wycliffe, more than Luther, but I certainly know about Luther as well. Wycliffe lived before the Reformation, died peacefully in his little parish, and only decades after his death was he dug up and burned at the stake. Nothing like the sturm and drang surrounding Luther.

freddy said...

Took the quiz & got them all correct. However, I did think that some of the questions were worded very poorly. For example, if one of the choices is "I don't know" and you don't, then it's correct, right?
Also, while I do think it is important to be well informed, my understanding of the beliefs and practices of other faiths doesn't really impact my own faith. As a Catholic, I do have a duty to study public policy regarding the practice of religion, but it's not in the least important for me to know the gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion in order to be a better Catholic, for example.

Anonymous said...

I was going to take issue with the "fatih alone" question, but I suppose it is just a quibble. Here's Dave Armstrong on it: Do Catholics Believe in Imputed Justification, External Righteousness, and Justification by Faith Alone? Yes (!), With Proper Biblical Qualifications

P. said...

27 out of 32. For the record, as someone instructed in Catholicism post-Vatican II, I was indeed taught that the wafer and wine become the body and blood of Christ. It's something about which I have remained skeptical, so I do not partake of it.

Rebecca in CA said...

I laughed at the "faith alone" question too!!! The Bible says that we are saved through faith alone, but it is a question of our understanding of that. Does that mean faith alone as opposed to faith hope and charity, or does it mean that faith is the first door we must walk through on the path to salvation. "Faith alone" cannot mean faith without hope or charity, because St. James says "Faith without works is dead".

I have to admit I am really ignorant about Buddhist/Hindu stuff and got a couple of those wrong. And I've never even heard of the "Great Awakening"!

JMB said...

The Holy Spirit works in amazing ways. Who would have thought that a little nun from Alabama would preside over a network almost completely devoted to catechesis? I am a cradle Catholic. My brother is a priest and my father was a professor at a prominent seminary on the East Coast. After years in parochial school and graduating from a Jesuit university, I think I've learned more about the Catholic faith by watching Marcus Grodi.

Yes, bishops have blown it. Priests have blown it. Schools have blown it. But maybe that's not where we should be looking for it anymore.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

I only missed the "First Great Awakening Question" although according to Freddy's excellent logic, I should have gotten it right. I seriously can't even recall ever hearing that phrase before.

Now, if I had taken this quiz as the Cradle Catholic I was when I "graduated" from CCD class, I would have bombed.

c matt said...

Faith alone

I thoguth the correct translation was "we are saved by faith" not "faith alone"?

Anyway, that question did seem poorly worded, but I knew the answer they were looking for. The one I missed had something to do with the first great awakening (was tehre a second?)- other than Graham, I had not heard of the fellows.

It's hard to imagine how such a heretical notion ever arose

You were being sarcastic, right? There are so many factors (including what you mentioned). One that I believe contributed greatly was the loss of Latin. Every profession has it's "sacred language" so to speak - philosophers use their hypertechnical terms, medicine and law make great use of Latin for particular terms - this keeps the concepts protected from corruption that occurs by using ordinary every day languages with meanings and nuances that change over time. It also imparts a sense of mystery, importance and sacredness that common language just can't equal. When you put the words of consecration into ordinary language, is it that much of a leap to think what is going on is, well, ordinary? Using ordinary words to talk about ordinary bread and ordinary wine to turn into something extraordinary is asking a bit much of the language.

Although I am uncomfortable using the comparison for this subject b/c of the fictional v. non-fictional differences (and hope no one misunderstands my intentions), I will give Rowling this much - she understands that using psuedo-Latin for the spells in HP gives them much more power (even Hermione comments in the first movie whether the ordinary language spell Ron's brother gave him is even a real spell). I would not be surprised if, in the minds of many Catholics, the use of the vernacular has diminished the power of the words of consecration.

eulogos said...

I got them all correct but was wobbly on the Great Awakening question. I had heard of "The Great Awakening" but associated that phrase with what is apparently called the Second Great Awakening. I had heard of it because it is part of New York State History-part of upstate NY is referred to as the 'burned over district' related to its participation in the (2nd) Great Awakening. People actually sold their farms, bought ascension robes, and went to the top of hills to wait for the second coming! But I figured if there were two of them, then the earlier figure must be the one associated with it and of course I knew Jonathan Edwards was a colonial calvinist preacher, famous for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
The Mormon history is also part of New York State history. I don't live too far from Palmyra where Joseph Smith supposedly dug up the golden tablets.

All the rest of the questions seemed like absolute basic common knowledge to me. I think I could have answered them when I graduated from high school. Except for the court decisions which have occurred since then. (1968)

Susan Peterson

Tony said...

I got 30 out of 32. But I'm somewhat of a religion nerd.

scotch meg said...

Got 'em all. So do I get extra credit for spelling Quran the same way they did?

Seriously, I thought the question on the founding of Mormonism was a little unfair to devout Mormons, since they believe that their religion originated with Christ, even if I don't.

I also had quibbles with the "faith alone" question. And I thought the Great Awakening question had more to do with American history and literature (ah, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God") than with religion.

Oh well. At least they got the Catholic question right. Maybe they even taught a few nominal Catholics a thing or two! In my experience, it's not that Catholics around me don't know what the Church teaches, it's that they don't believe it. But maybe that's just because the Boston Globe is always rubbing our noses in the ridiculousness of our Faith.

a consecrated virgin said...

I enjoy your blog, so I hope this comment doesn’t come across as overly critical, but I do think we need to give our bishops a little more credit.

Culturally, the past forty or fifty years have been tumultuous for Western culture in general, and I don’t doubt that our bishops have had to deal with an untold number of serious and complex pastoral issues of which we might not be totally aware (or of which we might not be able to appreciate the significance when taken out of their contexts). And for whatever this is worth, over the course of the years I’ve had the opportunity to meet (or have other personal contact with) a number of bishops, and I almost always come away impressed with the sincerity and depth of their commitment to the Church and her teachings.

Also—and I mean this as an honest question—why do so many people say that Communion under both kinds tends to undermine reverence for the Blessed Sacrament? The GIRM actually seems to present Communion under both kinds as preferable, and refers to it as a “fuller sign” even amidst a discussion on the importance of the doctrine of concomitance. And in my own personal experience, if anything Communion under both kinds tends to foster in me a greater sense of devotion to the Real Presence and a greater awareness of the Mass as a sacrifice.

Finally, I second kkollwitz’s suggestion. To any Catholic who reads blogs like this: go to your parish’s Religious Ed. program and sign up to volunteer! Your local DRE will be thrilled to have you.

Red Cardigan said...

A consecrated virgin, I see from your profile that you're a bit younger than I am. :) My experience of post-Conciliar bishops was, sadly, not an especially good one--nor was my experience of religious classes and so forth in that time. Before the present CCC, for instance, we were routinely told that the old Catechism no longer applied, and that all sorts of wild ideas were perfectly acceptable under the "Spirit of Vatican II." I recall a parish using a breezy, somewhat irreverent religion text titled "Yahweh and Son," for instance; thankfully, my parents had already started homeschooling by the time we attended that parish.

As for Communion under both species, I would offer two possible objections. The first is that since we are taught that the smallest particle of the consecrated Host really is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, there is the danger that in some people's minds the reception under both species will confuse this, and some will think that they have not received the Blood of Christ unless they have specifically received from the Chalice, which is not true. (In fact, I heard people lamenting, during the swine flu outbreak when our bishop restricted the use of the Chalice at Mass, that the bishop wasn't letting them receive the Blood of Christ.)

The second objection is simply one of logistics. In order to distribute Communion under both species at Mass, a large number of lay extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are ordinarily necessary, as few parishes are staffed by a sufficient number of priests or deacons to give Communion under both species without lay help. The rush of lay people to the altar just after the priest's communion, and the scurrying of Chalice-bearing lay EMHC's to different "stations" scattered throughout the church, has been, I think, one of the things responsible for less solemnity and reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament.

The logistics problem could be solved by having only the priest (or priests, plural, or priest and deacon, etc.) distribute Holy Communion. To offer Holy Communion under both species, the priest(s) and deacon(s) could offer Communion by intinction in the way permitted (e.g., no self-intinction, etc.). This would be closer to what the Eastern churches do, and would help remind people that Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament.

scotch meg said...

Re: respect. Just going back to Communion only on the tongue would help so much! If you are kneeling and using an altar rail for Communion (as in the Episcopal Church of my youth), one priest can distribute Communion very quickly and efficiently. Two (or one and a deacon) can distribute Communion under both species without the interminable delays of the standing and hands regime. And so much more respect!

a consecrated virgin said...

Your point about the age difference well-taken. :-) Perhaps there are also geographical differences to be taken into account.

But one more thought about catechesis within a diocese—even if the level of religious literacy in a particular diocese leaves a lot to be desired, this isn’t always necessarily the bishop’s fault. A bishop can put a great deal of time and effort into issuing guidelines for catechesis, but if these are routinely ignored on a parish level—or if DREs aren’t well-catechized or well-trained themselves—then practically speaking, there isn’t always a lot the bishop can do to resolve the situation quickly.

Re. Communion under both kinds:

I totally understand and have no problem with the logistical issues—at things like crowded Sunday Masses, I can see where administering Communion under both kinds would be prohibitively difficult.

But, I still have a hard time with the idea that Communion under both kinds will run the risk of confusing the faithful about the doctrine of concomitance.

Whenever there’s a discussion on the Catholic blogosphere about the upcoming new Missal translation, we always get upset whenever someone suggests that the average Catholic isn’t smart or educated enough to understand the vocabulary in the new translation. And to me, to say that “Communion under both kinds runs the risk of confusing the faithful” is very reminiscent of the idea that we should resist the new translation because words like “ineffable” and “gibbeted” will supposedly be beyond the ken of the ordinary person in the pew. My thought is that Catholics are sophisticated and intelligent enough to understand words like “ineffable,” and we’re likewise capable of grasping the most basic points of Eucharistic theology.

Re. the people who expressed their disappointment at not being able to receive from the chalice during the swine flu season:

I’ve actually caught myself saying similar things before, but this was more out of conversational laziness than it was out of doctrinal confusion. When I was in graduate school, the chapel on campus NEVER distributed Communion under both kinds…and I really, really missed receiving from the chalice! Not because I thought I was somehow receiving less of Christ in the Eucharist, but because I missed the beauty of the sign-value of Communion under both kinds.

I would occasionally complain to priests I knew back home about this, and it was easier to say: “I miss receiving the Precious Blood at Mass” and just assume they knew I understood the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, than it was to say something like, “I miss receiving the Precious Blood under the accidents of wine at Mass, even though I know that the blood of Christ is contained fully in either species, because receiving from the chalice has a particularly full and vivid sign value which I find to be helpful in my own spiritual life, even though I know it doesn’t alter the objective theological nature of the Sacrament I’m receiving.”

Sorry for the length of this comment—I meant to give my two cents, but this is turning into five dollars!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

100 percent. Could there be any doubt? My father was Jewish, the Presbyterian church of my youth devoted a year of what you would call confirmation classes or catechism to study of other religions, the Methodist denomination I currently belong to led my to reading on the Great Awakening, and I grew up surrounded by Catholics. I consider the defining phrase about communion to be "This do in remembrance of me." But I really can't make much sense out of the "grace vs. good works" debate. Whatever we do, falls short of the glory of God, but it is very important that we do it anyway, which I think is a paraphrase of something Gandhi once said - perhaps to Mother Teresa, but probably not.