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!