What to make of the recent Pew Religion Research study revealing that, among Catholics in the U.S., only about one-third believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation? First of all, no one who hasn’t had his head buried in the ecclesial sand for the past fifty years is at all surprised by this statistic. Nevertheless, it is sobering and sad. This teaching, that Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Host at Mass under the appearance of bread and wine is among the Church’s most sacred.

Saints have composed beautiful, timeless hymns in honor of the Eucharist and, throughout the history of the Church, martyrs like the young Saint Tarcisius have poured out their blood in defense of it. During the Reformation in England and elsewhere, one of the first teachings Catholics were required to renounce was Transubstantiation. Many refused and won the martyr’s crown. Astonishing Eucharistic miracles, from Orvieto to Buenos Aires, have served to strengthen the faith of Catholics in this Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Hated by Protestants, ridiculed by the World, belief in Christ’s Real Presence in Holy Communion is a bedrock of Church teaching.

And yet, only about one-third of Catholics in the U.S. believe it.

In his moving Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict explains:

Jesus continues, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to love us “to the end,” even to offering us his body and his blood. What amazement must the Apostles have felt in witnessing what the Lord did and said during that Supper! What wonder must the eucharistic mystery also awaken in our own hearts!

It is unlikely that “amazement” and “wonder” are experienced by most Catholics today when approaching the Eucharist. After all, if Communion is merely perceived as a piece of blessed bread, symbolic of…whatever (to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor) what’s the point?

How did we get here? Like I said earlier, no one who hasn’t been completely oblivious to the goings on in the Church (at parish life, Catholic schools, seminaries) and the culture at large, is surprised by the results of the Pew study. But why is it that Catholics, who’ve filtered through Catholic schools and attended Sunday Mass for decades, find themselves in the position of rejecting one of the Church’s central teachings on the sacramental life?

Let’s look at parish life. We’ve reviewed this theme many times on CCC but, in light of yesterday’s devastating statistic, it bears repeating and revisiting. What has been the collective result of the following:

  • Enabling small armies of “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion” to storm the sanctuary, take up the sacred chalice and ciborium and dole out Communion to the faithful like candy
  • Normalizing the practice of receiving Communion in the hand and, in some cases, demeaning those who wish to receive on the tongue while kneeling
  • Removing altar rails, obliterating traditional thresholds, and opening up a casual and constant stream of laity nonchalantly entering and exiting the sanctuary
  • Removing tabernacles to obscure side chapels (often difficult to locate) and replacing them with the choir, an organ, the “presider’s” chair
  • An overall lackadaisical, causal approach to the sacred Host by the priest and the laity at the altar; sloppy cleaning of the sacred vessels after Communion, etc.
  • Abandoning ad orientem worship and relocating the altar/”table” from the sanctuary closer to the center of the church, thereby redirecting focus away from the Sacrament to the “faith assembly”
  • Homilies that rarely touch on the sacramental and devotional life, but instead focus almost exclusively on social justice issues or schmaltzy, hollow anecdotes
  • Referring to the Eucharist as a “meal” instead of a “sacrifice”
  • Stripping away the ancient rites, symbols and rituals that, like incense, shrouded the sacrifice of the Mass for centuries and replacing them with a folksy and informal atmosphere
  • A severe decline in the practice and availability of the sacrament of Confession (How often do the faithful hear of the requirement to Confess mortal sin before receiving the Eucharist?)
  • A parish culture that discourages contemplative silence and allows casual (and loud) talking among the parishioners before and after Mass

I could go on with the list.

This has been going on now, unchecked, for decades. It’s like a steady stream that, even if small, gradually erodes the rock over which it flows. The faith has been gradually worn down in the hearts of many as a direct result of these and, yes, other factors. It’s so obvious, so basic that going over it again and again becomes tedious and, honestly, exhausting. Can anyone seriously suggest that, taken individually or collectively, these practices strengthened Catholics’ belief in the Real Presence? Of course not.

Sadly, there seems to be little desire on the part of those who make the calls to reconsider some, if not all, of the practices listed above. So convinced they were (and remain) of the grave “necessity” of these destructive reforms and innovations that, to even consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they have caused more harm than good is inconceivable, a nonstarter. On occasion, we will hear from courageous leaders like Cardinal Sarah, “a voice crying in the wilderness” who has the courage to speak on these matters (Communion in the hand, ad orientem, overall reverence in the church itself, etc.) and the boldness to suggest serious reforms. But his is a lonely voice. And you may remember how his suggestion to return to ad orientem in the ordinary form was received a couple of years ago. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinals Sarah, Burke and others have offered thoughtful recommendations over the years aimed at restoring reverence around the Sacred Mysteries of the Mass (for example, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Saramentum Caritatis, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise and numerous interviews and articles available online). It’s not theological rocket science. It’s common sense. The better question is: Why are such recommendations dismissed in favor of routine reliance on practices that haven’t worked?

In the meantime, what can we do? At this point, besides the obvious of prayer, personal sanctification and a renewed focus on solid catechesis, I think there is another clear answer: Support and attend parishes where the traditions of the Church are still honored, cherished and upheld, and invite others to join. More and more, it seems that traditional Latin Mass parishes are where that is happening.

I’ve been attending a traditional Latin Mass parish in Milwaukee for about seven years. It’s been growing by leaps and bounds. Why is that? People are thirsting, and searching for an alternative to the bland, causal status quo of parish and liturgical life. Over the years, I’ve encouraged friends and acquaintances to attend the parish and, once they experience it, they fall in love with it and now call it home. We love the beauty of the traditional liturgy, the substantive and challenging homilies, the rich sacramental and devotional life and the great community around it all. This is the template for the future. It’s working in Milwaukee and it’s working across the nation. If some parishes still choose to remain stuck in practices that have only resulted in the crisis of faith exhibited by the Pew study, we as laity have to make our choice in terms of where we will attend Mass and where we will contribute our support.

  • Another article on Catholic schools and their role in this story is certainly warranted. Stay tuned.