FORT WORTH — Last week, Roman Catholic leaders all over the U.S. expressed collective shock and outrage at a new Pew Research study finding that the majority of Catholics — a whopping 69% — don’t believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, a teaching central to the Catholic faith.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that during the Mass, the bread and wine used for Communion are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
It’s a somewhat strange notion for many non-Catholics.
But if the Pew study is to be believed (and there are some fair critiques that suggest study wording and apostasy may be driving the results), it would appear to be a strange notion for lots of self-described Catholics, as well. And that’s a huge problem.
Pew not only found wide ignorance of the teaching among those surveyed (43% believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the church), but rejection of the doctrine by one-in-five Catholics (22%) who know about the church’s teaching but do not accept it.
The former cohort, those unaware of teaching, is disappointing to be sure, and many church leaders have been quick to concede their own roles in the church’s failure to properly catechize its flock.
“It represents a massive failure on the part of Catholic educators and catechists, evangelists and teachers,” Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron said in a video response to the study.
Indeed, more robust religious education programs, especially those that cover apologetics, would help. So would an increased focus on preaching doctrine from the pulpit. As would efforts that inspire Catholics to independently dig deeper into their faith and overcome any apathy for it.
But it’s the cohort of willful dissenters, those who know and reject church teaching, that speaks to a much deeper divide in the church, and one eminently more difficult to breach.
The Rev. Dwight Longenecker, himself a convert from Anglicanism, alluded to the chasm “between those who believe in a revealed religion and those who believe it is all a symbol,” in his own response to the study in The Catholic Herald.
He gets to the crux of the issue when he states that the “essence of (Christianity) cannot be adapted to the vagaries of history and culture.” Yet that is something too many Catholics, namely those who reject religious doctrine in favor of their own interpretation of the faith are seeking to do. In so doing, they not only dilute the faith, they compromise it and they threaten the unity of the Church.
This is the same divide, I believe, that has caused a rift within the Diocese of Fort Worth, and motivated a group of disgruntled Catholics to unfairly target the bishop.
But Fort Worth isn’t unique in this fight.
A timely article about St. Francis of Assisi Church in Portland, Ore., describes how one of its oldest congregations is divided between those who support a new and very orthodox African priest, the Rev. George Kuforiji, trying to realign the church with its roots, and those who have been pushing a more progressive, less reverent version of the faith. Until the new priest’s arrival, the progressive branch had been largely ascendant, but with the backing of his bishop, Kuforiji has stemmed the tide, causing significant backlash.
Progressive Catholics argue that efforts to change the church are intended to make it more welcoming to the marginalized — immigrants, homeless and the LGTBQ community, among others. Those efforts are important, but not when they come at the expense of church teaching. They almost always do.
The church should be a refuge for all while holding fast to truths revealed and rooted in its most fundamental teachings.
That can only be accomplished when people first have a proper understanding of the fullness of the faith. To that end, the Eucharist is a good place to start.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.