The alarm seems to have died down following the recent Pew Research poll, which revealed a troubling lack of faith in the Eucharist among U.S. Catholics. Of course, it may just be that the alarm has been eclipsed by others having to do with synods and the ongoing abuse scandal. Our Lady of Hope, pray for us.
Yet, there are signs of hope if you know where to look.
Buried in the Pew Survey was the finding that the more Catholics participate in the Holy Mass, the more likely they are to believe in his Real Presence. Sixty-three percent of regular Sunday Mass participants polled affirm the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, namely, that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass truly become the body and blood of Jesus (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1373-77).
This number is still low, but it’s somewhat more encouraging than the thirty-one percent so widely reported, which included non-practicing Catholics—i.e., those who infrequently go to Mass. The more commonsense and predictable takeaway from the poll is that belief in the Real Presence goes up as participation in Mass goes up, and vice versa. At the same time, belief in the Eucharist is diminishing these days among younger Catholics, with only twenty-six percent of the faithful under forty believing in the Real Presence.
These findings also hardly new. A 1994 New York Times/CBS poll found that only thirty percent of U.S. Catholics under age forty-five believed in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
The Pew and Times/CBS polls also used the same methodology, asking Catholics what they believe via a multiple-choice question. This is problematic because it more accurately measures catechetical knowledge of the faith than it does actual faith (belief). Faith and knowledge are very closely related, but they are not the same thing.
A better way to measure belief is to accurately present the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist—or other Catholic doctrine—and ask the faithful whether they assent to it or not. This gives the faithful an opportunity to manifest either their intellectual embrace of the teaching or childlike docility of a true believer (see Matt. 18:1-4).
Three years after the Times/CBS survey, Catholic World Report commissioned the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research to survey Catholics on similar topics. One of the questions asked respondents if they agreed that “the bread and wine used in Mass are actually transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Sixty-two percent of all respondents “strongly agreed” with the statement and twenty percent “mildly agreed.” How you ask the question has a great deal to do with the type and quality of answer you are likely to receive.
Even if we had better information on Eucharistic belief, however, the collapse in Catholic belief and practice in the United States and most of the “developed” world is undeniable. We’re not just talking about the much-discussed rise of the “Nones,” but also about those who still identify to some degree as Catholic but live and act in ways that are indistinguishable from secular fellow citizens.
No matter how you read the numbers, we have a crisis on our hands. What are we to do about it?
Every real answer to this question will involve renewing our focus on, and devotion to, Jesus Christ, the only source of authentic hope. One example of a courageous and creative witness to hope in Christ can be found in the late Msgr. Eugene Kevane, who stood strong amid the tsunami of dissent that washed over the Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council.
Msgr. Kevane, a gifted and faithful teacher of the Faith, understood the importance of a Christocentric approach to catechetics, as is readily apparent in his books Jesus the Divine Teacher: What the Prophets Really Foretold, and The Lord of History. And as dean of the School of Education at Catholic University of America (CUA), Msgr. Kevane was the only department head to oppose the tenure of Father Charles Curran, a moral theologian who had gone public in his dissent from Catholic moral teaching. Unjustly and unfortunately, Father Curran prevailed in the confrontation, and Msgr. Kevane would lose his position at CUA.
Sensing an opening, Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame and presidents of other Catholic universities would issue the infamous Land o’ Lakes Statement, in which they declared autonomy from the Church’s Magisterium. A year later, Curran and many others publicly opposed Pope Saint Paul VI’s reaffirmation of Church teaching on the nature of the marital act in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Church has yet to recover from this rebellion.
Having lost a battle, Msgr. Kevane didn’t run from the war. Instead, he continued his teaching and writing, including assisting several faithful apostolates in producing catechetical materials that upheld the truth about Church teaching. These efforts contributed to the U.S. Bishops’ decision—belatedly, in the latter 1990s—to establish an oversight committee to help ensure the fidelity of Catholic school textbooks.
In the interim, Pope St. John Paul II and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued an edict against Father Curran in July 1986, declaring the priest was “neither suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology”. Fr. Curran was removed from his position at CUA in 1987 and became a tenured professor at Southern Methodist University in 1991. His signature was not to be found among those of the hundreds of Catholic professors who, in a prominent effort of Catholic University of America, affirmed Humanae Vitae upon its fiftieth anniversary in 2018.
In stark contrast, the legacy of Msgr. Kevane, who died in 1996, continues to bear fruit, especially through the many students he formed at the Notre Dame Catechetical Institute, which is now a graduate program of Christendom College.
Among his many exceptional students was Barbara Morgan, who died earlier this month. Morgan was chosen by Fr. Michael Scanlan in the mid-1990s to found Franciscan University of Steubenville’s catechetics program, a Christ-centered program which has placed faithful catechists in key positions in parishes and dioceses across the United States and beyond. Further fruits of the program are now seen in the dynamic Catechetical Institute, whose work includes the annual St. John Bosco Conference for Catechists and Religious Educators.
The renewal of the Church will be Christ-centered or it won’t happen. As discouraging as recent survey results have been, they still affirm that the more Catholics cling to Our Lord, the more the faith will grow and be fruitful. The formula for advancing the kingdom requires fidelity to Christ and the teachings of his Church, and especially receiving the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession, while also participating in Eucharistic adoration and other Christ-focused devotions.
Indeed, “our hope is in the Lord” (Psalm 33:20), for when we keep our eyes fixed on our Eucharistic Lord Jesus, no matter the bad news or opposition, we can rejoice like St. Paul, proclaiming, “In all these things, we are more than conquerors . . . in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-38).