The Theological Foundations of Eucharistic Beliefs: A New National Survey of Adult Catholics

One of the reasons evoked for the USCCB’s Eucharistic Revival is the data from the 2019 Pew Research Center survey around Catholic faith in the Eucharist. The poll, according to Pew, has found that 69% of Catholics believe bread and wine are symbols, while only 31% of Catholics believe the Church’s teaching around transubstantiation. This poll has been done several times before, and each publication leads to headlines about decline in Eucharistic belief among ordinary Catholics. The pastoral implication seems clear from all of this: Catholics do not go to Mass because they do not believe in the doctrines of the real presence and transubstantiation.

The problem with the Pew Report is that it does not quite reveal what it claims to, namely, what the belief of ordinary Catholics around the Eucharist is. The poll suffers from two major theological deficiencies (it should be noted that we leave the sociological fallacies to experts at CARA to address). First, the poll gets Catholic teaching about the Eucharist wrong in the composition of the questions. Second, the poll presumes that the capacity to articulate the particulars of belief is the best measure for assessing faith.

For both of these reasons, the McGrath Institute for Church Life partnered with CARA at Georgetown University to engage in a more comprehensive survey related to the belief of adult U.S. Catholics around the doctrines of Eucharistic presence.

Sort of and Yes

The question the Pew report asked reads:

“Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion? During Catholic Mass, the bread and wine…”

The following options were given:

1. The bread and wine “…actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

2. And the bread and wine “…are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

It is clear that the poll writers wanted to draw a distinction between real presence and what might be understood as mere symbolism. But, in drawing this distinction in the way they did, they get the doctrine of transubstantiation wrong.

Transubstantiation states that the substance of bread and wine (what bread and wine really are) are transformed into the substantial presence of Jesus Christ. Bread and wine, at the level of substance, become Christ’s Body and Blood. But that is only the first part of the teaching.

Concurrently, the species of bread and wine remain after the consecration. In Aristotelean physics, this kind of thing does not happen. If a substance changes, the accidents or species change. But in the Eucharist, Christ is substantially present, while the materiality of bread and wine remain as signs.

So, the important follow-up is: do the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? Sort of. It all depends on what you mean by actually. If you mean that the bread and wine are now nothing more than phantasms, that Jesus Christ has become present in the Eucharist in the same way that I am present to my children, then, no, the bread and wine do not actually become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Eucharistic presence is weirder than that. This little piece of matter has become the personal presence of Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, this transformation does not involve the movement of Christ from heaven toward all the altars of the world. Rather, as the resurrected and ascended Lord, this piece of matter becomes his total, self-giving presence to the Church through the power of the Spirit. We often say that we believe in Christ’s presence, Body and Blood, soul and divinity. That is because Christ, in giving himself substantially in the Eucharist, gives everything. Nothing is held back. It is the total and personal presence of the resurrected and ascended Lord.

And that total personal presence is given under both species. Technically, you receive Christ’s Body and Blood under the sign of bread. You receive the same under the sign of wine. That presence is substantial, it is personal, and it is the kind of presence that leads Catholics throughout the world to kneel in wonder before the Eucharistic elements. Here is the Lord.

But it is still a strange presence. After all, St. Thomas Aquinas in every one of his Eucharistic hymns concludes with a desire for a greater presence, one that is even more “actual” than this presence. In Hopkins’ brilliant translation of St. Thomas’ Adoro te, devote, we read in the final stanza:

Jesus whom I look at shrouded here below, / I beseech thee, send me what I thirst for so, / Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light / And be blest forever with thy glory’s sight.

Jesus Christ becomes present in the Eucharist through the signs of the Eucharist. Our Lord is there, and this is why worship of the Eucharistic elements is right and just. But he is present under the form of a sign. Therefore, it is possible that some of those Catholics who answered the first response (the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ) may also have misunderstood the technicalities of this doctrine. They may imagine that Jesus leaves heaven for a bit after every Mass. They may see the Eucharist as cannibalism. From the survey question, we cannot make an assessment of the clarity of Eucharistic belief among Catholics

The second possible response also is theologically imprecise. Are the bread and wine symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Again, it depends on what you mean. If you mean bread and wine are nothing but symbols, merely intended for an act of recollection of Jesus Christ, then this is decidedly not Catholic teaching. It is the mere symbolism that Flannery O’Connor dismissed around the Eucharist: if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.

Nonetheless, it is likewise true that the species or accidents of bread and wine that remain after the consecration are in fact nothing more than signs and symbols. They are not the substantial reality of what is present. They are signs or symbols of Jesus Christ, which also make available his true presence. We receive Jesus Christ under the sign of bread. We receive our Lord under the sign of wine.

This is the real miracle of the Eucharist. The transformation of bread and wine is not a material but a sacramental transformation. That God feeds us with what appears to be bread and wine (despite the substantial change) is miraculous. But it also reveals the pedagogical importance of those signs and symbols. Bread is used in the Passover, it is bestowed by God as manna from heaven, and it was given and broken by our Lord on the night before he died. Wine in Sacred Scripture is a symbol of the advent of the kingdom, Jesus Christ transforms water into wine at the wedding at Cana (the moment he reveals himself to be the Bridegroom), and again, he blesses and gives a chalice of wine in that first Eucharist. While we receive the full Christ under each species, the clergy or extraordinary minister still presents each species by saying, “the Body of Christ” and “the Blood of Christ.” The sign of bread is linked to body, the sign of wine to blood. The symbolism matters.

In the Eucharist, bread and wine, then, are symbols of Jesus Christ. The problem comes about if one thinks that bread and wine are nothing but symbols—it is a big difference, at least, for the Catholic theologian. The Eucharist is the true or substantial presence of Jesus Christ given under the signs of bread and wine, which function as the most resonant signs or symbols of the self-giving love of the God-man, who bent down in history to dwell among us, feeding us with himself.

Of course, there is the additional problem of how those who are surveyed have answered the question about symbolism. I have no doubt, of course, that many priests were taught about the Realsymbol in the years after the Second Vatican Council as the work of Suzanne Langer, Karl Rahner, and Louis-Marie Chauvet became central to seminary and theological training in general. Many have likely passed on the richness of “symbolism” to assemblies, often in ways that were less precise than Langer, Rahner, or Chauvet intended. And therefore, it is indeed probable that many who answered the Pew survey, are answering precisely what and how they were taught. The bread and wine are symbols of Jesus Christ. They know that symbolism is important, but they are not sure how it relates to real presence. Or they think that symbolism is the proper expression of real presence. Or they are using the word symbolism in the way that most Americans would. A gesture that is merely symbolic, not really concerned with anything meaningful. A symbol that recalls something but is not that thing itself in any substantial way.

If you are attending to the Pew Survey alone though, you cannot know. There is no fill-in-the-blank response where one can define what one means by the bread and wine function as symbols. And in that sense, the survey necessitates more precision, something that we worked with CARA on in designing questions. We wanted questions that better expressed the Church’s teachings around real presence and transubstantiation. They are a bit clunkier than what you find in the Pew Survey, but such clunkiness is the way to avoid imprecision. And we wanted people to be able to express in their own words what they believed about the Eucharist.

The results of this, as you can see from the survey itself, are different from the Pew Survey.

CARA found that 95% of weekly Mass-goers and 80% of those who attend Mass once per month believe in Christ’s true presence. If you attend a few times per year, the number drops to 51% Not surprisingly, millennials have the lowest belief among the various generations (since they are also the least likely to go to Mass).

Articulation and Religious Commitment

Another theological concern of the McGrath Institute in creating a new survey was the way that the data has thus far been used pastorally. The assumption has been that one of the reasons people are leaving the Church is because they do not believe in the real presence (or cannot articulate the doctrine with precision). Religious disaffiliation, in other words, has come about in part because of a lack of devotion or precision in understanding the Eucharist.

Now, I do not deny that many of those who are uncommitted also cannot articulate doctrines. Having taught undergraduate students for over a decade, many have indeed left the Church because they do not really understand the basics of Catholic teaching. They have, in many cases, rejected something that the Church does not reach in the first place.

One should be careful in too closely eliding religious commitment and the capacity for theological articulation. For example, many in our parishes profess on a weekly basis that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. This doctrine has Trinitarian and Christological implications. The Son is the very same God as the Father, and therefore when Jesus Christ cries out in agony in the garden, it is God’s very solidarity made present to us.

Imagine, though, that a survey was given at your average parish for which the goal was to assess whether the Son is consubstantial with the Father. I suspect that many Catholics might even say that they personally believed in something other than what the Church teaches on this particular doctrine. This is not because they are religiously uncommitted. It is because the teaching is difficult.

Yet, these very same persons might in fact have a personal devotion to Jesus Christ that expressed the doctrine, even if they could not articulate it in the words that were offered on a survey. For example, someone might say that the Father and the Son must be different kinds of gods. Having not contemplated the Creed, they do not have the precise language to express belief. But, they are weekly Mass-goers, who even have perhaps a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They know that he is the God who entered into solidarity with us. And therefore, they might have a popular way of expressing a doctrine without having the proper grammar for expressing it. In terms of John Henry Newman, they could make a real assent to a doctrine without possessing the capacity to make a notional assent.

In reality, most Catholics throughout history have not possessed such notional assents. I am a Catholic who was initiated into the faith by my grandparents. Both did not graduate from high school. I rarely heard them express precise doctrines to me. And when they did, I later learned (when in college) that they had not gotten these doctrines totally correct. But if you asked my grandmother to express why Jesus, Mary, or the Eucharist was important to her, you would get a lived sense of those doctrines.

Now, this might not always be the case. Popular religiosity can go awry, leading to substantial misunderstanding of doctrine. But one cannot assess Catholic belief on anything if you do not let people express in their own words what they believe. As we learned in the CARA survey, there are those who said that the Eucharist was symbolic but who also said that they receive Jesus at Mass. Which more truly expresses their belief in the Lord’s presence? Dr. Mark Gray made a decision to take into account the free-form response over the survey questions that we gave in such instances. The theological rationale for this is wise: Catholics often know more than they can say or articulate. And the language of the heart can reveal belief where a survey question cannot.

What Does This Mean?

Based on the results of the survey, which are publicly available here, what does all of this mean? Should the USCCB immediately shut down the Eucharistic Revival, turning attention elsewhere?

The answer is no. As the survey shows, going to Mass is the way that most Catholics develop a rich Eucharistic faith—one that is both cognitive and personal. But we must remember that most Catholics do not go to Mass. Most Catholics do not attend Catholic schools or go through initiation programs—two other markers that tend to reveal a high capacity to both articulate and personally believe in the Church’s teaching around the Eucharist.

There is work to do. The Eucharistic doctrines of the Church (including the real presence and transubstantiation) are too rich to not pass on. As I have written about in my book, Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter?, the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a source of pastoral wisdom for ordinary Catholics who are trying to make sense of their lives in late modernity. Renewed theological and catechetical attention to these doctrines can be a source of ecclesial renewal, as we begin to understand anew what it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Eucharistic devotion allows us to experience an oasis of contemplation in the workaday world, a chance to pause before the Eucharistic presence of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis himself has asked that Catholics reclaim this Eucharistic devotion, pausing in silent adoration before our Eucharistic Lord. If nearly 70% of Catholics do not go to Mass, they are likely missing out on the contemplative, prayerful wisdom of the Church’s Eucharistic doctrines and practices. We can and must do better.

The fruit of the Revival is already available to those who have the eyes to see. I attended a Eucharistic Congress in Salt Lake City where nearly 10,000 Catholics across the state gathered together to share fellowship, celebrate Mass, and adore the Eucharistic Lord. In that convention hall were Catholics of every age and culture. Such Congresses have been fruitful invitations for the whole Church to remember the source of our faith, hope, and love.

Still, it may make sense for ecclesial leaders to be more careful in referencing the Pew data (or that matter, any data) in expressing the need for a Eucharistic Revival. Questioning the validity of such data does not mean that a revival should stop. After all, as the Second Vatican Council retrieved from both the patristic and medieval Church, the Eucharist is no mere ritual exercise. Rather, in celebrating the Eucharist, the deepest identity of the Church is made manifest. The Church is not a bureaucracy first and foremost, a mere political body of bishops and other lay persons seeking power. We are those who have been convoked to the Supper of the Lamb, gathered around the altar where our Lord becomes present. Our identity must be shaped by the Eucharistic mystery.

Looking around the United States, there are good reasons to promote this kind of revival. Polarization in our churches is rife—we U.S. Catholics seem especially happy to bend the knee to the donkey or the elephant, instead of Christ. We identify ourselves as “Vatican II Catholics,” or “JPII Catholics,” “Benedict Catholics,” or “Francis Catholics.” But we then find other Catholics just like us, a club of like-minded folks rather than the Body of Christ in which every man and woman has been asked to gather around the Lamb once slain.

Further, the Synod on Synodality risks becoming a bureaucratic exercise if it is not understood in light of its Eucharistic roots—the faithful assembled and gathered together by the Eucharistic Lord. Our educational systems have become frenetic, measuring and assessing children, leading to extraordinary anxiety. Can we not let the Eucharist reshape these institutions? Economically, we are driven not by an economy of gratuity but one of exchange in which those who are on the margins are left behind. We do not even see them. How can gazing upon our hidden Lord in the Eucharist move us to see his presence in all those on the margins?

Further, the Church is struggling to transition to a new age in which religious belief is no longer culturally required but is instead something that individual persons opt for. What we must present is an encounter with the living God, a persuasive vision of human flourishing grounded in the love of the triune God. We know that it is not enough to offer programs, but we must offer an encounter with Jesus Christ. But as Catholics, that encounter is experienced in a particularly fruitful way in the Eucharist: what can we learn today from the Eucharistic mystery in understanding a truly Catholic account of evangelization—one that is Scriptural and liturgical, evangelical and sacramental?

A Eucharistic Revival (or as I prefer, “Eucharistic Renewal”) is therefore a rich way to unite the Church in a mission of sacramental evangelization for a secular age. It is a prophetic way of reflecting on the ways that our governance as a Church has been governed more by power, prestige, and secrecy than the love of Christ poured out upon the cross. From such a renewal, new charisms will spill forth in which the lay faithful discover anew their vocation to consecrate the world to God.

Lastly, the CARA survey is in fact but an initial attempt to study Eucharistic belief in the Church. Other aspects of Eucharistic belief could also be measured (which the CARA survey did not). If one were to assess the importance of Eucharistic belief among Catholics, one would need to attend to fidelity to the Church’s teaching around the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Consideration would need to be paid to the fruits and therefore consequences of Eucharistic reception. Do Catholics understand that reception of the Eucharist, for example, necessitates the exercise of solidarity? Do we grasp that the Eucharist is what makes the Church who she is? With the limited focus of this survey, such questions could not be asked (without the survey becoming burdensome for the one taking it). But the Church needs sociologists of religion who want to do such studies moving forward, allowing us to better understand the ways that the People of God understand their own identity through the Eucharistic mystery of the. Church. With the constant squabbling over Vatican II (whether it has been fruitful or not), we might need to attend to this Eucharistic understanding to see what we can do better and where we can build upon.


Undoubtedly, readers of the CARA survey will come away with their own conclusions. Sociologists may challenge this survey. As a university, we welcome such dialogue. If better surveys are developed and administered using some of the theological insights we gained, this is great news. That is how knowledge advances within the academy. And the Church should never turn away from this knowledge.

Concurrently, as has been clear throughout, this data is not intended to function as a gadfly to the Eucharistic Revival but to invite the Church to develop pastoral strategy out of the best data that is available. We need to be careful about the use of any data, even when it is rhetorically effective to do so. That ecclesial renewal should be grounded in the Eucharist is such a fundamental claim that—survey or not—we support the Eucharistic renewal unfolding in dioceses throughout the United States. We hope this data provides clergy and pastoral workers alike fresh insights for taking up this Eucharistic renewal in their own context. But let us be careful about evoking the Pew survey to do so.

Pastoral strategy must be founded in truth most of all. We are not dealers, trying to convince everyone to jump on board and buy our product. Bad news spurs action, but incorrect bad news will further erode the Church’s already declining authority in society. The data from Theological Foundations of Eucharistic Beliefs: A National Survey of Adult Catholics reveals that there is work to be done by clergy, catechists, and other pastoral leaders. The good news is that we know from this CARA survey that some things are already working: weekly Mass attendance, a robust Catholic education, and the faith of parents. Many Catholics have faith in the Eucharistic Lord, and this is likely why they are showing up even when music and preaching are so abysmal.

The Eucharistic faith of the Church dwells in the heart of her faithful, and therefore, perhaps a revival might begin with admiring the faith that already exists among the faithful rather than bemoaning its absence among a significant population. From such admiration might come forth a generation of Eucharistic missionaries who bring their faith to every crack and crevice of the cosmos.

Featured Image: Image by Sérgio Alexandre de Carvalho from Pixabay.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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