The 2008 American National Election Study (ANES) asked U.S. adult citizens who self-identified as Christians the following yes/no question, “Do you believe that when people take Holy Communion, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or do you believe that does not happen?” At that time, 74% of Catholics surveyed indicated a belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Significant numbers of non-Catholic Christians also stated they had this same belief. Nearly six in ten Protestants (59%) surveyed expressed a belief in transubstantiation and 70% of Lutherans specifically expressed this. In fact, at the time, a majority of all sub-groups of non-Catholic Christians in the United States (i.e., those with a sufficient size that the number of interviews allows for an estimate) expressed a belief regarding the Eucharist that is consistent with the Catholic Church’s teachings on transubstantiation.
In 2010, the Pew Research Center released its U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. They found, “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.”
These findings did not address a potential gap in Catholics’ knowledge of their Church’s teachings and what their beliefs were personally about the Eucharist. The aforementioned ANES study, as well as polls conducted by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) during the 2000s, found that between six in ten to three-quarters of self-identified Catholics believed in the Real Presence and that this was most common among those who attend Mass frequently. This new Pew study led to the realization that many Catholics believe what their Church teaches without realizing that their Church teaches it.
From this point, CARA began placing Catholics into four groups regarding the Real Presence. The first knows what the Church teaches regarding the Eucharist and also expresses a belief in this teaching. Next, there are the Catholics who believe in the Real Presence but who believe they are doing so in opposition to what the Church teaches. A third group is composed of those Catholics who are unaware of what the Church teaches and also unbelieving in the Real Presence. The final group is those who are aware of what the Church teaches but say they do not believe it.
Surveys conducted for American Catholics in Transition (2013) by William V. D’Antonio, Michele Dillon, and Mary L. Gautier allowed for the first estimate for the size of these four groups. In comparison to the Pew study, D’Antonio et al. find that half of self-identified adult Catholics (50%) are unaware that the Catholic Church teaches the following about the bread and wine used for Communion: “the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” However, 63% of adult Catholics, regardless of what they think the Church teaches, believe that “at the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
The largest group in this study was the “knowledgeable believers,” representing 46% of adult Catholics, who are aware of the Church’s teachings about the Real Presence and say they believe them. Additionally, there is another 17% who believe in the Real Presence but who are unaware that this represents a Church teaching. These are the “unknowing believers.” The second largest group is the “unknowing unbelievers” who do not believe in the Real Presence (i.e., they believe the bread and wine are only symbols) and do not know what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. This group represents a third of adult Catholics (33%). The smallest group, representing only 4% of adult Catholics, is composed of those who know about the Church’s teachings regarding the Real Presence and state that they do not believe this teaching to be true. These are the “knowledgeable doubters” who actively reject Church teaching on the matter.
Then in 2019, the Pew Research Center released the following:
Transubstantiation—the idea that during Mass, the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ—is central to the Catholic faith. . . . But a new Pew Research Center survey finds that most self-described Catholics don’t believe this core teaching. In fact, nearly seven in ten Catholics (69%) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”
The question used for this survey, similar but not identical to those used in the past, was the following:
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...
1. Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ
2. Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ
3. No answer
The question presents a dichotomy of substantive responses with a no answer that may indicate that the respondent does not know or does not wish to answer. A problem with this question is that a respondent could say both 1 and 2 and be correct (but of course are forced to choose one by the survey structure). As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explains, “The whole Christ is truly present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine, the glorified Christ who rose from the dead. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist. . . . The transformed bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ and are not merely symbols.”
The bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ—this is the Real Presence. However, the Eucharist still appears as bread and wine. We cannot observe the Eucharist as a scientist would, looking for human cells as if it was “actually” flesh and blood. The Pew question uses the phrasing “actually become.” This ignores the fact that the “accidents” (appearance) of the bread and wine remain symbolically. Yet, it is the case that the Eucharist is not merely a symbol. Christ is truly and substantially present in what still symbolically appears as bread and wine.
In 2022, CARA surveyed Catholics nationally about the Eucharist with multiple new questions. Respondents were asked to explain in their own words what they believe happens to the bread and wine after the Consecration of the Mass. Responses were recoded into four categories shown in the table below.
Thirty-five percent of respondents responded in a manner that they believed in the Real Presence. Eight percent of respondents remarked that they believe the gifts to be unchanged by the Consecration and that these are symbols or “nothing” happens. Eighteen percent of respondents answered about what happens in a procedural manner after Consecration (e.g., consumed by the priest, handed out, gets put away for the next Mass, disposed of). Finally, the remaining responses, 39%, could not be categorized into any of the previous groupings of responses. This group includes those who skipped the question which represents 18% of all respondents.
The next question indicates that 49% correctly believe that the Church teaches that “Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.” Fifty-one percent incorrectly believes the Church teaches that “bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, meaning that Jesus is only symbolically present in the consecrated bread and wine.”
Results of this question indicate that there is substantial confusion about what the Church teaches about the Eucharist with slightly more adult Catholics not knowing this correctly than those correctly identifying the teachings.
After asking the open-ended question about the respondents’ beliefs in the Eucharist and a closed-ended question about their understanding of Church teachings about the Eucharist, respondents were asked more questions to help clarify their beliefs. When presented with a direct question about the Real Presence, 44% of adult Catholics say they believe “Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.” Forty-eight percent said they personally believe that the “bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, meaning that Jesus is only symbolically present in the consecrated bread and wine.” Nine percent selected “neither of the above” options.
Combining the results from the two previous questions, 38% of respondents correctly know what the Church teaches and believe in the Real Presence. Forty-eight percent of respondents do not know what the Church teaches and so believe that the bread and wine are symbols or have some other belief. Thus, most who do not believe in the Real Presence are not rejecting the teaching as much as they do not know what the Church teaches. Nine percent of respondents know what the Church teaches but do not believe it. Five percent believe in the Real Presence but are unaware that this is what the Church teaches.
Following the open-ended and closed-ended question respondents were asked directly, “Just to clarify, do you personally believe that after the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, that Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine upon the altar?” Fifty-seven percent of respondents said that they believe Jesus is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.
Three of the four previous questions provided different inquiries about respondents’ personal beliefs regarding the Eucharist and these questions did not always receive consistent answers. The responses were examined and used to code a new variable representing the best understanding of what respondents were expressing as a whole. The first question was open-ended and considered to offer an unprompted view of respondents’ beliefs as the closed-end questions provide the opportunity to make a choice between multiple presented answers. Analysis revealed that some respondents stated a belief in the Real Presence in the open-ended question but then selected that they believe the bread and wine are symbols in the closed-end question. For a subset of respondents, there appears to be a belief Christ is really present in the Eucharist but that the bread and wine are also symbols. This appears to be a way in which Catholics are trying to express their understanding of what theologians might speak of as the “substance” and the “accidents.” The three questions were:
In your own words, what do you believe happens to the gifts of bread and wine after Consecration during Mass?
Which of the following statements do you personally believe about what happens to the gifts of bread and wine once consecrated at Mass?
1. Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine
2. Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, meaning that Jesus is only symbolically present in the consecrated bread and wine
3. Neither of the above
Just to clarify, do you personally believe that after the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, that Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine upon the altar?
3. Don’t know
A total of 25.2% of respondents indicated a belief in the Real Presence on all three questions. An additional 10.2% percent indicated a belief on the initial open-ended question answered in their own words but then only on one other question (6.2%) or no other question (4%). An additional 12.9% said they believed in the Real Presence on the closed-ended question and the follow-up while providing a neutral response to the open-ended question (e.g., procedural, unrelated to Real Presence/symbolism only). A total of 2.7% percent of respondents gave a neutral response to the open-ended question and answered that they believed in the Real Presence in the closed-ended question but then answered “no” to the follow-up question. A total of 12.1 percent gave a neutral open-ended response and answered that they believed that Jesus is only symbolically present in the bread and wine in the closed-ended question but then answered “yes” to the follow-up question, clarifying that they personally believe that after the Consecration during a Catholic Mass, that Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.
Very few respondents, 1.2% indicated they believed the bread and wine are only symbols in their open-ended question but then indicated a belief in the Real Presence in one or both of their closed-ended questions.
A total of 35.8% of respondents did not indicate a belief in the Real Presence in any of the questions.
 This results in a total of 63% of self-identified adult Catholics believing in the Real Presence at that time.
 As explained by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2020, “In the celebration of the Eucharist, the glorified Christ becomes present under the appearances of bread and wine in a way that is unique, a way that is uniquely suited to the Eucharist. In the Church’s traditional theological language, in the act of consecration during the Eucharist the ‘substance’ of the bread and wine is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the ‘substance’ of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the ‘accidents’ or appearances of bread and wine remain.” Excerpt from “The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.”