Fewer than one-third of Roman Catholics believe that when they receive Communion at Mass they receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ in precisely the way the church teaches, according to a new survey by the Gallup organization.
Official church teaching holds that in the ritual of Communion, wine and bread--usually a small, round wafer--are transformed into the blood and body of Christ.
The Gallup survey was commissioned by the St. Augustine Center, a conservative Catholic lay organization based in Arlington, Va.
The survey found that 30% of Catholics say Communion brings them Christ’s body and blood “under the appearance of bread and wine.” That is the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
Of those surveyed, 29% agreed with the statement that differs from the official doctrine. The statement said, “When receiving Holy Communion, you are receiving bread and wine, which symbolize the spirit and teachings of Jesus, and in so doing are expressing your attachment to his person and words.”
The poll results show “a terrible confusion on the part of Catholics concerning one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church,” said Ed Snyder, director of the Augustine center.
Yet, some experts say that Snyder’s conclusion rests in part on fine distinctions between Catholic and Protestant doctrines.
For instance, nearly a quarter of the sampling--24%--expressed the view that when receiving Communion, “you are receiving the body and blood of Christ, which has become that because of your personal belief.”
In its analysis of the survey, the St. Augustine Center says this view reflects the Calvinist doctrine that the faith of the recipient transforms the bread and wine. In traditional Catholic theology, it is the ritual itself that causes “transubstantiation,” or a change in substance.
In addition, 10% of those surveyed agreed with another teaching: that during Communion “you are receiving bread and wine, in which Jesus is really and truly present.”
That belief is closer to the traditional Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, which holds that the body and blood of Christ coexist in union with the bread and wine.
The official Catholic Encyclopedia, however, says any reference to bread and wine in describing what Catholics receive is wrong. “They are properly called the body and blood of Christ,” the encyclopedia says.
At the same time, the nuances of belief reported in the survey reflect recent trends in Catholic theology. More and more, Catholic theologians have tried to shed light on the meaning of the Eucharist by highlighting symbolic aspects, while retaining belief in transubstantiation.
For example, the New Dictionary of Theology speaks of Communion as a sign of Christ’s “self-giving.”
The Gallup organization surveyed 519 Roman Catholics by telephone between Dec. 10, 1991, and Jan. 19. The sampling has a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.