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Disbelief in the Real Presence is not new

Recall the response to Jesus’ words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

"St.Peter (Eucharist Cycle)" (c.1113), from the series in St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, Kyiv, Ukraine. [WikiArt.org]

Back in 1995 the American theologian Germain Grisez and I published an article noting with dismay poll data showing that a very large number of self-identified Catholics in the United States believed that Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament was only “symbolic” rather than a Real Presence as the Church clearly and firmly taught.

Earlier this month, the Pew research center published, without visible dismay, poll data showing a very large number of self-identified Catholics in the United States believe Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament is only “symbolic” rather than a Real Presence as the Church clearly and firmly teaches.

Much has changed since 1995, but one thing that’s evidently the same is the troubling gap between what Catholics believe about the Blessed Sacrament and what the Church teaches. To be precise, 69% of the Catholics in the Pew study said the consecrated bread and wine in Mass are “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ” rather than Christ himself. The other 31% believe in the Real Presence.

Looking at the numbers, I recalled that, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 21% of American Catholics now go to Mass every Sunday. It’s reasonable to suppose that most of that group attend Mass weekly because, among other things, they believe in the Real Presence. As for the 10% who believe but don’t attend weekly, these are the wobbly faithful whose practice of their religion is wanting but whose less than perfect faith makes them appropriate subjects for prayer that they will pull up their socks and get serious.

And what of that alarmingly large group–69% of self-identified Catholics–who don’t believe in the Real Presence and seldom or never go to Mass? They need our prayers too, but possibly in their case it would be a good idea to throw in fasting and a few other penitential acts.

Disbelief in the Real Presence is, however, hardly new. In fact, you find it clearly at work in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel in the reactions to Jesus’ Eucharistic Discourse.

The setting is the synagogue in Capernaum. It is only a few days since Jesus performed one of his most striking miracles, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, which brought the crowd flocking after him eager to make him king. Instead, Jesus stuns them by speaking of the Bread of Life: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

The response of many of the listeners is consternation followed by utter disbelief. Even some who had been Jesus’ disciples up to then turn away and leave him. And at this low point comes what, for me, is perhaps the strongest testimony to the literal fact of the Real Presence.

Faced with doubt, disbelief, and outright rejection, Jesus might have backtracked and said he was just using a figure of speech–the bread and wine he spoke of were only symbols of his presence. If, however, what he said earlier was literally true–if his Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament was to be really real–saying otherwise now was out of the question. Rather than do that, Jesus doubles down on his message, declaring: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Then, determined to have no doubters among his followers, he turns to the Apostles and asks them, “Will you also go away?”

The gospels contain many instances of Peter failing to measure up. But this time he rose fully to the occasion: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Perhaps we should take St. Peter as our intercessor when we pray that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament will be strengthened in our brothers and sisters in the faith if it is weak and restored to them if it has been lost.


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About Russell Shaw 191 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

14 Comments

  1. The most shocking thing about the poll IMO is something the author didn’t mention. The poll says that more than a third of people who go to Mass every week don’t believe in the Eucharist.

  2. The poll in 1995 to which Russell Shaw refers is the one that I prepared for Gallup. The one-third who expressed correct belief about the Eucharist were regular Sunday Mass attendees; in other words, three-fourths of Sunday Mass attendees indicated a heterodox understanding of the Eucharist. Why? As I have repeated ad nauseam, because the liturgical rites do not proclaim/reinforce that doctrine.

    • Dear Father,
      Yes, indeed! Lex Orandi Lex Credendi! I would be most grateful for a study group which dealers into this very issue. The late Michael Davies had such keen insight into the nature/principle sources of the “Liturgical Shipwreck;” I’ve found his books (e.g. Pope John’s Council, Pope Paul’s New Mass & Pro Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Vol.1) to be be most enlightening, pregnant-with-principles to understand -at root – where our Church culture is – from shoot to fruit. “By [which fruit(s)] we know that we must return to Tradition.
      God bless, Father. Thank you for your fidelity.
      In Jesu et Maria,
      TJ

      • The comparison is not between two rites…

        For clarity, and to guard against possible schism, in 2007 when Pope Benedict made it clear that the Traditional Mass was still permitted, and expanded its availability (adding to an earlier permission by Pope John Paul II in 1984), he presented the two options as the “Extraordinary Form” (Traditional) and the “Ordinary Form” (Novus Ordo) of the same LATIN RITE.

    • I make NO ATTEMPT to justify the inadequacies and lack of catechesis associated with the Novus Ordo, and I do value personally and have saved the link you supply on several of the points of comparison with the traditional Mass which I value and on which I was raised into adulthood.

      HOWEVER, the comparison table is simply incorrect on multiple points in its caricature of the Novus Ordo.

      (Incidentally, I recall reading long ago that in 1967 Pope Paul VI, for his part, found it necessary to issue a declaration that–because of all of its deformations and ambiguities–the Novus Ordo was at least still “valid” if these were interpreted in the orthodox sense–a line we continue to hear with regard to very recent novelties!).

      As for the caricature on the comparison table(and however much misunderstood by much of the laity), I illustrated with this PARTIAL SELECTION of misleading inaccuracies (Churchill would say “terminological inexactitudes”):

      (1) The Novus Ordo is presented as both a sacrifice and as a thanksgiving, NOT only a thanksgiving,
      (2) It is an option and NOT the case that one must receive under both species (historically, the position of one Martin Luther),
      (3) The Word and the Eucharist are NOT placed on the same level (for example, see buried in the Catechism, Paragraph 1374),
      (4) While the People of God are more engaged, they do NOT “participate” to the extent that they pretend to confect the Eucharist,
      (5) etc. etc. etc.

      I am NOT proposing that the careless (and worse) wording of the Mass prevents gross misunderstandings (e.g., “my sacrifice and yours…”), or even that many or most of the laity are at all clear on the nature of the Mass. Nor that weak instruction over the past half century has in any way prevented widespread ignorance.

      YES, we have a disaster, but the comparison table seems overly enthusiastic about the deficiencies of the Novus Ordo itself.

      • Peter: If the comparison table “seems overly enthusiastic about the deficiencies of the Novus Ordo itself” it seems to me that it is a very serious matter that the liturgy of the Church can be deficient. If this reformed Mass was to help Catholics understand the Mass better, as its reformers claimed, how can that be possible if it has “deficiencies”? And after 50 years, they are still fiddling with it.

  3. I am familiar with the obvious deficiencies of Novus Ordo but it sounds like self-righteous hypocrisy to me to blame every deficiency in our present Church’s faith and doctrine to it. We may as well call it Trump Ordo as a caricature of the caricature of some blaming President Trump for every single thing that goes wrong, including when the car breaks down, the dog pees on the carpet, etc. Unbelief in the Real Presence started before Jesus own face and there was no Novus Ordo (or Trump Ordo) around anywhere! I love both the Latin Mass and going to Novus Ordo, I am seeking my Lord Jesus not a forehead label of self-righteousness for attending one or the other.

    What worries me is Animalis Ordo (Deviant Satanic Animalism), the direct attack against our God-given dignity as creatures created in God’s image and likeness, the pinnacle of his Creation, now reduced to much less importance than animals, where unborn (or born) babies are killed, while a huge sentimentalist shove is promoted to save animals instead.

    There I can see why TODAY’S lack of faith in the Real Presence in the Eucharist (other factors notwithstanding) has gone down in direct proportion to the growing Deviant Satanic Animalism of obsesive environmentalism, where we humans are just a “plague on the earth” (have you ever seen animals campaigning to save each other?). If Jesus incarnated in a human-plague-of-the-earth, how can you even begin to believe in the Real Presence? They prefer to believe that animals are “incarnations of the divine”. That’s why the present Pope and all of his cohorts push radical enviromnmetalism so viciously and maniacally, because it directly attacks and weakens the very source of Divine Love and Power that the Eucharist actually is. We are totally weak and lost without it. When you devalue humans you devalue the Creator and also the Lord who incarnated and who died to save us all. It’s all about Animalis Ordo!!

    • Phil: I did not blame every “deficiency in our present Church’s faith and doctrine” on the Novus Ordo. I say that it is the primary reason that so many Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. And that is not based simply on the comparison chart that I referred you to but based on both experience of attending Novus Ordo masses and reading various criticisms of it.

      If an alien was told that the Traditional Roman Latin Rite and the Novus Ordo Rite were simply different forms of the same right, the alien, if able to reason, could clearly see the forms are not only different, but constitute a different theology, peppered with the heresies of Protestantism and Modernism.

      Now I don’t understand how you can believe that the Catholic Church can be deficient in Her faith and doctrine! She is a Divine Institution making it impossible for Her to be deficient in teaching all Truth.

      • For those who are unaware, any claim that the 1970 Roman Missal is somehow deficient was addressed by the Council of Trent, seventh session, in it Decree on the Sacraments, Canon XIII. It also covered liturgical abuse and innovations. That likely will come as a surprise to those who believed all of that nonsense started post-Vatican II. Dom Prosper Gueranger’s reforms did not emerge in a vacuum.

        I agree with Peter that the comparisons between the two forms of the same rite (the Roman Rite) is deficient. It is misleading in some of its claims, and presents a false dichotomy between them. For example: We know priests who offer the Ordinary Form who do the keeping the forefingers and thumbs together after the consecration until their hands can be purified. That there are those who don’t is unfortunate, but it’s not the liturgy’s fault. Also, the large Host is used at the consecration so people can see it, not to necessarily share it with the faithful in attendance. But even if it were, why is that a problem? Christ no doubt shared the bread He broke at the Last Supper before distributing it to those with Him.

        Also, and this is something I seldom see addressed by those who tout the spiritual superiority of the older liturgy, many of those Catholics who led the rebellion against what the Second Vatican Council actually taught, and did so in the “spirit of Vatican II”, were formed in the TLM. A great number of those who led the assault on Catholic beauty in Church art, music, and architecture, on private devotions and piety, were formed in that liturgy. It isn’t a bulwark against heresy or schism, and the newer one isn’t the cause of all of our problems in the Church today.

        And I say all of that as someone old enough to remember both, and I do love the older liturgy. Of course, I also love the Melkite Catholic liturgy of St. Basil, too. Our Church is full of wonderful liturgies. But the loss of faith in the Real Presence of the Eucharist can’t be laid at the feet of the 1970 Missal Romanum. It has resulted from several factors, including poor catechism and an acceptance by Catholics in this country that our faith is a private matter, not to be lived outwardly or proclaimed, in keeping with John F. Kennedy’s, and later Mario Cuomo’s, unfortunate comments that being Catholic was just part of their private lives. High time to toss that off and start letting the dogma live loudly within us.

  4. Good to read the reports on the Holy Father advocating Eucharistic Adoration and
    Cardl Vigano also focusing on the topic , as mentioned in the Moynihan letters, about the latter’s appreciation for the good book –
    ‘In Sinu Jesu .’ https://www.ignatius.com/In-Sinu-Jesu-P2750.aspx
    Articles on contraception being seen as a lost cause also around , even when the link between loss of faith in the Real Presence and disbelief in The Church teaching on the topic has been well linked .
    True , there are many , thank God that are not linked to its use , because of age etc: too .
    Belief in The Real Presence is linked to the trust given to The Church , for the power and authority of spoken words , in The Name of Jesus . Such a power is also what is said to be manifest, as per tradition , in the truth of The Immaculate Conception as well , wherein parents of Bl.Mother , in holiness and grace come into union , more by the power of the spoken Word and The Spirit , than by carnality
    ( Bl.Emmerich .)
    A contracepting couple , under the spirit of fear of life , choose to take authority over own bodies as belonging to them alone , not realising/ caring that it is the enemy who is getting more control .
    That , in spite of having promised to The Lord that they would glorify Him in their bodies , by accepting the grace The Lord wants to give them , falsely even thanking Him for same , in receiving the Eucharist , thus falling more deeply under the power of the spirits of rebellion and lies and pride ..
    Thus , exorcists such as Rev.Fr . Ripperger lumps the whole realm of carnal sins , as belonging to these death spirits , that damage faith and trust and hope , deepen carnal lusts and its holds .
    When persons include the # of babies that might be alive , if not for sins against life , it might bring a subtle fear that if all these babies were live , may be the world would be overpopulated .
    The error in that fear could be that more persons handling this whole area in more sacredness could have far reaching effects including less carnality , more healthy families, better weather , less addictions , illnesses , wars and so on .
    Churches , may be as part of petitions, giving the laity a minimal training and
    lesson and help , in verbal renunciation of these spirits , to thus allow The Spirit to have more room , such as in the Heart of The Father ministry format – unsure if same has been looked into .
    https://www.ignatius.com/The-Holy-Spirit-Fire-of-Divine-Love-P1111.aspx – gem of a little book, on The Holy Spirit , to also help many to take in His warmth and light and love , to undo the cold serpentine holds and places in hearts and nations ,
    to thus help many , to sit near the Tabernacle , to take in may be even that same breath that was in The Upper Room .
    Our Holy Father , with his deep love for The Eucharistic Lord, desiring for same to be available to persons all over, including that of the Amazon, the region being seen as breathing for the world at large – hope his good intentions would bring forth much good , including may be simple tribal remedies to help curtail unruly appetites resulting from the excesses in the cultures as a whole .
    God Bless !

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