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The Triumph Of MTD

Big majority of US Catholics don't believe what Church teaches about the Eucharist. Only half even know what that teaching is

Let’s remind ourselves of the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which Notre Dame sociologist of religion Christian Smith says is the de facto religion of American youth. He said that in 2005, but I think now we can say (and probably could have said back then) that it is the de facto religion of the American people:

+ A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
+ God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
+ The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
+ God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
+ Good people go to heaven when they die.

Pew Research Center, what do you have to tell us lately about MTD in America? Oh, wow, this is something:

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. Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that “the Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’”

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.”

Get this: only 50 percent of those surveyed even know that the Catholic Church teaches transubstantiation! Of that number, 28 percent believe the church’s teaching, but 22 percent reject it. That means slightly more than one in four American Catholics both know and accept the teaching of the Catholic Church on one of its most important, fundamental teachings.

Read the whole thing. For people outside the sacramental churches, especially the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it is impossible to emphasize strongly enough how devastating this finding is. Eucharistic theology is at the core of our understanding of reality.

One of American Catholicism’s best evangelists is stunned:


Do watch that video — Bishop Barron explains why this is such a big deal.

I think it’s important — and welcome! — that Bishop Barron is not “saddened” by this finding, but angry. If you look at the details of the Pew findings, you’ll see a marked falloff in understanding of what the Eucharist is in people born in 1960 and thereafter. These are people who would have been catechized after Vatican II. It’s as if the Catholic Church gave up teaching the faith to its people. The bishop is right to be angry! What a horrible failure on the part of older generations.

I don’t know what the situation is with Protestants (Evangelical and Mainline) and their belief in core teachings of their confessions. I would expect similar results from the mainline, and wouldn’t be surprised if Evangelicals weren’t far behind. In his 2005 results, Christian Smith said that MTD was the de facto belief across denominational lines. As I recall, Evangelicals were somewhat better than most, but still pretty far from the mark. Anecdotally, as I’ve traveled around the US these past few years giving talks, Evangelical college profs have told me that they are worried by what they’re seeing in their students. They report that their students are enthusiastic about the faith — most of them are the products of youth ministry in their home churches — but know next to nothing about Christian fundamentals. What they really know is that they have strong emotions related to Jesus. That’s not enough. That’s not nearly enough.

Readers, this is a big reason that I wrote The Benedict Option. Yes, I’m concerned about persecution of Christians — I believe that it’s coming — but that is not my greatest concern. My greatest concern is that we are losing the faith through our own laziness and lack of caring. So many of us are waiting on the institutional church to get its act together, to teach and form our children in the faith. We’re wrong! It’s not going to happen! It might happen, but if it happens, it will be too late for our kids. All it takes is one generation to fall away, and then the chain of transmission is broken.

In the book, Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, tells me that any Christian family who wants to make it through what’s here and what’s to come has to do some form of the Benedict Option. We have no alternative. This new research from Pew helps explain why — and it showcases why Christians who expect the institutional church to do all the heavy lifting are making a spiritually fatal mistake.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

It’s a bigger problem than relying on the institutional church. It’s related primarily on the influence of the culture on the people living in it, and the challenges it places on belief (any actual belief beyond MTD, whether that’s Catholic, Orthodox Judaism, orthodox Islam, etc.).

I have seen this play out in my extended family. Although I have been Orthodox for 20 years now, I grew up in a Catholic family. One branch of it had a parent as a Catholic HS religion teacher, and two kids. Both of these kids continued to practice the faith into young adulthood (unlike many peers), but one of them was already, 20+ years ago, at the point of seeing the Eucharist as “representing” the body and blood or “symbolizing”. And one of his parents was a Catholic religion teacher, and they were clearly not outsourcing the teaching of the faith. Growing up in the world described by Charles Taylor as “disenchanted”, it can become very difficult for many people, even people who are raised in households where the faith is practiced and taught “in house”, to retain belief in things that contradict the dominant contemporary materialist/empiricist epistemology.

In any case, this person married a non-baptized person with a dispensation to do so (required but routinely granted in the Catholic Church … not permitted for Orthodox), subject to the usual caveats about raising the children Catholic and so on. This person eventually ended up stopping attending Church and identifying as Christian, let alone Catholic, eventually. Their sibling has remained a practicing Catholic, and a believing one (would be in the minority who believes the teachings about the Eucharist and so on), and both were taught the same way, in-house, about the faith. They reacted differently, because some people can maintain the faith in the current environment more easily than others can, from a mental perspective as well as a personal/moral one. But I can say that in this case it didn’t have much to do with outsourcing the teaching of the faith.

The challenge is real, and the BenOp is needed, because it’s certainly true that if you *do* try to outsource the teaching of the faith, you’re sunk. However, the other approach of doing it in-house can often fail as well — the culture is that strong, and the challenge to being a person of actual traditional faith in this culture is that stiff. Many of all actual faiths will succumb regardless.

I agree. I fear that in my own life and household, I rely too much on holding the correct opinions — this, to catechize and form my children. Besides, I know deeply devout Christians who did “all the right things” with their kids, but not all of them held on to the faith. When I was in Italy last year, I found some recent social science research showing that only a small minority of Italian Catholics describe themselves as active and practicing, and of the adult children of that minority, only 22 percent describe themselves as active and practicing.

That is to say, only about one in five children of the most engaged Catholic families takes up the faith in an active and engaged way.

Daunting numbers, for sure.

UPDATE: There have been a few comments along the lines of this one from Catholic reader REM. The basic complaint is, “No wonder Catholics don’t believe what the Church teaches about the Eucharist — we don’t act like we believe it in our worship.” He writes:

As a Catholic I admit I struggle with belief in transubstantiation as a part of my greater struggle with belief in other doctrines** and I currently do not go to communion out of respect for the rules to receive. I’m probably wrong in my doubts since pride is a stumbling block but I can’t help the lack of certainty so I abstain. I accept that I may have fallen into the Protestant trap of trying to understand the Bible and what it means to be part of the Body of Christ by only my own dim light of faith and I’m searching for the rope to pull me out. But…

I see so little evidence of the efficacy of Eucharistic grace. Every Sunday I see people queued up for communion that look distracted, bored, like their mind is somewhere else. I definitely don’t see people who look like they understand at all the gravity of what they would almost certainly readily profess to be doing. I ask myself why these people who are at church every Sunday, and receiving communion every Sunday, are so clueless, tuned out, and apparently immune to Eucharistic grace? I sadly recognize myself all too much in that statement so maybe I’m just projecting. Almost everyone, like 95%, goes up to communion and I find it hard to believe they are all in the state of grace and in the proper state of mind to receive according to what the Church teaches. I feel like I stick out with a big sign over my head saying “Mortal sinner here” by staying in my seat. And yet, it seems like this massive hoard of people going up to communion (and a proportionately tiny number at confession on Sat.) is seen as a good sign that the congregation is faithful rather than the opposite since it’s never spoken of by the priests (and I think we have a pretty orthodox parish in what is actually being taught but also pretty MTD in what is not said and in our outreach). But does frequent## unworthy reception breed contempt rather than bring grace? Is that what we’re seeing? Is there a metaphysical consequence to an entire parish (or Church) if the majority of people are receiving communion unworthily and no one addresses it? I wonder… what would happen if our parish priests called a moratorium on Mass for a few weeks and instead taught classes on the doctrine of transubstantiation, rules for reception, and how to perform a proper examination of conscience. Then told everyone not to present themselves for communion again unless their belief conformed to doctrine and they had made a good and thorough examination of conscience and confession. Would we see a difference, even a palpable experience of the Holy Spirit? Or would we see an empty church? Is any priest courageous enough to try it? If we believe what we profess can that be called too extreme to bring people right round again? Or is Francis correct when he says the Eucharist is medicine for the sick, not a prize for the perfect? And does that mean that as long as you believe Jesus is present and don’t intend to disrespect Him it doesn’t matter how sinful you are or how many doctrines you question if you receive with a sincere desire to obtain grace to help you overcome sin? Sounds more like Christ in the Gospels to me but it’s definitely not doctrinal, so that makes it false – keys to the kingdom and all – right?

The Orthodox Church has lots of problems, but this isn’t one. The liturgy is always very reverent, very “high,” even in relatively poor mission churches like the ones I’ve worshiped in the past seven years. You have no doubt that you are in the presence of the all-holy; everything about the liturgy dramatically testifies to that. In the Orthodox Church — every one I’ve ever worshiped in — the priest always says before communion that communion is only for Orthodox Christians who have had a recent confession, and who have prepared themselves with prayer and fasting. They take the sacredness of the Eucharist very seriously. When I travel, I try to make a point of communicating in advance to the pastoral staff of the parish where I intend to take communion on Sunday, letting them know who I am, and that I will present myself for communion properly disposed. I do this as a matter of respect for the priest, and how seriously he takes his responsibility.

For all of you interested in Eucharistic theology, the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann’s little book For The Life Of The World is a real treasure.

UPDATE.2: This is a good comment that’s no doubt going to resonate with a lot of Christian readers, Catholic and otherwise:

I help with after-school catechesis at my parish. It may be that one problem is that many current parents were catechised in a very shallow way, and don’t know what their faith teaches; I see signs of that in mystified looks or comments from parents when I teach about Passover and some parents ask what that has to do with our faith. It doesn’t help that many hardly ever attend Mass (some do, and we can see the difference, I think there is a lot of catechising going on at Mass on a subconscious level). But that is not the only thing happening.

I’ve spent some time trying to break down the problem (asking kids questions, trying to explain things different ways, etc), and I think one problem at the bottom of this is that kids now are immersed in a culture with a reductionist view of reality that makes abstract thought quite difficult. Anything can be reduced to its component parts and then each component analyzed and controlled and the workings of the thing explained by the workings of each part. It’s a very sciency way of thinking and not intrinsically bad, but secular culture does not generally build things back up so you can see the whole picture; it stops at breaking them down. All they can see is the individual parts. So they see the Eucharist and it looks like bread, and they can’t really get beyond that.

Another problem is that the moral reasoning they are imbibing from the surrounding culture is really broken. For example, every year, I have some kids who think Jesus committed suicide. They just can’t reason through the problem. For one thing, they are being raised to think sin doesn’t exist (there’s just genes and the environment, really), (except in the form of hate speech and school shootings, which are done by moral monsters who are beyond redemption, so they also don’t believe in forgiveness or redemption). Why should Christ willingly give up his life to save us from something that, for most of us, doesn’t exist? And why should he willingly give up his life to save moral monsters who don’t deserve to be saved? There’s also the wacky approach to moral reasoning that is used by our society, where the wrongness of something is determined solely by its measured “harmfulness.” Obviously Christ dying on the cross was harmful to himself (and it also led to further harm because look at all his disciples who were persecuted and died afterward), so they can’t understand how it could be morally justified.

I don’t think it’s irretrievable but it’s hard and getting harder.

UPDATE.3: A Catholic parish priests writes:

Nothing surprising about this at all. Gallup discovered the same thing in the 1980s — presented with the Zwinglian, Lutheran and Catholic positions on the Eucharist, the “practicing Catholics” polled divided up evenly among the three statements.

Note a constant between then and now. The bishops of our country back then poured a vast amount of resources into constructing a large bureaucracy, the United States Catholic Conference, to complement the NCCB, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. They constructed an imposing office building near the National Shrine, and proceeded to pour time and energy into a series of pastoral letters from the NCCB to the nation: on war and peace, the economy, women, and a whole bunch of other subjects. Mind you, Mass attendance was in crisis (if you lose sixty percent of your customers in thirty years, it’s bad), catechesis was a disaster (of course. It had been handed over to the textbook publishers, and the previous, time-tested Catechism was forbidden), the Liturgy was in crisis, our Catholic schools were closing, our Catholic colleges and universities were being secularized… and the Bishops were giving the benefit of their wisdom on the economy to our society.

Today? NOTHING has gotten better, in fact the opposite has occurred as the two generations of older Catholics which really had the Faith were called home to God. What do you hear from the bishops? Immigration.

One never hears anyone say of the Bishop, “I look at him and I see Jesus.”



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