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New study says 69% of Massgoers believe in Real Presence; measuring belief called tricky task

Dominican Father Peter Martyr Yungwirth carries the monstrance as pilgrims journeying through the Archdiocese of New York on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage's Seton (East) Route process through Central Park in New York City May 25, 2024. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

(OSV News) — A new study suggests that Catholic belief in the Real Presence may be higher than previous data indicated — but measuring that belief accurately remains a tricky task for researchers.

Regular Mass attendance, however, has emerged as a key factor in determining an individual’s belief in the Real Presence.

On June 3, Vinea Research, a Maryland-based market research firm that focuses on the Catholic Church in the U.S., released “Do Catholics Truly Believe in the Real Presence?” — which concluded that 69% of Mass-going Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Higher levels of belief correlated with more frequent Mass attendance, Vinea found.

Vinea’s seven-page report revisited a landmark 2019 survey by Pew Research that found only 31% of Catholics in the U.S. believed that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” Pew reported at the time that among Catholics attending Mass at least once a week, 63% believed in transubstantiation — the theological term used to describe the change of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — but another 37% believed “the bread and wine are symbols.”

Yet the wording of Pew’s question was problematic, as were the response options, said Vinea founder and president Hans Plate, who has extensive experience in conducting market research for pharmaceutical and health care industries.

The Pew study “actually gave (survey participants) two responses that were both partially correct,” Plate told OSV News.

Pew had posed two questions — one knowledge-based, the other belief-oriented — about the Eucharist. In the first, Pew had asked respondents, “Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?” and asked them to select if the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ” or “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” A percentage of the survey takers indicated they were not sure (10%) or had no answer (1%).

In the second question, Pew asked, “Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion?” with participants replying that during the Mass, the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ” or “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

Plate told OSV News that “not only did (Pew) phrase the question wrong … but they actually gave (survey participants) two responses that were both partially correct. They weren’t even mutually exclusive. … I don’t think they had any bad intentions, but they just didn’t know any better.”

Instead, said Plate, the questions needed to be phrased to better align with Catholic teaching, which — as Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, told OSV News — holds that the bread and wine are “true Presence and symbol at the same time.”

“All sacraments are symbols,” said Father Gaunt, whose organization teamed up with the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame for a 2023 national survey on Eucharistic belief among adult Catholics in the U.S.

That report — which found 64% of respondents expressed belief in the Real Presence, based on collective assessments of both open- and closed-ended questions for each participant, with Mass attendance proving significant in positive responses — used questions that “better expressed the church’s teachings around Real Presence and transubstantiation,” wrote McGrath’s associate director for research Timothy O’Malley in an October 2023 commentary.

Vinea’s rewrite of the Pew questions rendered the options for both the knowledge-based and belief questions as as “Jesus Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist,” “Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not truly present,” or “Not sure.”

The Vinea study split its sample of over 2,000 Catholics — defined as age 18 or older, who attended Mass “at least once,” Plate told OSV News, on a basis ranging from “seldom” to “a few times a year” to “more than once a week” — and administered Pew’s language to half, with the remaining half answering Vinea’s revised questions.

Father Gaunt told OSV News the Vinea study “is confirming pretty much what we found” in the McGrath-CARA study.

“They highlighted again that the issue is the way Pew phrased the question was not clear enough,” said Father Gaunt. “And so when you correct for that, you get a very different response rate.”

But Gregory A. Smith, associate director of research at Pew, told OSV News his firm’s question phrasing “has a number of strengths,” as it “gives people two plausible alternatives to choose from.

“That’s really important because of something survey researchers call ‘acquiescence bias,'” whereby respondents, given a choice to either agree or disagree with a statement, “tend to prefer to express agreement rather than disagreement,” explained Smith, who has not studied the Vinea findings.

Smith also said the Pew questioning is “quite neutral,” which is “very important.”

“I am aware that there have been some other surveys that have added a clause to the second statement … modifying the second statement so that it would be (to the effect), ‘The bread and wine symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but Jesus is not really present.’ We would not ask that kind of question, because you’re asking Christians to deny the real presence of Jesus. … I would be concerned that (phrasing) would cue respondents into a particular kind of answer that they might think the researcher is looking for.”

Smith said that even with Pew’s wording aside, “more crucially, the patterns that we see in our data are meaningful … and they’re what you might expect to see, if you assume that practicing Catholics are going to be the most likely to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is exactly what we see in our data.”

Both he and Plate cautioned their studies were not directly comparable, given the differences in sampling (selecting a subset of a given population for research) and weighting, which ensures the sample accurately reflects the makeup of the larger population.

Vinea noted in its report that Pew’s sampling approach of “probability sampling” is “the gold standard method for obtaining a representative set of survey respondents.” In contrast, Vinea worked with ThinkNow, a consumer panel company.

“However, the magnitude of difference in results does allow us to make inferences between the two approaches,” the Vinea report said.

More broadly, researchers may find themselves increasingly having to account for how Catholics in the U.S. identify themselves as such, given polarization within the church and in society.

More than a decade ago, Brian Starks — a sociologist of religion at Kennesaw State University who specializes in the study of Catholic identity — noted that greater in-depth research was needed on self-identification terms such as “traditional,” “moderate” and “liberal” Catholic, since such identities represent “self-understood divisions within the Catholic Church, and serve to institutionalize intrafaith conflicts.”

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.

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