Nineteen Sixty-four: Hypothesis Confirmed: "Knowledgeable Doubters" are Rare:
Back in 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a survey that concluded, “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.” At the time, I cautioned about interpreting the meaning of these results by noting that knowledge may not always represent belief (...also pointing out that even 59% of Protestants state a belief in Transubstantiation). I argued that, "Strangely enough, many Catholics believe what their Church teaches without realizing that their Church teaches it." Some commenting online scoffed at the idea that this could actually be the case.
At the time the data did not exist to test this notion. Now it does in the newly released landmark study American Catholics in Transition by William V. D'Antonio, Michele Dillon, and Mary L. Gautier (i.e., the famous senior research associate at CARA). This is the 5th book in this series of research that began in 1987.
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."
As shown below, this creates four groups. The largest are "knowledgeable believers," representing 46% of adult Catholics, who are aware of the Church's teachings about the Real Presence and say they believe these to be true. 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 that this represents a teaching of the Church. There is something hopeful about this group, which represents a third of adult Catholics (33%). Even though they currently do not believe the Church's teaching, they may come to believe it if they knew and understood it better. Knowledge and belief of this may even bring more of them to a Catholic parish on Sundays.
What is rare, representing only 4% of adult Catholics, is someone who knows about the Church's teachings regarding the Real Presence and who states they do not believe this teaching to be true. These are the "knowledgeable doubters" (...note that this study uses the same methods of CARA Catholic Polls, e.g., anonymity, self-administered response without an interviewer, which limit social desirability bias).
What I have noted above is just one tidbit from American Catholics in Transition, which is an extraordinary piece of research.
There are often many anecdotes (or survey results based on small Catholic samples) thrown around about what is going on among Catholics from parish life to politics. This book provides some data that confirms and denies many of these anecdotes. It spends a good deal of time disentangling generational and gender differences. The latter providing some of the biggest surprises and concerns.
I am thankful to the authors for taking the time to test one of my ideas (...it helps when a co-author sits a few steps away!). I think there is some reassurance in their conclusion about the data above: "Among all Catholics who know what the Church teaches about the Real Presence, fewer than 1 in 10 (9 percent) say that they do not believe the doctrine." Now we know that lack of belief in the Real Presence is more a problem of religious education than of doubt.