Lies, damn lies, and statistics: Transubstantiation Edition

The Institution of the Eucharist, by Fra Angelico
The Institution of the Eucharist, Fra Angelico. Photo by Jonathan Aquino, used according to terms of CC-BY license.The Institution of the Eucharist, by Fra Angelico
Anyone who’s at least a little tuned in to Catholic chatter has likely heard a statement along these lines, as I did at Mass today:
Over / Nearly / Approximately 70% of practicing Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharst.
Or this, which I heard from a man promoting a traveling exhibit on purported Eucharistic miracles:
Imagine: 70% of the Catholics receiving communion each Sunday don’t believe / understand what they are receiving!
I’m reasonably sure I’ve heard a prominent clergyman say it, too, but I can’t find a citation at the moment, so I won’t fault him for what could well not be a fault.

The trouble with these statements is that they’re false. False, false, falsity false. Provably false, no less. Don’t take my word for it; it’s right there in the Pew Research Center’s own press release, in literal black and white:
About six-in-ten (63%) of the most observant Catholics — those who attend Mass at least once a week — accept the church’s teaching about transubstantiation.
Hence my headline, “Lies, damns likes, and statistics.”

I doubt anyone citing the wrong statistic realizes he’s telling an untruth. After all, Pew’s headline doesn’t help matters one bit:
Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ
The headline is admittedly accurate, though Pew really ought to know better.

If you’re scratching your head as to how I can say the first quotes are wrong, but the third quote and the headline are not, pay attention to a crucial distinction:
observant / practicing / faithful
which is measured by,
attend Mass at least once a week.
This is a well-known disparity among Catholics:I later heard on a podcast that the same is true of Evangelicals: a stark disparity appears in surveys between self-identified Evangelicals and those who attend church regularly, or otherwise engage their faith. I absolutely believe it. It’s probably true of a great many faiths, and deeply mis-colors the conversation about religion. the ones who attend Mass regularly are far more likely to believe what the Church teaches, and at least try to follow it. We observe this on just about every issue: abortion, artificial birth control, sexuality, and political preferences.Sorry I can’t find links to the last two at the moment. Unfortunately, “Observant Catholics more likely to believe in Catholicism” doesn’t exactly make for a compelling headline, impel clicks, or draw in the fundraising dollars.

The upshot?
A priest could preach on transubstantiation every week and still have basically no effect on the survey’s results.
You won’t reach the vast majority of Catholics who don’t believe in transubstantiation, or for that matter any other Church doctrine, if they aren’t showing up for Mass — and there’s a high probability that the reason they don’t show up for Mass is that they don’t believe to start with.

Thus, the real questions are,
  • What’s the reason most Catholics don’t attend?
  • How do we get non-attending Catholics to start attending again?
As with most real questions, answering that question is pretty hard, which is why Catholics have been asking that of themselves for the better part of five decades now.

That said, traveling exhibitions of purported Eucharistic miracles are not perhaps the best approach when some of them smell of fraud even to someone like me who has long acknowledged others as genuine.

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