Religion demographic polls treat Catholicism like a monolith, as if all Catholics are the same, while they break down Protestantism in detail based on beliefs and social positions. The truth, however, is that Catholicism in America is not nearly as unified as the typical demographers would have us believe.
About a year ago, the Pew Research Center published a survey that many Catholics (especially clergy) don’t want to believe, but in my personal experience, I’ve found it to be relatively close to my own interaction with fellow Catholics. The survey found that slightly less than a third (31%) of Catholics, in the United States, believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Transubstantiation). That’s pretty terrible, considering the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the actual substance of the body and blood of Christ, under the mere appearance of bread and wine (Catechism of Trent: The Sacraments, The Holy Eucharist, Baltimore Catechism: Lesson 22, On The Holy Eucharist, Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1322-1419) as taught by Jesus Christ himself according to the Gospel of John. The remaining 69% of Catholics subscribe to the Protestant belief that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is just symbolic.
We have a problem, and it’s a big one. The notion that the Eucharist is just symbolic is a purely Protestant belief. It comes from Protestants, it was formulated by Protestants, and it’s propagated by Protestants. Yet 69% of Catholics in the United States believe it. This means that 69% of Catholics in the United States are adhering to a form of Protestantism that has all the trappings of Catholicism; smells, bells and beads, without the miracle of the transubstantiation. They are on the Church membership rolls, but their faith isn’t Catholic, at least not when it comes to the most important thing about being Catholic — The Eucharist.
Since the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Catholic Faith, and one of the most central teachings of the Catholic Church, if 69% of US Catholics can so easily deny this fundamental dogma of the faith, the question begs to be asked, what other fundamental teachings of the faith have they abandoned?
The bigger question is this. Are 69% of US Catholics really Catholic at all? Or is the US Catholic Church slowly becoming a schismatic sect, heavily influenced by Protestant thinking? According to Pew, it is. Though admittedly, they don’t analyse their own data that deeply. To them, it’s just numbers on a graph. To Faithful Catholics in the United States, who really do believe the teachings of the Church on the Eucharist, this data has overwhelming implications. It means that just over two-thirds of our churches are filled with Protestants who think they’re Catholic, but they’re not, at least not in faith anyway. They identify as Catholics, they attend Mass, they’re known as “Catholics” in the community, but in practical application of faith, they’re really Protestants, essentially Baptists. Even the Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans have a higher view of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist than those 69% of Catholics who say it’s “just symbolic.” No, this symbolic position on the Eucharist is basically Baptist. So, according to Pew, about 69% of US Catholics are basically Baptists when it comes to their beliefs concerning Holy Communion.
This has caused a lot of Catholic clergy, and a good number of devout lay Catholics as well, to reject the findings of the Pew survey. While they often lack any hard evidence to back this presumption, they cannot accept that so many Catholics are basically Baptists when it comes to their beliefs about the Eucharist.
As for me, I’m a “red pill” kind of guy. I take my medicine, even when it hurts. If Pew says 69% of US Catholics hold to a Baptist-like belief about the Eucharist, I believe them. Why? Because that pretty much explains my entire experience with US Catholics over the course of my lifetime, both before and after my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2000.
When I was a Baptist, and later an Evangelical, living in California, the overwhelming vast majority of Catholics I knew would tell me they reject most of the Church’s teachings, especially regarding the Eucharist, confession, papal infallibility, contraception, abortion, priestly celibacy and the male priesthood in general, almost as if they were bragging about it. Most of them told me their religion was mainly cultural, and they’re Catholic only because their family is Catholic — the end. They would go to Mass, go through the motions, etc., but in their day-to-day lives, you would never know they were Catholic. Some of them wore a crucifix or Saint medal, but never showed any devotion in their daily lives. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I saw a Catholic pray before a meal in public.
Living in California, where the Catholic population is fairly high, you can see now why I felt completely justified as an Evangelical Protestant. It wasn’t until after I moved to Missouri, where the Catholic population is extremely low, that I saw how it works both ways. Protestants can be just as faithless as well.
Then, of course, we can all see the effects of this problem in American politics. How many Catholics reject the Church’s teachings on artificial contraception, abortion, gay “marriage,” homosexuality, gender, economics, socialism, etc.? We see it all around us. How many Catholics vote Democrat, even though the Democratic Party opposes Catholic teaching on almost every moral issue? Even to the point of persecuting Catholic nuns?
I could go into a litany of the things the bishops need to do to turn this trend around, but these days, it seems nobody is interested in solutions. The status quo is 31%, and that’s what we all need to learn to accept. Only 31% of Catholics are actually “Catholic.” The other 69% are something else.
So the time has come to take the “red pill” and accept the numbers. Less than 3 out of 10 Catholics in the US are really “Catholic” in faith. The rest are some kind of new Protestant. It’s a Protestantism that looks very Catholic in appearance, but in personal faith, it’s somewhat Baptist(ish). Though many of my Baptist friends would object to that, as they’re very morally conservative, and would take offense at being compared to political liberals.
Now that the Sunday obligation has been commuted in some dioceses and outright suspended in others, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming much easier for the 69% to walk away from the Church. It starts by watching Mass on the Internet, and eventually (when one doesn’t believe in the transubstantiation or real presence), people get board. They might check other Internet channels, maybe a few Protestant services, which are much more entertaining, and more in line with their personal beliefs anyway. Once that happens, it’s just a matter of time. Without belief in the transubstantiation, Catholicism cannot survive.
Currently, there are 70.4 million registered Catholics in the United States. That’s 22% of the US population. But since only 31% of Catholics actually subscribe to the most core teachings of the Church, especially on the Eucharist, the number of authentic US Catholics is really only 21.8 million, or about 7% of the US population. That’s still much bigger than the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) at 16.1 million, or 5% of the US population. Still, it’s a shocking reduction in the overall size of American Catholicism. It’s a reduction that many Church leaders are still unwilling to mentally accept.
Not to worry though, I think we’ve hit rock-bottom on the percentage of Catholics who still believe (31%). That percentage will go up in the years ahead, but not because more Catholics will embrace the teachings of the Church. On the contrary, it will go up because many of those Catholics who have rejected the teachings of the Church, will soon come to reject the Church entirely.