Understanding Our Church

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On meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church: A mystery to ...

Published: August 14, 2021

By Edward C. Dodge
Catholic High School for Boys

The Second Vatican Council defined the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian faith. Christians, taught by the council, should hunger for the Eucharist, and from it, they should receive energy to evangelize themselves and the world.

Then it should come as no surprise that the U.S. bishops are concerned about Catholics’ waning understanding of and belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey of religious knowledge found that only 50 percent of Catholics polled could correctly identify the Church doctrine that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Forty-five percent said the Eucharist was only a symbol, and 5 percent of Catholics responded “don’t know” to the question.

More concerning is how these Catholics responded when asked what they believe: a whopping 69 percent said the Eucharist is purely symbolic, whereas only 31 percent said they believe in the Real Presence. In response, the U.S. bishops this June voted to draft a teaching document titled “On the Meaning of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” which would include three sections: “The Eucharist, A Mystery to be Believed,” “The Eucharist, A Mystery to be Celebrated” and “The Eucharist, A Mystery to be Lived.”

Christians, taught by the council, should hunger for the Eucharist, and from it, they should receive energy to evangelize themselves and the world.

Archbishop Jose Gomez, the USCCB president, wrote this about the proposed document: “The Eucharist is the heart of the Church and the heart of our lives as Catholics. In the Holy Eucharist, Jesus Christ himself draws near to each one of us personally and gathers us together as one family of God and one Body of Christ. As bishops, our desire is to deepen our people’s awareness of this great mystery of faith and to awaken their amazement at this divine gift, in which we have communion with the living God. That is our pastoral purpose in writing this document.” It is the third section of this document, which the bishops will review at their November meeting, that has drawn the most scrutiny from the public square because it could touch upon the lives of Catholic politicians who do not practice what the bishops call “Eucharistic coherence,” a term originating from a South American document promulgated in 2007.

That document states, “We must adhere to ‘Eucharistic coherence,’ that is, be conscious that (people) cannot receive holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments and health professionals.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul warned the Christian community that to receive the Eucharist unworthily would be to “eat and drink damnation unto” oneself.

The question raised is that of the Catholic politician’s responsibility both to influence changing a law opposing Catholic moral teaching (or at least not supporting it) and to the public-at-large, lest the public perceive that the Church condones the politician’s every position. Or, bluntly, does a Catholic politician sin if, for example, he does nothing to end abortion — or worse, supports it even if personally opposed? If so, both for his good and the sake of public scandal, should the bishops refuse to give him Communion, or does his soul’s state remain a personal matter between himself and his God? Good questions, but the bishops have emphasized that the document seeks only to teach, not to lay out policies on reception. In the end, if the Eucharist is to remain the source and summit of our Christian lives, we must do a better job of transmitting our beliefs, particularly of the Real Presence, to the next generation.

Edward C. Dodge teaches English and religion at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. He holds a master's degree in Catholic studies from Christian Brothers University.

Understanding Our Church