The recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study on the religious knowledge of Americans was very revealing for organized religions, especially the Catholic Church.
The simple study consisted of thirty-two basic questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. On average, those who took the survey answered half of the questions incorrectly and many even got the questions about their own faith tradition incorrect! In fact those who scored the highest were those who don’t believe at all. Shockingly it was atheists and agnostics who finished first in the test of religious knowledge and it was the Catholics who finished last in answering questions correctly!
While critics might rightly find fault with the survey and how it was conducted, it certainly should give pause to Catholic Church leaders. The study revealed that forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that our church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy Communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, soul and divinity. Nearly half of the Catholics surveyed do not understand the church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
This study indicates that there is still great need of on-going religious education and catechesis for Catholics - especially for adults - in the basics of the faith. One of the top five priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is to invite all Catholics to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ in the church through formation focused on sacred Scripture and tradition, and sacraments, especially the Sunday Eucharist. On the local level, Bishop Tobin has led the Diocese of Providence during this Year of Evangelization to reach out to inactive Catholics and invite them back to church and Mass. However, such priorities and campaigns are only the beginning of addressing the increasing need of authentic catechesis on the basics of the Catholic Faith. Too many Catholics seem confused or hold an incorrect understanding about such fundamentals of the faith as the Eucharist.
The Pew Study indicates that our Catholic pews are full of people who lack a basic understanding of their own faith. Catholics should be encouraged to rededicate themselves to studying the teachings of the church and parishes should be encouraged to offer opportunities for adults to discover a deeper understanding of their faith. Reflecting upon this latest survey of religious knowledge, we are reminded of the words of St. Anselm of Canterbury: "While the right order requires that we should believe the deep things of the Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason, it seems careless for us, once we are established in the faith, not to aim at understanding what we believe."
What was true for Catholics living in the 11th century seems to be an imperative for the Catholics living in the 21st century as well.