How Can We Love God if we Barely Know Him?

Many of us are familiar with the popular online dating services, if only because they advertise so often. You fill our a detailed questionnaire about your interests, characteristics, etc. The service then matches you with potential dating prospects based on their prediction of your compatibility. You review their profiles and then, if you wish, reach out and try to set up a date and see how things go from there.

This makes sense. After all, nobody would ever say that they love somebody that they don’t even know. And nobody would say that they love somebody just because they’ve seen the results of a compatibility survey. To know them is necessary, but it’s not enough. It’s obvious that to truly love someone, you have to know them as they really are, which means that you have to encounter them in person, talk to them, and try to understand what’s in their heart, mind and soul.

This is the train of thought that I had when I read the very depressing results of a new study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. The purpose of the study was to assess how much Americans know about religions — their own and others. They asked over 11,000 Americans a set of 32 questions. Some of the questions are quite easy, while others are more difficult. I took a sample survey and got 15 out of 15, but that makes sense because I’m kind of a professional Catholic and I’ve always been interested in world religions. Most people did far worse — the average American adult was able to answer fewer than half of the questions correctly.

The general lack of knowledge among Americans is troubling enough, but what the survey revealed about Catholics is truly shocking and dismaying. Catholics on average correctly answered fewer questions than Americans overall, and than Mainline and Evangelical Protestants, Jews, Atheists and Agnostics. We did marginally better than Mormons. The specifics are pretty bad:

  • 56% knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.
  • 55% knew that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  • 61% knew that the Golden Rule is not actually one of the Ten Commandments.

Ouch. I have to say, in fairness, that there were some bright spots. 79% of Catholics knew that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ. 85% knew that the Trinity means that there is one God in three persons. 71% knew that Purgatory was the place where souls are purified before entering heaven. And the longer a person attends religious education, or if they attended Catholic school, they got more correct answers. 100% would have been better, but it’s still pretty good.

But the really depressing findings have to do with what Catholics know and believe about the Eucharist. Only 50% of Catholics knew that the Church teaches that at Mass, the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ. That’s horrifying enough, but when I looked at the data underlying the poll, I found something even worse. They asked only Catholics the following question:

Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion?

Here is what Catholics answered:

During Catholic Mass, the bread and wine…
  • 31% said “Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
  • 69% said “Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

Fewer than one out of three Catholics actually personally believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. And only half of Catholics are even aware of the Church’s actual teaching on the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism 1324). Heaven help us.

In his recent letter about the sex abuse crisis, Pope-Emeritus Benedict made some very important observations that apply not only to that scandal, but to the broader crisis that the Church finds herself in. His words are worth quoting at length (emphasis added by me):

What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery. The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence. The Eucharist is devalued into a mere ceremonial gesture when it is taken for granted that courtesy requires Him to be offered at family celebrations or on occasions such as weddings and funerals to all those invited for family reasons.

The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture. Therefore, when thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design. Rather, what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

True faith, the kind that can bring us to salvation, is not just being able to answer questions in Catholic Trivial Pursuit. It’s a personal encounter with the real and living God, the Father who created us, the Son who took on human nature and died for us, and the Spirit who lives within us still. If we don’t even know or believe that Christ Himself comes to us in the Eucharist — the real Christ, not just some symbol — then we can never have the fullness of the  personal encounter we need in order to love God, to accept His love for us, and ultimately to be happy with Him forever in heaven. As the Lord Himself said,

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh…. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:51-56)

This is the challenge to all of us — if people are to love God, we have to make sure that they know Him.

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