No Knowledge without Education

Here’s a bit of fun with a serious point to it, which I picked up on my iGoogle media alerts. Danielle Bean, a Catholic author and mother of eight, is editorial director of Faith & Family magazine and Faith & Family Live, and she has written a blog post at the Washington Post entitled “Catholicism’s scandal of ignorance”. She refers to an online quiz by Pew Forum in the US. The quiz is described as follows:

How much do you know about religion?
And how do you compare with the average American? Here’s your chance to find out. Take our short, 15-question quiz, and see how you do in comparison with 3,412 randomly sampled adults who were asked these and other questions in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This national poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish. When you finish the quiz, you will be able to compare your knowledge of religion with participants in the national telephone poll. You can see how you compare with the overall population as well as with people of various religious traditions, people who attend worship services frequently or less often, men and women, and college graduates as well as those who did not attend college.
For a full analysis of the findings of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, read the full report.

Okay, I thought, I’m game. there are 15 questions, including two US legal questions that are not hard to guess the answer to – IF you know something about the State as well as “religion”! I actually scored 100% – 15 out of 15 – putting me in the top 99% of the population (remember that the public in this case is the American public…)

There is a full analysis here of the results of the Pew Forum survey (not the online play one, but the real one). But as Danielle Bean points out, the really terrifying thing is the way practicing Catholics have answered the question regarding the doctrine of the Eucharist. This page gives a complete breakdown of the way the real survey respondents answered the 15 questions in the online survey. In regard to the question 6 (“6. Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? •The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. •The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”) we are told that only 40% of the American population answered correctly. Only actual Catholics answered the question correctly at a level significantly higher than this average, but even that was only 59% for “white Catholics” and 47% for “hispanic Catholics”. The doctrine of transubstantiation is a defining doctrine of Catholicism. With Mrs Bean, I agree that the fact that less than two thirds of American Catholics are aware of this is a little troubling at least. Mrs Bean writes:

For me, the saddest part of the Pew Forum survey results is the abysmal ignorance of many Catholics with regard to the tenets of their own faith. Specifically, the fact that “45% of Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ” is a scandal.

This is especially pathetic because the Eucharist — Christ’s real presence under the appearance of bread and wine — is one of the primary ways in which the Catholic Church differs from Protestant churches. Many converts to Catholicism, especially well studied ones, will tell you that it was the sacraments, and specifically the Eucharist, that drew them to the Catholic Church in the first place. God built us for union with him. We long for Christ, and it is in the sacraments that we find that union.

One of the enduring effects of the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church is that it is now definitively “not cool” to be Catholic. I don’t know who the people were that responded to the Pew Forum survey, but every week I grow in confidence that those who fill the pews around me at Sunday Mass are there because they true believers.

Week after week, we come because we believe that Church is more than a social institution and a product of our times. Even if it has become a social scarlet letter, we need Jesus Christ, and we know where we will find him: In the Catholic Church. In the flesh.

Well said. There is an interesting reflection on the Pew Forum’s pages:

Factors in Religious Knowledge

What factors seem to contribute to religious knowledge? Data from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people with a high school education or less. Having taken a religion course in college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge.

Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family. People who say they frequently talk about religion with friends and family get an average of roughly two more questions right than those who say they rarely or never discuss religion. People with the highest levels of religious commitment – those who say that they attend worship services at least once a week and that religion is very important in their lives – generally demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or low religious commitment. Having regularly attended religious education classes or participated in a youth group as a child adds more than two questions to the average number answered correctly, compared with those who seldom or never participated in such activities. And those who attended private school score more than two questions better on average than those who attended public school when they were growing up. Interestingly, however, those who attended a private religious school score no better than those who attended a private nonreligious school.

In other words, education, education, education. If there is one thing that the canonisation of Saint Mary of the Cross should remind us, it is of the importance of education in the faith.

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13 Responses to No Knowledge without Education

  1. Christine says:

    I took the quiz, got 14 out of 15 right. Can’t remember which one I missed.

    Speaking from the American standpoint, it is interesting to me that knowledge of history seems to have plunged right along with religious education over the past several decades but then the two are really quite intertwined. How many Catholics know that the actual First Thanksgiving in the U.S. was not conducted by the Pilgrims as is generally believed but in St. Augustine, Florida where “Spanish Adm. Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore on Sept. 8, 1565. This is where he, 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, 100 civilian families and artisans, and the Timucuan Indians who occupied the village of Seloy gathered at a makeshift altar and said the first Christian Mass. And afterward, this is where they held the first Thanksgiving feast.”

    It also seems to me that a great deal of Christian education post-Vatican II has focused on “relationship building” and “sharing stories” rather than solid catechesis. I think the Bishops in the U.S. are finally waking up to the fact that the masses have been greatly sold short and that religious ed needs to get back to the basics.
    Not that this is by any means strictly a Catholic problem. Religious education among many denominations is abysmal.

  2. Tony says:

    I fluffed the last question. Billy Grahame was the only guy I recognised. I also thought that the Jewish Sabbath started on Saturday, so I learned something. Like you, David, my edumakated guesses on US law were right. So my score was 13/15.

    I wonder if the questions were asked a generation ago, of those educated before VatII, would the scores have been any better?

    I suspect that the graph would have looked similar, but that the types of questions people knew might have been different and that maybe people could have answered questions that were familiar with their narrower experience and education, but they would have been quite ignorant about broader issues.

  3. Harry says:

    I got a 100%, that is because I have a Lutheran background.

  4. Kyle says:

    To be honest, I find that question concerning the Eucharist a little vague. I selected the first option, but what exactly does it mean to say that the bread and wine ‘actually become’ the body and blood of Christ? Certainly the species do not physically become Christ. Communion is not cannibalistic. The second option is not strictly wrong either. The bread and wine do symbolise the body and blood of Christ — the ritual is heavily symbolic although obviously the Catholic Church insists that Eucharist is more than symbolic.

    I don’t doubt that religious literacy is a problem and certainly many Catholics lack proper catachesis. But I think that this question is quite problematic and it doesn’t really allow the respondent to verbally distinguish the symbolic and substantial elements of the Eucharist. If the answers were ‘The Catholic Churches teaches the bread and wine are merely symbolic’ and ‘the Catholic Church teaches that Eucharist that the bread and wine are the Real Presence of Christ’ — perhaps the responses would be more revealing.

    • Tom says:

      As I understood it, transubstantiation (i.e.: a shift in substance) means that the Bread becomes Christ Himself; that is, properly speaking, His body and His blood. The bread has the prior nature of bread, and the accidents of bread, and after the change in substance (i.e.: nature in the broadly Aristotelian/Thomist sense of the word) it has the nature of Christ (of which there is only 1 Son of God) and the accidents of bread.

      Or am I completely out of the ballpark here? Cause I could have sworn that the Eucharist was Christ Himself present, as the bread and wine itself.

      • Kyle says:

        Yes, that is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches. However, the question in this case does not really offer its respondents that level of nuance — distinguishing accident from substance, and real presence from symbolic presence. That’s the whole problem. The bread and wine are symbols too and the word ‘actually’ is totally misleading — if I were to say that it is the actual body and blood of Christ, I might misleading suggest that the bread and wine are physically Jesus.

        I think that this issue touches on a broader point: religious knowledge is quite different to the ability to verbally recite of a doctrine. The surveys suggests that Hispanic Catholics scored worse and, yet, I suspect that Hispanic Catholics, who are more likely to practice adoration, would probably better understand transubstantiation, even if they cannot quite work out how to express it.

        • “[You] might misleading suggest that the bread and wine are physically Jesus.”

          They are. A man’s metaphysical parts are his animality and rationality, his physical parts are his body and soul, and his integral parts are his faculties and members. ‘Physis‘ means ‘nature’, and human nature is the conjunction of animal body and rational soul. By virtue of the Sacrament, the bread is converted into the Body of Christ, and by virtue of concomitance, His Blood, Soul, and Divinity are present there too, and the same goes mutatis mutandis for the wine.

          These days people tend to mean something else by ‘physical’, though, and that’s presumably what you have in mind. Paul VI. dealt with this in an allocution, though I don’t have time to find the reference.

          • Kyle says:

            Point taken. Jesus is physically present but, and this is the point I wanted to convey, not in the way bodies normally are. As Pope Paul VI says:

            ‘…beneath [the species] Christ is present whole and entire in His physical “reality,” corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.’ (Mysterium Fidei 46).

            As you say, Pope Paul VI writes with sophistication. How can we expect the majority of Catholics to present this level of nuance?

            • Peregrinus says:

              We can’t, and you are right to point out that the question is not well worded. Of the two choices offered, one (“The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ”) is true, but (a) is not a distinctively Catholic belief and (b) when contrasted with the alternative, might be understood as meaning that bread and wine are only symbols, in which case it would be false. The other (“The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ”) is either true or false, depending on what the respondent thinks “actually” means.

              Given that there was only one question in the survey about specifically Catholic beliefs, and given that the question was so badly constructed, I don’t think we can draw too many firm conclusions about the state of Catholic theological knowledge from this survey. I suspect many people who choose the “correct” answer arrived at it not by asking themselves what the church taught, but by asking themselves which of these two answers the survey organisters thought was the right one. This tests exam technique as much as religious knowledge.

              If the question about the Eucharist had been phrased using the language in which Catholic teaching is expressed – talking about “real presence” or “spiritual presence” rather than “actually becoming” – the “correct” answer might have been chosen by more people. At any rate, the result would have been slightly more reliable as a pointer to the state of theological knowledge.

              (P.S. It’s worth pointing out that the present Pope – writing before his election, and as a theologian – has denied that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. Clearly, in that context he is using “physical” in its scientific, rather than philosophical, sense. So you are in respectable company, Kyle.)

            • “… not in the way bodies normally are”

              Quite right–He is present ‘as in a Sacrament’. (Unfortunately there are some, even in the Priesthood, who would like to speak only of ‘Sacramental Presence’ while remaining silent on the question of Substantial Presence. See this old Coo-ees post, and also my comment there of January 16, 2009 6:02 PM (which also contains an interesting example of a Magisterial usage of the term ‘natural’):


              “… although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.”

              Good to see His late Holiness re-stating the doctrine of the Catechism of the Council of Trent. After publishing that earlier comment it occured to me that it might have been Mysterium Fidei of which I was thinking when I wrote of Paul VI. dealing with ‘physical’ presence.

  5. Christine says:

    Kyle, I think you have a good point. The survey does have a certain “color” to it in the way it is presented and perhaps if it had been conducted by a Catholic group the results might have been different. I recall a former survey that was done in the U.S. under Catholic auspices and it seemed that depending on how the questions on the Eucharist were phrased the answers were quite orthodox among Catholics as regards the authentic teaching on the Eucharist.

    Then, too, “back in the day” when my Catholic Dad was growing up the Mass presented the essentials of the faith very concretely through, as you point out, the highly symbolic nature of the liturgy as the drama of redemption unfolded in the words and gestures of the ritual. I think my Dad was quite well instructed as to how the Catholic Church understands the nature of “symbols.

  6. Harry says:

    The problem whether Lutheran or Roman Catholic is that the children are not being catechized properly. Too many think that one can be cafeteria Lutheran or Roman Catholic.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for posting this – I just took the quiz and scored 13 /15. I learned that the prevalent American agnostic secularist law, despite its ban all religious prayers in public schools, still allows the Bible to be studied as literature in public schools. Marginally better than Australian education policy re Christianity.

    I also encountered the “Great Awakening” movement and Edwards, an unknown identity. Perhaps I should hang my head in shame at my ignorance of religion!

    I wonder how Americans would fare if asked to name Australia’s first canonised Saint?

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