[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

One of the more fascinating findings of the huge “Catholics in America” survey—conducted in 2011 for the fifth time by Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio and his team—concerns the Roman doctrine of real presence.

Robert Orsi, in this artwork of a portal on prayer, and in Between Heaven and Earth (2006)—speaks of real presence, too. Orsi deals much less with the Roman doctrine and much more with the Catholic cosmos, woven of relationship between seen and unseen beings. But in his curation, the one gestures toward the other. Doctrine and cosmos become two more presences in relationship, like a rosary and hands.

Officially, real presence undergirds the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, asserting since a 1551 Council of Trent document that the “body and blood,” “soul and divinity” of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially contained” in the sacrament.

Unofficially, real Catholics vary in their knowledge and belief about real presence. The survey found that about half of U.S. Catholics know the official teaching, and half do not. Of the half who know it, about 90 percent believe it. So, that translates to about 46 percent of all survey respondents.

But that is not the fascinating part. After all, it is fairly common knowledge that official and unofficial versions of faiths rarely correspond. And it is probably unsurprising to most people that U.S. Roman Catholic subscription to the doctrine of real presence dropped somewhat in the twentieth century.

Rather, the alluring part is this:

Of the half that does not know that the church teaches real presence, a full third still believes it. This is about 17 percent of all respondents.  And 17 percent of about 75 million U.S. Catholics translates to almost 13 million people.

In other words, as survey team sociologist Mary Gautier puts it, “many Catholics believe what their church teaches even when they do not know that their church teaches it.”

So, taken together, the 46 percent of Catholics who know and believe and the 17 percent who do not know and believe make up 63 percent of U.S. Catholics who avow real presence.

Much is made, of course, of the remaining 37 percent who do not avow it. Among religion professors—myself included—the fact that almost four in ten American Catholics do not believe a core church doctrine is a favorite example of how official and unofficial versions of a faith overlap only messily at best. Some of us like the example—myself included—partly because it seems to show popular agency resisting institutional power.

But this survey angle about “unknowing believers” makes it clear that it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Just as interestingly, it seems the 50 percent of Catholics who do not know the official teaching of real presence largely think the church espouses belief in the Eucharist as merely symbolic. In fact this is the opposite and anathemized stance. Nevertheless, most of the 37 percent of Catholics who do not believe in real presence are hardly resisting the institutional church. They think they are agreeing.


Which is why the data quickly land us in the territory of Orsi’s portal. Numbers run out of explanation for relationships between believing and knowing, official and unofficial. Orsi draws us to the phenomenon of relating itself, ultimately fluid and fathomless. Relating is never just two things in contact. It is their whole histories, too, with set patterns and endless permutations. The relation of Catholic believers to real presence is, Orsi reminds us, the story of entwinings of bodies, communities, power, capital, empire and the modern concept of religion itself.

What is going on, then, with the 17 percent of “unknowing believers” of real presence? Is it possible, as Gautier suggests, that they are “just a classic case of source amnesia”? Yes, possibly. People often say things but then forget where they heard them.

But… really? If 17 percent of American Catholics don’t recall where they got their belief in real presence, but at the same time mostly attribute to the Roman church a merely symbolic Eucharistic theology, I think we are pondering broader possibilities than simple human forgetfulness.

It may be we are somehow talking about people not getting real presence from the church, but from somewhere else. And we are talking about a church that does not always signify real presence, even when that’s its official doctrine.

Maybe real presence is just “out there” in some way. This isn’t surprising, in at least one sense that Orsi mentions: notwithstanding the imperialism of western descriptions of religion, most modern humans—not just Catholics—maintain concourse with unseen beings. If something is modern because it happens in modernity, then real presence is modern.

Maybe real presence is already unmoored from Catholic distinctiveness—witness that 37 percent of Catholics don’t buy it. Maybe it always was far broader than Catholicism. It makes me wish for a survey of how many non-Catholic Americans believe in Eucharistic real presence or talk to the saints. I wonder if results would be similar to those revealing that “nearly half of the country’s non-Christians believe that Jesus was born from a virgin and raised from the dead” (I am quoting here Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus, citing Gallup & O’Connell).

But if real presence is modern, it’s modern in the same way that everything is modern: arrived in the now by an ongoing process of mimesis between past and present, tradition and change, subjection and subjectivity. Historically, the real presence of animas far predated the real presence of gods and goddesses far predated that of saints far predated that of Jesus in the Eucharist. The latter in modernity became increasingly important for Rome to define and assert against an erroneously disenchanting Protestantism. Yet after Vatican II, much about the Roman church itself seemed disenchanted, such that apparently half of all U.S. Catholics would now have the impression it is no harbor for real presence. If 17 percent of them still want an enchanted modern Catholicism, they think they must bring it with them to the communion line on their own. Or they may just stay home with the saints.

Here, add to the mix the survey analysis that the typical respondent within that 17 percent is no particular age, but more Latino, Democrat, Catholic-identified, and midwestern than the average Catholic, and less formally educated and less regular with mass attendance. So, yes; they may just stay home with the saints.

And maybe they represent a characteristic American tendency to do religion in your own way, with less accountability to a wider community.

But I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps they represent exactly the opposite of individualism. Everything in modernity is modern, but I wonder about real presence functioning as what Foucault called a counterconduct, an action that somehow moved counter to prevailing trends creating modern subjectivity. Perhaps real presence doesn’t flow with technologies of the self or economies of late capital in the usual ways. When you talk to a saint, the idea of the human subject as a self-determined entity acting rationally and recognized by the state goes out the window. Instead you are in need of supernatural help and asking for it in unverifiable realms unmapped by worldly powers. When you believe the bread and wine are body and blood, you have priced them out of the market. They are the mystical pearl of great price.    

Foucault never claimed too much for counterconducts, just as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari claimed little for lines of flight, desiring-machines, and bodies-without-organs—all terms for persistent modern oddnesses that witness the non-totality of totalitarianism. One could deliberately practice these oddnesses if one were so inclined, and they recommended it. But counterconducts were usually weak and fleeting actions, easily overcome or co-opted. Body-and-blood-consuming Catholics also believe in American democracy. Saint-talking people buy their saint candles in a mall, not a cathedral.

Still, Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari thought the glimpses of other ways were worth it.

Maybe Orsi also thinks the glimpses are worth it. If only to remind ourselves that modernity is multiple. It’s not one way. “You want it to be one way,” said the character Marlo Stanfield on the iconic television series The Wire. “But it’s the other way.”

I want to keep sight of the other ways.

Orsi’s portal is a vision.

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