By Frank Wessling
How worried or embarrassed should we be that American Catholics flunked a religious knowledge test?
A little concern is appropriate, but not worry — even though as a group we are dumber than atheists and agnostics. This particular test, a survey made public last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, was on a broad range of knowledge about religions, not religious faith itself.
The connection between knowledge and faith is tenuous even when confined to knowledge about one’s own faith. Going farther afield with questions about other religions is interesting as a measure of information but has no bearing on religious character. To discover that a Catholic doesn’t know who Maimonides was or can’t identify two Hindu deities tells nothing about that person’s faith.
The Pew survey reached a scientific sample of Americans and asked 32 questions touching on the Bible, Christian beliefs, history and personalities, and other religions. It broke down the respondents into nine groups. The best score was posted by the atheist/agnostic group with an average of 20.9 questions answered correctly. Jews and Mormons scored nearly as well.
White Catholics on average knew exactly half the answers and Hispanic Catholics averaged 11.6 correct answers.
Mormons knew the Bible better than any group, including evangelical Protestants, even though the Bible for them is an auxiliary text to their Book of Mormon.
Some of the survey results do show interesting spots of ignorance in several faith groups. A majority of Protestants, 53 percent, could not identify Martin Luther as the man who set off the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Forty-three percent of Jews were unfamiliar with Maimonides, a great 12th-century rabbi and philosopher.
Of most interest to Catholics, almost half of us are confused about the Eucharist. Forty-five percent of Catholic respondents did not know that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are more than symbols, that our faith sees them as the body and blood of Christ given to us.
While that result may be disheartening to Church leadership, it is not a great surprise. Surveys going back several decades show a persistent pattern: a high proportion of Catholics do not or cannot grasp the doctrine of transubstantiation even though it is a central element in our faith.
It’s not clear what effect such ignorance or confusion — both elements are probably at work — about a Church teaching has on personal faith. We also don’t know what the ignorance says about a person’s faith. Are such people not really Catholic? Should they not be in the communion procession?
Or is such a person’s presence in the procession a good enough sign that they believe what the Church believes, even if they can’t articulate that belief accurately?
It’s better to accept people when they come forward in faith, not reject them. Maybe the fault of ignorance and confusion is not in them, or only partially in them. Maybe they have not heard this particular teaching in language they can understand. Maybe they have not felt the fraternal love and care that gives teaching good roots.
We should try to know as much as we can about our faith and its tradition. Very little in modern culture tells us that this is important, but that fact only reflects shallowness in the culture. A person, any person, growing as a human being will seek understanding of the faith that inspires, that shapes and moves him or her — and none of us is completely without faith.
We can be faithful and ignorant but that isn’t a desirable or attractive condition.
It isn’t hard to keep growing in understanding of our faith. Give some time to it. Pray regularly. Trust in what causes you to wonder, then trust the questions raised by your wonder. They are good questions, the right questions. We should ask them where good answers can be expected.
And read The Catholic Messenger every week. Its variety and broad view of the religious world will help you to be a bright representative of your faith when the next survey of religious knowledge is taken.