Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Journalists love polls, surveys and studies. One week, wine, for example, is good for you. Seemingly the next, it’s not. There is especially true of medical studies. It was also true during the last presidential election. When it comes to polls, studies and surveys, there has been a reckoning of sorts. Nonetheless, news outlets can’t stop reporting on them despite issues with veracity.

The primary reason is that they get clicks.

As a result, they are widely shared on social media platforms. Another reason is that they provide news sites with diverse news coverage. It “can’t be Trump all the time” has become a popular newsroom refrain the past few years.

What we learned this month is that polls, survey and studies involving politics and health — despite their polarizing natures — are fair game. The ones around faith — and around a specific belief — are not. How else would one explain the dearth of coverage around a Pew Study released on August 5 around a central belief that should be held by Catholics, but is increasingly not. Catholic news sites were abuzz with coverage, but secular news outlets chose to ignore it. 

Transubstantiation — the belief that during Mass the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ — is central to the Catholic faith. Pew found that just 31% of U.S. Catholics believe that statement. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the priest’s offering of bread and wine, known as the eucharist and a re-enactment of The Last Supper, are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The reaffirmation of this doctrine came in the year 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. When consumed, God enters the life of a Catholic. This is essential to salvation.

On the other hand, let’s take another subject that sparks debate and division: belief in ghosts and UFOs. Yes, the phenomenon of people seeing an Unidentified Flying Object, sparking the belief that alien life is out there, has been taken more seriously in the press than any Catholic belief deemed too magical or strange by secular society and mainstream news outlets.

Don’t believe me? UFOs have been in the news this summer, and at other periods of the year, whenever possible. It’s a subject that stretches one’s imagination. It serves as clickbait. It’s important. These are all reasons why UFO stories may be covered, even though they border on conspiracy theory whenever the government may be involved.

For example, Politico, USA Today and the BBC all chose to do UFO stories this month. Why not transubstantiation? By comparison, the central belief of the Catholic faith — so out of reach for many reporters to understand and explain — is relegated to the religious press. Those Catholic news outlets didn’t shy away from the story. If anything, it reinforced the notion that editors and reporters (also readers) need to supplement their daily reading habits with sites like Crux, and Catholic News Agency.

Why compare transubstantiation to UFOs? It’s not to pick on UFOs (and those who have seen them), but a concrete example on how the mainstream press differentiates between two things that hold mythical qualities to their respective followers. That the Catholic Church in this country has somehow failed to properly explain to its adherents that this belief isn’t only important (also a potential news story) when it is central to what happens at Mass is a head-scratching thing. It’s also a lot of people on two sides of an issue when you consider that Catholics are the second-largest religious group in this country, after Protestants, with 51 million adults.

How does belief in ghosts and UFOs — and the paranormal in general — rank? There is a wonderful New York Times Op-Ed from 2017 by Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. In it, he parses out the debate between those who are religious and those who believe in the paranormal. This is the key section:

Dozens of studies show a strong link between religiosity and existential concerns about death and meaning. For example, when research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind or challenge a sense of meaning in life, they exhibit increased religiosity and interest in religious or spiritual ideas. Another body of research shows that religious beliefs provide and protect meaning.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

It’s not that Pew isn’t respected. Few could argue that point. Mainstream outlets regularly report on Pew findings. There is something about this study. Was it a lack of possible people to interview? Not really. A reporter could have been sent to a local Catholic church for what’s called “reaction.” There are also plenty of priests, lay Catholic schoolteachers and theologians who would have happily chimed in and given context.

Routledge, for example, would have been a wonderful person to quote in a piece about transubstantiation. There is this key paragraph from that same column that would help address the issue. It could also apply to editors and reporters in this very instance and why they may not be interested in this study:

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

And this, in a nutshell, could explain why UFOs get media attention and transubstantiation does not. The debate between Catholic beliefs and the mystical is nothing new as this online thread from 2010 shows.

There were a few exceptions in the mainstream. Aside from Religion News Service, The Boston Globe did a blurb only three paragraphs in length. Here it is:

Just under a third of Roman Catholics in the United States say they believe in transubstantiation — the notion that the sacramental bread and wine used in Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ.

The Eucharist is a central tenet of the Catholic faith — and led some Romans to believe early Christians were cannibals — but in a new Pew Research Center survey, 69 percent of self-described Catholics said they believe the wine and wafer are symbols of Christ’s blood and body, not the real deal.

Only about half the Catholics surveyed were even able to correctly state the doctrine on transubstantiation; the other half inaccurately said the church teaches that the bread and wine are symbolic.  

Overall, there appeared to be a certain presumption in this lack of coverage. Editors and reporters need to know that there are plenty of sources that could have added context to such a study. There are also millions of people divided on an issue central to one of this country’s major religions. There’s a news story there any way you look at it.

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