By Michael Whitcraft
The panic surrounding the Chinese virus is claiming an impressive list of victims. These include social relations, the ability to receive standard medical treatment and the world economy. All these have suffered greatly due to ill-conceived restrictions put into place because of hysteria over the spread of Covid-19.
However, none is as tragic or harmful as the damage done to spiritual lives. Catholics have been prevented from attending Mass, receiving Holy Communion, confessing their sins and even receiving Extreme Unction when in danger of death.
Even worse, this offends God, Who established these practices for the sanctification of His Faithful. They are so important that Our Lord, Himself, shed every drop of His infinitely precious Blood to establish them.
Now that the brunt of the infection seems to have passed and restrictions are lightening around the world, increasing numbers of Catholics can once again receive their sacramental Lord. However, these are facing a new threat as bishops and priests are forbidding their flocks from receiving Communion in the traditional way that dates back to the era of the Church Fathers: on the tongue.1
Communion in the Hand: A “Dangerous” Practice That Never Received Vatican Endorsement
While most Catholics think that the Church established reception in the hand as the ordinary means of communicating, official Vatican documents prove otherwise. This is clear from a May 29, 1969 Instruction promulgated by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, titled Memoriale Domini. The document, which was mandated by Pope Paul VI, is the master text governing the manner in which the Blessed Sacrament is to be distributed.
Admittedly, it lays out conditions in which Communion in the hand can be authorised. Nevertheless, it only permits this under very specific circumstances (which will be discussed below).
The document also refutes claims that the early church development of receiving Communion on the tongue was ill conceived. Rather, it affirms that the practice established a good tradition because it reinforced the reverence due to the Sacrament and humility necessary to properly receive It. The text states:
"With the passing of time, the truth of the Eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in It were being more deeply studied. Due to an ever-urgent sense of the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament and of the humility necessary in order to receive It, the custom was established of the minister, himself, placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant."2
This led the Vatican congregation to assert:
"This method of distributing Holy Communion [on the tongue] must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it is a practice rooted in many centuries of tradition, but especially because it expresses the reverence of the Christian faithful for the Eucharist."3
The document even affirms that reception on the tongue is superior to receiving in the hand:
"…this practice [receiving the Sacrament on the tongue], which must be considered traditional, ensures more effectively that Holy Communion is distributed with all due respect, decorum and dignity, so that the danger of profanation of the Eucharistic species is prevented…"4
It even enumerates the “dangers” involved in permitting Communion in the hand:
"A change in a matter of such importance [i.e. allowing Communion in the hand], based on a most ancient and venerable tradition…can also bring certain dangers, which are feared to arise from the new manner of administering Holy Communion: that of arriving at a lessening of reverence for the august Sacrament of the altar, or of profanation of the Sacrament, or of adulterating true doctrine."5
Considering the loss of faith in and respect for the Blessed Sacrament the Church has witnessed since 1969 shows how founded the Congregation’s fears were.
After presenting the above-quoted concerns the text concludes:
"Therefore, attentive to the remarks and the advice of those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed to rule over” the Churches, in view of the seriousness of the matter and the force of the arguments put forward, the Holy Father has felt that the time-honoured way of administering Holy Communion to the faithful [administering it on the tongue] should not be changed.
The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and faithful to submit diligently to the law [that Communion be given on the tongue] which is still valid and which has again been confirmed…"6
So, how is it that Communion in the hand has become ubiquitous today? In fact, this resulted from either a misreading of the text Memoriale Domini at best or a conscious desire to go against papal wishes at worst, because the document provides for the granting of an indult, or special permission allowing Communion in the hand, only in those places where the practice is considered necessary. To ensure that this so-called “necessity” exists, the Holy See will only consider granting the indult if the following conditions are met:
The practice of Communion in the hand must already be widespread. (It must be noted that in these places the indult has not yet been granted. Therefore, within these areas the practice is against liturgical law and therefore an abuse.)
The local bishops’ conference must believe that the practice cannot be stopped without causing great harm. This must be verified by a secret ballot in which two-thirds of the bishops vote in favour of petitioning the Holy See to grant the indult.
The bishops’ conference must submit a request for the indult that outlines, in a detailed way, why the change is indispensable for their country.
After all this, it is at the discretion of the Holy See whether or not to grant the indult. Furthermore, in those nations where the indult is granted, the decision to allow Communion in the hand in a diocese rests still with the local bishop. This was confirmed in 1996 when Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise refused to apply the indult to his diocese of San Luis, Argentina, after the Vatican had granted it to his country.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith approved his decision in an October 7, 1996 letter signed by then-Bishop Tarcisio Bertone. Writing to Bishop Laise in the name of the congregation, the prelate affirmed: “…you are informed by this dicastery that an attentive study of the documents of the Holy See in this matter shows clearly that you, in deciding to maintain immutable the tradition of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue, have acted in conformity with the law.”7
The letter went on to praise the bishop for his actions: “In truth, Your Excellency has done no more than fulfill the duty demanded for every bishop…of exercising discernment with regard to the consequences that an alternative to the current Eucharistic practice may occasion in the sacramental life of the faithful.”8
Benefits of Communion Reception on the Tongue
The Vatican’s position in favor of Communion on the tongue is well founded. Indeed, there are many benefits to the traditional practice. One is protection against sacrilege. The Church teaches that every particle of the Blessed Sacrament that retains the qualities of bread9 no matter how small, is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord.
Thus, any such particle that is dropped, stepped on or lost, results in a material sacrilege. Many studies have shown that this commonly occurs when Communion is given in the hand.10
However, receiving Communion on the tongue and with a paten avoids this risk almost entirely. This is certainly one of the greatest benefits of receiving the Sacrament in the traditional manner.
Furthermore, reception in the hand opens the door to intentional profanation of Holy Communion, because it is much easier to steal a host undetected when It is placed in one’s hand. Indeed, several non-Catholics have stolen consecrated Hosts while attending Catholic Masses to keep Them as souvenirs.
In April of 2005, one such Host appeared for sale on eBay. The Sacred Species had been consecrated at a Papal Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 1998. The sale included other remembrances of the Mass, such as a program. At the time, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, & Property - TFP led a protest against the auction site that forced them to change their policy and no longer allow the sale of consecrated Hosts on their platform.11
Another benefit of receiving Communion on the tongue is that it reinforces the distinction between the faithful and the clergy. Understanding this difference is essential in a hierarchically structured society like the Catholic Church.
The essential differences between priest and layman are manifest. The priest has consecrated hands and, while offering the sacraments, acts in the person of Christ, Himself. Furthermore, by himself, any priest can consecrate bread and wine, making them the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord. This is something that all the faithful of the world gathered together cannot do.
While it is undeniable that the clergy (and the faithful, for that matter) are suffering the effects of an immense moral crisis today, that does not alter the essential dignity of the priesthood.
In fact, one symptom of this crisis is that many priests do not want to acknowledge and accept their inherent superiority over the laity. Many refuse to dress like priests or accept the reverence due to their position. Thus, any external manifestation of respect for their state provides a much-needed reminder of the honour the faithful should have for the priesthood.
When touching the Holy Eucharist is reserved to the consecrated hands of the priest,12 forgotten truths concerning this reality come into focus. It affords the faithful an opportunity to recognise what a tremendous gift the priesthood is for the world. It incites them to practise the virtue of gratitude to God for having given them this gift.
Along the same lines, Bishop Athanasius Schneider expressed a beautiful advantage of Communion reception on the tongue, in the following words:
"The gesture of allowing oneself to be fed as a child rather movingly expresses the only true attitude of humility and spiritual childhood that one must take when receiving the most sacred and greatest gift: the immolated and living Body of Christ, with His soul and divinity."13
Indeed, spiritual infancy is a sure road to salvation. Placing oneself in the condition of a spiritual infant, incapable of nourishing oneself and thus depending exclusively on God’s minister for his supernatural sustenance will attract innumerable blessings and advance him on the road to sanctity.
Certainly, such an attitude is out-of-step with modern sensibilities. However, so is practically every expression of true piety. The world will continue to grow in its hatred of these practices until Our Lady intervenes to bring the triumph of Her Immaculate Heart.
Freedom of Conscience: A Right Belonging to the Faithful
Cognizant of the dangers of receiving Communion in the hand and the benefits of the traditional way, many faithful feel conscience-bound to receive the Sacrament exclusively on the tongue. This puts them in a difficult situation. Should they violate their consciences and receive Communion in the hand? Or should they stop receiving Our Sacramental Lord?
However, the latter option is unacceptable since Christ, Himself, taught: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.” (John 6:54-55)
This puts them in a similar situation that Catholics faced in 1975, in face of the Vatican policy of détente with communist governments. Then, Catholic thinker, Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira opined that this policy left many Catholics feeling imprisoned by their own consciences.
He continued, saying: “The Church is not, the Church never was, the Church never will be such a prison for consciences.”14 Thus, Communion on the tongue cannot be denied to the faithful.
Some have argued that the Chinese virus has created an emergency situation which justifies temporary suspension of the traditional means of receiving the Sacrament. However, there has never been a study showing that Communion on the tongue is more likely to spread contagions than reception in the hand.
In March, the Archdiocese of Portland consulted two physicians on this issue. One is an expert in immunology. Both affirmed that the risk of infection is “more or less equal” either way the Sacrament is administered.
A statement published by the Archdiocesan Office of Public Worship reads: “This morning we consulted with two physicians regarding this issue, one of which is a specialist in immunology for the State of Oregon. They agreed that done properly the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand pose a more or less equal risk.”
This is because: “The risk of touching the tongue and passing the saliva on to others is obviously a danger, however, the chance of touching someone’s hand is equally probable and one’s hands have a greater exposure to germs.”15
Indeed, many have argued that Communion reception in the hand is more likely to spread infection. When the Sacrament is distributed on the tongue, contact with the communicant is rare, whereas when It is given in the hand, there is almost always contact between the minister and the faithful.
Commenting on this reality, Father Jeffery Robideau said: “Where I did give Communion in the hand, I touched each and every hand. With the tongue, I very rarely have any contact as described above. So you tell me which one is safer.”16
In addition to all this, the Church forbids a bishop or a priest from refusing to administer Communion on the tongue to the faithful. This prohibition is clear from the above-quoted text of Memoriale Domini which reads: “This method of distributing Holy Communion [on the tongue] must be retained…”
This was reiterated in a pastoral letter, sent to all the bishop conferences when they were granted the indult allowing Communion in the hand. The pertinent part of the letter states: “The new manner of receiving Communion should not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional practice. In particular it is important that each of the faithful have the opportunity to receive Communion on the tongue…”17
Even clearer, on April 3, 1985, the Congregation for Divine Worship wrote a letter to the bishops of the United States, instructing them on the norms for Communion distribution. In the text, the seventh directive states: “The faithful are not to be obliged to adopt the practice of Communion in the hand. Each one is free to communicate in one way or the other.”18
More recently, in 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship again repeated the prohibition against denying the faithful Communion on the tongue. In the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 92 states: “Although each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice, if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her.”19
No official Church document exists that permits any cleric, regardless of rank, to deny the faithful Communion on the tongue. Curiously, some do describe circumstances in which Communion in the hand may be denied.
For example, no. 92 of Redemptionis Sacramentum states: “If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.”20 This stands to reason because, as Canon Lawyer Cathy Caridi explains, the norm in the Church is reception on the tongue, whereas Communion in the hand is only granted by permission. While permission can be easily revoked, the norm should never be violated.21
Nevertheless, some bishops and priests continue to act in violation of this liturgical law, claiming that a state of emergency exists. Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson went so far as to forbid his priests to distribute Communion on the tongue.22
However, this presumed “emergency permission” is also baseless. The very same question arose in 2009 during the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic. Then, too, bishops and priests were banning traditional Communion reception. This inspired an unknown person to ask the Congregation for Divine Worship if this were licit.
In response, the congregation wrote a letter stating:
"The Dicastery observes that the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (25 March 2004) clearly stipulates that “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue” (no. 92), nor is it licit to deny any of Christ’s faithful who are not impeded by law from receiving the Holy Eucharist (cf. no. 91)."23
Finally, anyone arguing that the current Chinese virus crisis is different than past epidemics still would have to contend with Robert Cardinal Sarah, current Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship. In a recent interview, he was asked “…[considering the current epidemic] there is also discussion as to whether it is more appropriate to receive Communion in the mouth or in the hand, and in the latter case how to receive it in the hand. What should be done?”
His Eminence responded: “There is already a rule in the Church and this must be respected: the faithful are free to receive Communion in the mouth or hand.”24
After all this, hopefully it is evident that, virus or no virus, Communion on the tongue cannot be denied lawfully to the faithful. Those who do so have no basis in tradition, Church law or common sense. Their sole strength is their capacity to bully uninformed Catholics into submission.
It is well known that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him. Hopefully, this article will provide the information and confidence necessary for its readers to stand up to these innovators.
In doing so, they must always be prudent and mindful of the respect due to every priest and bishop, regardless of his personal failings. Nevertheless, they should get involved at whatever level they can. They should write letters, educate their friends and discuss their rights with their pastors so that the venerable practice of receiving Our Sacramental Lord on the tongue does not become another tragic victim of Corona-hysteria.
Cf. Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, “Communion received on the tongue and while kneeling,” http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/details/ns_lit_doc_20091117_comunione_en.html, last accessed August 19, 2020.
Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Memoriale Domini, May 29, 1969, republished by Most Rev. Juan Rodolpho Laise, Holy Communion: Communion in the Hand, Documents and History; Some Reflections on Spiritual Communion and the State of Grace, fifth edition, Preserving Christian Publications Inc., Boonville, New York, 2020, p. 15.
Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., emphasis mine.
Ibid., p. 19.
Ibid., p. 110.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that once particles of the Blessed Sacrament become so small that they no longer maintain the qualities of bread, they cease to be the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, saying: “But if the change be so great that the substance of the bread or wine would have been corrupted, then Christ’s body and blood do not remain under this sacrament; and this either on the part of the qualities, as when the color, savor, and other qualities of the bread and wine are so altered as to be incompatible with the nature of bread or of wine; or else on the part of the quantity, as, for instance, if the bread be reduced to fine particles, or the wine divided into such tiny drops that the species of bread or wine no longer remain.” (Cf. Summa Theologica, III:77:4)
Cf. One such study was published in the Fall, 2009 edition of Latin Mass Magazine, in an article titled: “Losing Fragments with Communion in the Hand: Estimating the Problem with Unconsecrated Hosts,” p. 27. It is available online at: http://www.latinmassmagazine.com/pdfs/Losing-Fragments-LM-2009-Fall.pdf, last accessed August 10, 2020.
TFP.org, “EBay Changes Policy, Catholics Rejoice,” May 3, 2005, https://www.tfp.org/ebay-changes-policy-catholics-rejoice/, last accessed August 10, 2020.
Traditionally, the Church has appointed certain laymen as extraordinary ministers of Communion who were authorized to touch the Blessed Sacrament. However, this was only granted for extraordinary circumstances and never was the norm. An example of such a circumstance was when a ship would set out on a long voyage without the possibility of a priest being on board. In this case, a layman would be granted authorization to bring Holy Communion on the trip and distribute it to the faithful on board.
Op. Cit., Holy Communion: Communion in the Hand, Documents and History; Some Reflections on Spiritual Communion and the State of Grace, “Preface,” p. ii.
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments – Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist?,” February 18, 1975, https://www.tfp.org/vatican-policy-detente-communist-governments-tfps-stand-resist/, last accessed August 14, 2020.
Archdiocese of Portland Office of Divine Worship, “Further Considerations on Liturgical Celebrations and Public Health Concerns,” https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/12494/documents/2020/3/Further%20Considerations%20March%202020.pdf, March 2, 2020, last accessed August 14, 2020.