Swine Flu and Communion in the Hand

By Scott P. Richert

In the comments on “Reader Question: Mass, Communion, and the Swine Flu,” and in e-mails I have received on the topic, readers have wondered whether a bishop can mandate reception of Communion in the hand, rather than on the tongue. At the time I wrote the original post, I had not seen reports of any diocese doing so; however, a number of dioceses now have declared that Communion is only to be distributed on the hand, not on the tongue, while others (like the Diocese of Dallas) have strongly encouraged the faithful to receive Communion on the hand.

There are at least two problems with this. First, as I noted in my earlier post, even encouraging Catholics to receive Communion on the hand rather than on the tongue seems an overreaction. Suspending the Sign of the Peace, in which the faithful shake hands, makes sense, because it’s easy to see how the flu virus might be transmitted. The same is true of distributing the Precious Blood of Christ, since there is physical contact with the chalice.

But when Communion is distributed on the tongue, there is no physical contact—as long, of course, as everyone involved is doing things right. In almost 30 years of receiving Communion on the tongue almost exclusively, I do not remember ever having a priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister of the Eucharist touch my tongue or lips while giving me Communion.

In fact, observing others receive Communion in the hand, I frequently see the person distributing Communion actually touch the hand of the person receiving it. Since the person receiving it is supposed to cup his or her hands (to ensure that the Host doesn’t fall), and the minister of the Eucharist is supposed to place the Host in the person’s palm, it’s actually hard not to have some physical contact without simply dropping the Host into the outstretched hands.

Moreover, when we stick out our tongue to receive Communion, we naturally hold our breath. Try it—you’ll find that, in order to breathe during the first several seconds after sticking out your tongue, you’ll have to think about breathing. It’s simply a natural reaction—you stick out your tongue, and your body holds its breath for a short period of time. That minimizes the possibility of transmission of the virus through the air.

So mandating the reception of Communion on the hand seems at best an overreaction and, at worst, perhaps the less sanitary way to go.

The second problem with mandating Communion on the hand is that it is, by its nature, a denial of the right to receive Communion on the tongue. And that opens up a real can of worms.

Some quick background: In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, in both the Ordinary Form (the Novus Ordo Mass) and the Extraordinary Form (the Traditional Latin Mass), the normal method for distributing Communion is on the tongue. In fact, until 1969, when Pope Paul VI allowed the introduction of the practice of Communion in the hand in Memoriale Domini, Communion was only received on the tongue in the Latin Rite.

Under the regulations of Memoriale Domini, each bishops’ conference can petition the Vatican to allow the faithful in their jurisdiction to receive Communion in the hand. Until such permission is granted, it is not lawful for the faithful to do so (or for bishops or priests to allow it). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops petitioned for this right in 1973; it was granted by Pope Paul VI for the United States in 1977.

Pope Paul VI left the decision whether to institute the practice of receiving Communion in the hand up to each bishop. A bishop could still choose to mandate that Communion could only be received on the tongue in his diocese. What he could not do, however, was to replace entirely the traditional practice of Communion on the tongue with the new practice of Communion on the hand. Pope Paul VI had made it clear in Memoriale Domini that Communion on the tongue had to remain an option, and in 1977, the Congregation for Divine Worship reiterated this point:

The practice must remain the option of the communicant. The priest or minister of Communion does not make the decision as to the manner of reception of Communion. It is the communicant’s personal choice.

Which brings us back to today, to public-health concerns over the swine flu, and to bishops who are “mandating” Communion in the hand. No matter what their intentions (and we should always assume the best of intentions), the bishops who have effectively banned Communion on the tongue have overstepped their authority.

That said, what should the layperson who wishes to receive Communion on the tongue do if he is in a diocese where the bishop has mistakenly mandated Communion in the hand? This is a tough question. The faithful are within their rights to demand to receive Communion on the tongue; however, it’s likely that, in certain parishes, they may not be able to do so without disruption, and even after such disruption they may still be denied Communion on the tongue.

The best way to avoid a scene is to avoid the opportunity for one. If you have access to a Traditional Latin Mass or to an Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy, attend that instead. Communion in those rites will continue to be distributed on the tongue, according to their normal practices.

If you do not have access to a Traditional Latin Mass or a Divine Liturgy, then you have three options:

  1. You can receive Communion on the hand. I do not like the practice myself and have avoided it for 30 years, but the Church says that it is acceptable for Catholics in the United States, so you need have no scruples about receiving Communion in the hand if you choose to do so.
  2. You can approach the minister of the Eucharist as you always do, signaling that you would like to receive Communion on the tongue. It is your right, and you should not worry that this may seem “disobedient” to your bishop. The decision is yours, not his.However, be prepared to be refused Communion. If you are, please realize that Mass is not the place to argue the point. Make the Sign of the Cross, return to your pew, and say an Act of Spiritual Communion. Then, when you return home, send a letter to your bishop politely asking him to instruct the priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist in his diocese to respect your right, outlined in Memoriale Domini and reaffirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1977, to receive Communion on the tongue.
  3. You can refrain from receiving Communion, instead remaining in your pew and making an Act of Spiritual Communion. If you do so, please also send a letter to your bishop, as outlined in option 2.

Above all, we need to assume the best of intentions on the part of our bishops. That can be hard to do sometimes, but in this case, it is quite likely that some bishops simply do not realize that they are overstepping their authority in attempting to mandate reception of Communion on the hand. The advent of the swine flu may be a teaching moment—even for some of our bishops.

One Response to Swine Flu and Communion in the Hand

  1. Thanks for keeping this topic alive! I am afraid we are about to get clobbered again with ‘sanatized’ liturgy. i.e. hand Communion, purell in the fonts, and no usage of the sacrarium–“just wipe Christ on on a diaper wipe and toss Him into the nearest garbage can!”

    I hadn’t thought about Richert’s point about holding your breath with your tongue out, but I think he’s right. Otherwise the Doc’ wouldn’t have to tell you to say ‘ahhhh’!

    k.c.

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