Thursday, May 6, 2010

Talking Points for Ending Communion in the Hand

The laity receiving communion directly on the tongue was the tradition of the Church for almost 1700 years. The idea of receiving on the hand would have been unimaginable (and offensive) to even just your great-grandparents and all the Saints. Mother Theresa herself even once said, “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand.”

While perhaps not intrinsically wrong, it was even treated as sacrilege by canon law for centuries and is certainly highly undtraditional. The Third Council of Constantinople even imposed excommunication on any lay person who touched the Sacred Species. While communion in the hand was indeed practiced in the early centuries, some pre-20th-century theologians considered this to be an extraordinary practice to be utilized only in times of public persecution. Whether that is true or not, after Christianity was legalized, the practice of the laity touching the Eucharist directly with their hands did quickly end. There were very good reasons for the Church to develop the discipline of communion directly in the mouth that She then maintained universally for 1700 years.

The first is the danger of desecration of the Blessed Sacrament when communion is received on the hand. As Catholics, we believe that even small particles of the host are Christ; body, blood, soul, and divinity. When communion is received on the hand, small particles are likely lost all the time. People have done tests where they place a[n unconsecrated] host on a black glove...and many small crumbs are visible afterwards. Also, while it is not totally impossible to steal the host even if it is received on the tongue (I suppose people could remove it from their mouth) communion on the hand certainly makes theft of the host just that much easier.

The other reason, though, is a question of reverence. Though “only” a sacramental established by the Church, since very early on the liturgical principle developed of “consecrating” anything that was to touch the consecrated species; hence the altar, the corporal, patens, chalices, and (importantly) the priest’s hands are consecrated. As Pope John Paul II said, “To touch the Sacred Species, and to distribute them with their own hands, is a privilege of the ordained.”

It makes little sense that we show so much reverence to the Blessed Sacrament during Adoration, to the point that the priest himself only touches even just the monstrance with a humeral veil...but then at Mass you can just walk up there and take it on the hand from some lay woman. The discarding of a practice that was held so absolutely sacred by previous generations is iconoclastic, plain and simple; As then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, “what was sacred to previous generations remains sacred and great for us, and not a thing suddenly entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It is good for all of us to preserve the riches which have grown in faith and prayer of the Church, and give them their proper place.”

A Gallup poll showed that only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Part of this is certainly the common and profane way that the Sacrament began to be treated in the 1970’s. Receiving on the tongue sends a strong message that what is being taken is not ordinary bread. It also minimizes the appearance of “self communion,” as if the laity minister the sacrament to ourselves. Communion in the hand remains unthinkable in the Eastern Churches, and banning the practice would greatly help reunion with the Eastern Orthodox, who are dismayed and disgusted that the Roman Church approved this practice in the West.

In reality, this practice began as a grave liturgical abuse. Priests simply started doing this, in contradiction to the canon law of the time, even though it was then still considered sacrilege. The Vatican under Pope Paul VI tried to stop it, he even said in his letter Memoriale Domini that the practice of communion on the tongue “must be maintained." And yet eventually the bishops conferences just conceded toleration, as if saying, “Well, the cats out of the bag, we can’t stop it now.” But why not? Pope Benedict XVI himself now only distributes communion at his own Masses on the tongue to people kneeling. They could literally stop this with the stroke of a pen, a simple decree. If they can’t invoke their authority to stop something small like this, how can we expect them to handle more complicated problems?

To conclude with a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica:“The dispensing of Christ's body belongs to the priest for three reasons. First, because he consecrates as in the person of Christ. But as Christ consecrated His body at the supper, so also He gave it to others to be partaken of by them. Accordingly, as the consecration of Christ's body belongs to the priest, so likewise does the dispensing belong to him. Secondly, because the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people; hence as it belongs to him to offer the people's gifts to God, so it belongs to him to deliver consecrated gifts to the people. Thirdly, because out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest's hands, for touching this sacrament. Hence it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.”


Pater, O.S.B. said...

An excellent summary. Kudos!

sortacatholic said...

I second Pater. Great summary. Two observations:

1) I've seen people receive Our Lord in the hand and then put Him in a pillbox etc. Yes, these people might be stealing the Host for blasphemous ritual. However I suspect that many people steal the Host because they can't get a priest to visit their shut-in parent, relative, etc. Priests really should make an effort to make house calls. I know they're busy and there are less priests today. Still, which is better? Having the priest visit for twenty minutes to hear a confession, administer Holy Communion, and say part of the rosary? Or have people resort to sacrelige out of misguided desperation?

2) When I'm in the States I go to two parishes, one "reform of the reform" and one EF+ROTR. Both prohibit extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (EMHCs) at the Ordinary Form. The distribution of Holy Communion (in one kind) in these parishes takes not much more time than distribution in similar sized parishes with EMHCs. EMHC's are never really needed. The "we have large Masses so we need a phalanx of EMHC's running around" argument fails when its clear that traditionally minded parishes easily and efficiently distribute Holy Communion from the hands of clergy only. The EMHC phenomenon is nothing more than an ideological move towards lay clericalization.

Pope Benedict could and should forbid "Communion in the hand" and EMHCs in one pen stroke. I fear he hasn't done this because the episcopal councils of developed countries would have a howling fit if he returned the Eucharist to its rightful guardians.

sortacatholic said...

Oh, one more tangent:

The pastors of both the parishes I mentioned strongly recommend that communicants receive on the tongue at the Ordinary Form. Both also encourage kneeling at the altar rail during the OF, though it is not obligatory in either parish. It's a shame that they can't outright refuse to give Communion in the hand. In one of the parishes reception on the tongue is almost universal. In the other, the majority receive on the tongue but about 20% haven't gotten the message. Still, these pastors must be commended for fostering reverence in their parishes.

Agostino Taumaturgo said...

A have to agree, an excellent summary. But a few other points to consider, maybe:

Generally, when people come to me asking about why I don't allow communion in the hand (no way, no how!), I frame my answer in two ways, the first being history, the second being ecumenicity.

Historically, even though the practice of Communion in the Hand may have existed in the early days of the Church, it was by no means universal, and quickly discarded for a reason (the Church only discards something when she has a good reason, so it's a safe bet that such things are better left alone); when the practice was revived, it was done so by the Swiss Reformation with the specific intent of undermining the Real Presence.

This brings us to ecuminicty. The German (and to a large extent the English) Reformation retained the practice of Communion kneeling and on the tongue. The Lutherans did it precisely to defend the Real Presence, while the Anglicans did it as a compromise between common practice and Reformed theology. In either case, the practice of Communion on the tongue (just like infant Baptism) is prevalent amongst the majority of the world's Christians --- Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant --- with the Reformed making up a minority of the worldwide Christian population. Hence Communion on the tongue is more ecumenical.

Of course, the same argument could be made for the Historic Lectionary (the Pre-Vatican II Lutheran and Anglican books used pretty much the same Propers and Readings as the Immemorial Mass, though in an abbreviated form and with variations happening during Trinitytide); so the oft-repeated claim that the Novus Ordo was necessary for ecumenism shows itself to be false, too. Just a little something extra to think about.