Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?

Q: The bishop of my diocese has decreed that because of the Coronavirus outbreak, we Catholics can only receive Communion in the hand, not on the tongue.  Can he do that? –Kayla

A: Absolutely not.

It’s astonishing that in quite a number of different parts of the world, diocesan bishops (and in some cases, parish priests acting on their own initiative) have made public declarations that in order to prevent the spread of the virus, the faithful are henceforth forbidden to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, and must receive It in the hand.  Quite apart from the fact that no medical officials have suggested this be done as a precaution—because there is no scientific evidence that distributing Communion to people on the hand is any more germ-free than distribution on the tongue—the Church’s laws on this matter are not subject to change by any cleric at the local level.  Let’s take a look at what the Church’s official documents say about receiving Holy Communion on the tongue and on the hand, which should resolve all the confusion on this matter.

Historians cannot pinpoint the moment in time when the Catholic Church formally adopted the practice of distributing the Body of Christ to the faithful on the tongue, but it definitely began in the early centuries of Christianity.  Thus for the majority of the Church’s nearly 2000-year existence, it has been the norm for Catholics to receive the Eucharist on the tongue.

In 1969, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Instruction Memoriale Domini (AAS 61 [1969]: 541-547), in which it raised the possibility of permitting, in certain areas of the world, the reception of Communion in the hand.  The Instruction first emphasized that historically, distributing the Eucharist to the faithful on the tongue had developed historically for reasons of reverence—and then insisted that this practice was to continue:

Soon the task of taking the Blessed Eucharist to those absent was confided to the sacred ministers alone, so as the better to ensure the respect due to the sacrament and to meet the needs of the faithful.  Later, with a deepening understanding of the truth of the Eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in it, there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament and a deeper humility was felt to be demanded when receiving it.  Thus the custom was established of the minister placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant.

This method of distributing holy communion must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of-tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist.  (Memoriale Domini, emphasis added [official Latin text here, see p. 543; English translation here])

Note that Memoriale Domini did not grant the entire Catholic Church permission for the distribution of Communion in the hand.  Rather, Conferences of Bishops first had to decide whether they even wished to introduce this practice in their territories (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a Conference of Bishops is); and if a two-thirds majority of bishops in a conference voted yes, they were then to request approval of their decision from the Vatican—approval which the Instruction clearly indicates would not be granted by Rome automatically.

The published text of the Instruction Memoriale Domini was accompanied by a sample approval letter (in French) from the Vatican to a Conference of Bishops that had requested permission for Communion in the hand.  The approval letter contained a number of restrictions, the very first of which was “the new manner of distributing Communion must not be done in a way that will exclude the traditional usage [i.e., of Communion on the tongue]” (p. 546, my translation).

There are a number of important take-aways from this Instruction.  First and foremost, it is crystal-clear that Communion on the tongue is the norm for the entire Latin Catholic Church.  Secondly, the Vatican may (although it doesn’t have to!) permit the distribution of Communion on the hand in certain territories—but only provided that in those territories, Communion on the tongue will not be excluded.

The legal distinction between (a) what is the norm, and (b) what is not the norm but is permitted, cannot be overemphasized here.  Bear in mind that when something is “permitted,” that permission can conceivably be taken away; but the norm will remain intact (more on this shortly).

Sixteen years later, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) issued a letter to the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops, providing basic instructions for Communion in the hand, permission for which had already been granted to that country.  While this letter was intended for the bishops of the U.S., it contains general sorts of norms—grounded in Catholic sacramental theology—that can safely be presumed to apply to Catholics everywhere.  One of its provisions says this:

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 (7).

This statement, of course, is fully consistent with the 1969 Instruction Memoriale Domini, discussed above.

More recent Vatican documents exist, which provide even more specific guidelines on the very issue which Kayla raises with her question.  In 1999, the CDW responded to a dubium submitted to it by an unidentified Catholic:

Query: Whether in dioceses where it is allowed to distribute Communion in the hands of the faithful, a priest or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may restrict communicants to receive Communion only in their hands, not on the tongue.

The CDW’s response was unequivocal:

…[T]hose who restrict communicants to receive Holy Communion only in the hands are acting against the norms, as are those who refuse to Christ’s faithful [the right] to receive Communion in the hand in dioceses that enjoy this indult.  (Original Latin text here, see pp. 160-161; English translation here)

In other words, because receiving Communion on the tongue is the norm, this option cannot be denied anywhere.  The same is true of Communion on the hand, but only in those regions where permission for this has been granted—and yet note the caveat about Communion in the hand, in a subsequent paragraph of the very same document:

However, let all remember that the time-honored tradition is to receive the host on the tongue.  The celebrant priest, if there is a present danger of sacrilege, should not give the faithful communion in the hand, and he should make them aware of the reason for way of proceeding.

Once again, we see here a clear distinction being made between what is the norm (Communion on the tongue), and what is merely permitted (Communion in the hand).  In cases where the priest fears sacrilege to the Eucharist, Communion in the hand is not to be permitted.  But note that there are no comparable situations where the faithful are not to be allowed to receive Communion on the tongue.  That’s because procedurally, the norm is always the default.

Fast-forward to Redemptionis Sacramentum, yet another Instruction issued by the CDW, this time in 2004.  This Instruction was written for the entire Latin Catholic Church, “on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.”  Unsurprisingly, it provides directives that are perfectly consistent with all the documents we have looked at thus far, when it comes to Communion on the tongue and in the hand:

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.  However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand.  If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.  (Redemptionis Sacramentum 92, emphasis added)

By now, readers should have no difficulty seeing that the Catholic Church never, ever forbids the faithful to receive Holy Communion on the tongue.  But there are probably some who are thinking to themselves, “But this situation is different!  We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and catching the Coronavirus is potentially a matter of life and death!”

As a matter of fact, this sort of situation is not different at all, and has already been addressed by the CDW!  In 2009-2010, the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide.  (By contrast, note that as of this writing, the number of Coronavirus fatalities around the world stands at about 4000.)  As this flu was spreading back in 2009, there were some Catholic dioceses whose bishops tried to ban Communion on the tongue for hygienic reasons—prompting someone (of unknown identity) to write to the CDW for clarification.

The letter, a photo of which can be read here, gives an answer which should at this point be entirely predictable:

[The CDW] observes that its Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (25 March 2004) clearly stipulates that “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue” (n. 92), nor is it licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful who are not impeded by law from receiving the Holy Eucharist (cf. n. 91).
The Congregation thanks you for bringing this important matter to its attention.  Be assured that the appropriate contacts will be made.

The final sentence of this letter makes clear that after sending this letter, the CDW intended to contact the clergy who were illegally barring Catholics from receiving Communion on the tongue, to inform them in a formal, official way that by doing so that they were violating the law.  (Thus whoever had contacted the CDW to tell them of this problem got definite results—something that was discussed at length in “How Do I File a Canon Lawsuit?”)  It would be only logical to assume that if the faithful contact the CDW now, with information about current illegal practices in their own parishes/dioceses where they are forbidden to receive Communion on the tongue … the CDW will respond in precisely the same way.

The CDW will have to respond in the same way, not because Coronavirus isn’t dangerous, but because the right of the faithful around the world to receive the Eucharist in the way that is the Church’s established norm—on the tongue—cannot be curtailed by anyone other than the Supreme Authority of the Church.  This is an issue not of germs, but of the Church’s hierarchical structure.  No bishop on earth (still less a parish priest, acting on his own!) has the authority to countermand a law or specific directive of the Vatican, that is intended to apply to the universal Church.  Period.

It is, to put it mildly, extremely difficult to imagine that there’s any diocesan bishop out there who doesn’t know this.  Thus you can only wonder at official statements by bishops like this one, declaring authoritatively that (in effect) the laws emanating from Rome, and the rights of all the Catholic faithful around the world, do not apply in this particular diocese—because the bishop has simply decided to revoke them.  This is not a law, and thus it should not be followed.  Nobody in the Church can be expected to obey an illegal directive.  This is not merely the opinion of an individual canon lawyer, living in Rome and writing articles for this website; it is a legal maxim that can be traced back at least to St. Augustine (354-430), that an unjust law is not a law (lex iniusta non est lex).

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), arguably the Church’s greatest theologian, fleshed out this concept more thoroughly in his Summa Theologica:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust.  If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience….  Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver….

On the other hand, laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good… or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him…..  The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.”  (I-II, q. 96, a. 4, co., emphasis added)

… [T]he notion of law contains two things: first, that it is a rule of human acts; secondly, that it has coercive power.  Wherefore a man may be subject to law in two ways.  First, as the regulated is subject to the regulator: and, in this way, whoever is subject to a power, is subject to the law framed by that power.  But it may happen in two ways that one is not subject to a power.  In one way, by being altogether free from its authority: hence the subjects of one city or kingdom are not bound by the laws of the sovereign of another city or kingdom, since they are not subject to his authority.  In another way, by being under a yet higher law; thus the subject of a proconsul should be ruled by his command, but not in those matters in which the subject receives his orders from the emperor: for in these matters, he is not bound by the mandate of the lower authority, since he is directed by that of a higher.  In this way, one who is simply subject to a law, may not be a subject thereto in certain matters, in respect of which he is ruled by a higher law. (I-II, q. 96, a. 5, co., emphasis added)

How does this apply to the situation that Kayla describes?  Basically, the Supreme Authority of the Universal Church in Rome has (as we’ve seen above) already told us repeatedly that Catholics cannot be forbidden to receive Communion on the tongue, even in a situation involving a contagious illness; and some diocesan bishops and parish priests have issued declarations to the contrary.  In these circumstances, whom must a Catholic obey?  The answer is perfectly obvious, because the Supreme Authority in the Church outranks anybody and everybody else in the hierarchical structure of the Church.  There is no grey area or room for “creative interpretation” here.

All that being said, there’s a seductive, but dangerously erroneous objection that is frequently being raised to this, which merits discussion right now.  It generally goes something like this: “Yes, that’s what the law says, but you have to realize that the priests and bishops who are banning Communion on the tongue are doing so because they want to protect people.  They are concerned primarily about the health and safety of their parishioners, which surely is commendable.  Those Catholics who object are putting lives at risk!”

Lay Catholics who hear this sort of argument, and try to find a reasonable rebuttal, may find themselves stumped—but the Catholic clergy, who spent years in seminary studying philosophy and theology, should instantly know full well that this position is completely fallacious.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains why, citing our friend Thomas Aquinas in the process:

“An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6).  The end does not justify the means.  (CCC 1759)

Think about it: if, in theory, we could eliminate Coronavirus right now by desecrating the Eucharist, should we do it?  If not, why not?  Those advocating the position that “the end justifies the means” would find themselves hard-pressed to come up with an answer that is consistent with Catholic teaching.  The end (in this case, possibly preventing the spread of contagion) never, ever justifies the means (insisting that universal law must be violated, and denying the faithful their right to receive the Eucharist if they disagree).  If only all questions posed on this site had answers as clear-cut as this one!

Here’s the bottom line: if a bishop is insisting that the clergy under his authority must disregard universal law and forbid Communion on the tongue, those clergy should realize that they are obliged to obey higher authority.  After all, priests are not yes-men, but God’s men—and they should seek to do what is right, not what is easy.  If Catholics find themselves in situations where their right to receive the Eucharist on the tongue is being violated, they shouldn’t hesitate to send a respectful letter to the CDW, which undoubtedly will respond in the manner that we have already seen above.

Let’s all pray, pray, pray that the Coronavirus subsides as quickly as it originally spread!  And let’s likewise pray that all our bishops and priests keep the faith and also follow the Church’s laws on reception of the Eucharist, which are firmly grounded in Catholic theology.

Thank you to this website for posting a photo of the private 2009 letter mentioned above.

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