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Can bishops require Communion on the hand?

By Kate Scanlon for CNA

A priest distributes Communion during Mass at a church in Seville, Spain, May 11, 2020, as parts of Spain relax restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Jon Nazca, Reuters)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 19, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- As dioceses across the United States begin to resume public Masses amid the coronavirus pandemic, many are taking additional precautions to stay within guidelines from local health officials. In some instances, bishops have prohibited the distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

But can a bishop order that the Eucharist be distributed only on the hand?

Timothy Olson, a canonist for the Diocese of Fargo and the secretary of the Canon Law Society of America, told CNA that a bishop does have the authority to restrict the distribution of Holy Communion to in the hand alone, when it is a matter of necessity.

“Ordinarily, there is no doubt that a bishop lacks the authority to restrict the reception of communion to the hand only,” Olson said. “Redemptionis sacramentum [a Vatican instruction on Eucharistic matters] is explicit about this fact.”

“At the same time,” Olson continued, “canon law, including liturgical law, is the Church’s practical expression of her theology and philosophy. Thus, sometimes it is necessary to make recourse to sources beyond the mere and obvious legal texts.”

Olson pointed to the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas as instructive on the matter.

“In this case, Thomas Aquinas is a valuable source for understanding how human law operates looking at the Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 96,” Olson said.

“Aquinas teaches that every law is directed to the common good of man. He also teaches that, unlike the Divine Lawgiver, a human lawgiver is incapable of foreseeing every circumstance in which the law will be applied.”

“As a result, a human law that in most circumstances promotes the common good, can in an individual situation actually harm the common good. Aquinas concludes that in such a case, the observance of the human law is able to be dispensed.”

Fr. James Bradley, assistant professor at the School of Canon Law at The Catholic University of America, disagreed, arguing that that the decision to prohibit the distribution of the Eucharist on the tongue should lie with Rome, not with diocesan bishops.

“The liturgical discipline of the Church, because of its importance in relation to the nature of the sacraments and the deposit of faith, is generally reserved to the Apostolic See,” Bradley told CNA.

“Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a broadening of what the diocesan bishops and episcopal conferences can regulate in the liturgy, but what this entails is quite narrowly defined in the law,” said Bradley.

Olson agreed that “ordinarily, the dispensation of a law is reserved to the authority who issued the law.”

“However,” he said, “Aquinas notes that in the case of necessity where action must be taken urgently in order to prevent the harm, ‘the mere necessity brings with it a dispensation, since necessity knows no (human) law.’”

Olson offered Aquinas’ example of a city whose ruler orders the city gates closed at a certain time, but an army of the city’s defenders become stuck outside the gate with an enemy force in pursuit.

“Aquinas concludes that if the rightful authority can be reached in time to open the gates with his permission, it ought to be done,” Olson said. “However, if there is danger in the delay caused by referring the matter, necessity itself allows the gates to be opened.”

Olson said when it comes to the liturgy, there are “some aspects that are of divine law, and thus never subject to dispensation, such as the matter and form of a sacrament.”

“Other aspects of the liturgy, however, are of human law, such as which readings are to be read, or the manner of reception of Communion,” he said. “Although these human laws are written to protect the dignity and efficacy of the liturgy, they are able to be dispensed in cases of urgent necessity.”

He added that there is precedent for such decisions.

“A stark example of liturgical laws being dispensed by necessity occurred in the concentration camps of WWII,” Olson said. “Priests, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, always observing the matter and form for the confection of the Eucharist, held extremely truncated Masses while imprisoned, only observing those rubrics that were possible in the situation.”

Olson said that “provided that a true urgent necessity is present, a diocesan bishop can recognize that a human law, even if it is liturgical, or ordinarily reserved to a higher authority, has been dispensed.”

But Bradley cautioned against presuming the ability to dispense with liturgical laws in the Church.

“It seems to me that the fact that the liturgical law is specifically reserved to the Apostolic See, except in limited cases defined by the law, means that changes to liturgical discipline and practice are not within the competence of the diocesan bishop unless the law prescribes such,” Bradley said.

“Of course,” Olson told CNA, “canonists will always present different opinions on how the law can be interpreted and applied, that’s the job of lawyers. In the end, the final authority of interpretation lies with Rome, and it will be for Rome to intervene – or not – as they decide.”

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  1. Other than pre-Vatican II Tradition, I have never read a well reasoned article on why people want communion on the tongue. Highly unlikely that Jesus gave the bread to his followers on the tongue as this is not a Jewish tradition. Not sure where communion on the tongue came from, how long ago it was practiced, or why. Not sure what the virtues or merit of this practice is, or what why it means so much to some people. I have done both, and Jesus is Jesus whether given to me on the hands or on the tongue.

    At the moment, we are not getting communion at all, so something has to give here. I want communion back.

    • Try reading this:

      It incudes “Apologists for the practice of Communion in the hand possess what they consider an unanswerable argument to justify the innovation, namely, that it was the practice in the early Church. Reduced to its simplest terms, their argument reads: “Because it is older it must be better.” This argument is totally fallacious and has been most forcefully condemned by Pope Pius XII, as will be shown later. Those concerned to uphold the traditional practice should concentrate on exposing the fallacy of this argument and not be sidetracked into discussions of whether the practice of Communion in the hand was once universal, how long it lasted, how genuine the texts brought forward to prove that it was once the custom are, or even the reasons why it was abandoned in favour of Communion on the tongue for the laity.

      ” Traditionalists are sometimes accused of having a static concept of the Faith, of being opposed to any development. On the contrary, it is the Liberals who wish to ignore developments in liturgy and doctrine which have taken place under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The most effective answer to contemporary liturgical and doctrinal innovators is to be found in Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine. In this book the great Cardinal shows how it was not only natural but inevitable that there should be development in every aspect of the Church’s life. The first Christians still frequented the synagogues and, in many cases, observed Jewish dietary regulations. Centuries passed before the true nature of the Trinity and the Divine nature of Christ were fully clarified. Forms of worship used in times of persecution were clearly no longer adequate when the Christians emerged from the catacombs and were presented with great basilicas. As with other doctrines, without ever contradicting what had been previously believed, the nature of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist became more and more apparent, and this was reflected in the liturgy. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the manner in which the Church worships will reflect what she believes. 3 Cardinal Newman correctly observed that “a developed doctrine which reverses the course of development which has preceded it, is no true development but a corruption; also that what is corrupt acts as an element of unhealthiness towards what is sound.” 4 There could be no more accurate description of the nature and effect of the reversal of development which has occurred with the introduction of Communion in the hand.”

  2. Let me explain. The hands are filthy. Before Mass, how many things did they touch, door knobs, flushing toilets, cars, their faces, books, shaking hands, etc. all this before Jesus is placed on their dirty hands. How many people examine their hands for particles of Jesus after receiving our Lord on their hands? Not many. The Host is very fragile. Also, there are too many occasions for abuse. So my point is this. All those particles of Jesus are ending up on the floor, in pockets or wherever. Jesus is being trampled on countless times every day. On the alter, the priest take extreme caution when handling the Host because they know it is Jesus. Why should it be any less for us. He deserves extreme reverence.

  3. Why no mention of the Vatican’s clarification of this very issue in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic? The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments made it quite clear that Communion on the tongue may not be denied, even in times of pandemic.

  4. I just don’t go along with the mindset that “it’s an emergency,” so almost anything goes. Just because secular authorities are ignoring civil law in general and the Constitution in particular doesn’t mean that bishops should ignore canon law and follow the secular authorities’ example by “lording it over them” as Jesus said of the Gentile leaders of His day.

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