Communion Straw Men

In our Diocesan publication, "FAITH Magazine," I recently came across an article on the reception of Holy Communion that made my eye twitch; not necessarily because it said anything wrong per se, but because it gave only half of the answer and neglected to provide a ton of historical and liturgical information that would have been more helpful in answering the question. The question posed was whether or not communion in the hand was disrespectful. The question is answered by Fr. Joe Krupp, a popular priest in our diocese who runs a Q&A segment in the diocesan magazine. Here is the article in its entirety, which I will comment on afterward:

Q. Recently, at church, someone told me receiving communion in the hand is disrespectful. Is this accurate? How should I receive communion?

A: I’ve gotten this one and variations on it from a few readers – I hope my information helps. Before we dive into the “how” and the “why” though, I’d like to take a moment and explain why these are important issues and not “nit-picking.”

We call the Eucharist the blessed sacrament. All of our sacraments are amazing, but when we talk about the Eucharist, we are talking about the one from which all the others flow. It is the most potent spiritual medicine available to us. Because of its amazing power and beauty, we are always to use one word above all others in relation to it: reverence. Here’s a pretty powerful passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“Therefore, whoever eats the body or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27)

So, with that in mind, how are we to receive? According to the laws of the church, there are two ways we can receive Communion: on the hand or on the tongue. To be clear, both ways of receiving are approved by the church. The folks who told you receiving Communion in the hand is a mortal sin were wrong.

So, if we receive on the hand, how do we do it? Look at this quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “When you approach holy Communion, make the left hand into a throne for the right, which will receive the king.” Pope Paul VI added, “Then, with your lower hand, take the consecrated host and place it in your mouth.” For those who receive Communion on the hand, please be sure and follow this practice. Receiving one-handed or cupping the hand is not the right way to receive.

For those who receive in the mouth, the key is to tilt your head back and extend your tongue so that there is no danger of the host falling. Simply opening your mouth is not safe or sanitary. This practice also is affirmed by our history – Pope Leo the Great referred to receiving in the mouth when he wrote about the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.

In both cases, focus on being reverent. I’ve seen both Communion-in-the-hand and Communion-in-the-mouth folks approach the Eucharist with tremendous respect and honor; and I’ve seen the opposite as well.

Our posture in approaching the Eucharist needs to be different, as well: We should stand ready – alert and prepared to receive Jesus attentiveness and love in our hearts. Our “Amen” should be loud and clear – a strong affirmation of our communal belief.

I’ve received letters from folks about priests not allowing them to receive Communion on the hand and from folks whose priests do not allow them to receive on the tongue. The priest has no authority to do such a thing on either side. I would suggest you politely share with your priest your concerns and ask him to change his personal rule. If not, then I would follow up with a letter to the bishop.

For those of you who have a strong opinion about how others should receive, I invite you to focus on how you and your family receive. Don’t worry about others. Jesus promised that he would guide us as a church and we need to cling to those words. It’s not our duty to save the church, but to let Jesus save us through it.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!

First of all, kudos to Fr. Joe for pointing out that this is an important issue, is not "nit-picking", and that those who find themselves being forced to receive according to the priest's whim ought to take a stand on it. However, I do have several concerns about the approach Fr. Joe took that jumped out at me the very first time I read this article.

My first problem is the straw-man that Fr. Joe sets up to answer the question. Let's look at the original question again: "Recently, at church, someone told me receiving communion in the hand isdisrespectful. Is this accurate? How should I receive communion?" The question is whether or not receiving communion in the hand is "disrespectful." Now let's see how Fr. Joe answers: "The folks who told you receiving Communion in the hand is a mortal sin were wrong."

The person did not ask if communion in the hand was a mortal sin; they asked if it was "disrespectful," by which I am assuming they mean irreverent. Fr. Joe completely passes up the question as to whether or not communion in the hand is disrespectful and merely says that it is not a "mortal sin", which is something completely different. To be sure, every liturgical deviation which is a mortal sin is also disrespectful, but not everything disrespectful is a mortal sin.

Delving into this issue of disrespect a little more, note that the entire answer to the question is framed not in terms of which way of reception is intrinsically more reverent, but around whether or not both forms are equally permissible. Here is Fr. Joe's essential argument:

"So, with that in mind, how are we to receive? According to the laws of the church, there are two ways we can receive Communion: on the hand or on the tongue. To be clear, both ways of receiving are approved by the church. The folks who told you receiving Communion in the hand is a mortal sin were wrong."

This is another straw-man. The person asked whether communion in the hand is irreverent; Fr. Joe answers that communion in the hand is legal. Perhaps he is making the assumption that no option the Church legalizes could be any more or less reverent than any other option, that all options are created equal, so to speak; but even if so, the question of the legality of communion in the hand is not in question. It is the reverence of communion in the hand that has been challenged, and it is a little bit misleading to answer the question by appealing to legality, as if legality and reverence were equivocal terms. We all know that in many liturgical areas the Church allows many "options", some of which are less reverent than others.  

This, by the way, is the standard answer I have usually seen given by non-traditionalist Catholic apologists, at least when questioned on communion publicly: an appeal to the equal legality of either form of reception with the implicit assumption that one is just as good as the other because they are both "approved."

The appeal to history is also a little one-sided. Fr. Joe cites the famous quote by St. Cyril on how to receive in the hand; after discussing communion in the hand, he goes on to communion on the tongue with the casual statement, "This practice also is affirmed by our history," as if communion in the hand and communion in the tongue were two practices that have always existed side by side with equal usage! As if reception in the hand was the historic norm but that reception on the tongue was "also affirmed!" To simply refer to the whole 1500 year tradition of communion on the tongue, which was the universal norm throughout the whole Church for most of her history and affirmed by so many saints and popes, with the casual statement "This practice also is affirmed" is a colossal understatement and (in my opinion) misleading, as if one were to say that the Church allows altar girls but that using boys for altar servers is "also" historical. 

Regarding the history of the practice, much is omitted that ought to be mentioned for the reader to get a well-rounded understanding of the issue. Nowhere in the article does Fr. Joe point out that communion on the tongue has been the norm for centuries upon centuries and that even now it is the norm in many parts of the world.

He does not inform the reader that communion in the hand was only accepted in the past few decades and only as a concession. Rather, he tries to paint both forms as equally historical with an equally valid historical pedigree. While it is certainly true that communion in the hand existed in the early Church, it is patently false to insinuate that it has just as impressive a historical pedigree as communion on the tongue, or that it was just one of two equally used modes of reception.

It is well known that communion in the hand began spreading during the early nineteen-sixties, in Catholic circles in Holland and originally as a form of dissent. It began, then, as an aping of the Protestant practice, or at the very least as a "false archaeologism" - it certainly does not have the venerable sanction of tradition that communion on the tongue does, and Catholics deserve to know this.

One other thing that ought to be cleared up - when Fr. Joe goes on to speak about how to receive, he says:

"In both cases, focus on being reverent. I’ve seen both Communion-in-the-hand and Communion-in-the-mouth folks approach the Eucharist with tremendous respect and honor; and I’ve seen the opposite as well."

In this and the succeeding paragraphs, he seems to imply that whether or not a reception is reverent is entirely dependent upon the subjective disposition and actions of the recipient. There is of course some truth to this, but as I said above, this is not the whole truth. When the questioner asked whether communion in the hand was disrespectful, he was not asking about one's personal dispositions but whether the mode of reception in the hand was objectively disrespectful. Sometimes we can have the best dispositions, be in a state of grace, etc. but the mode of reception itself can be irreverent; for example, unleavened hosts distributed by a lay person dressed up like a clown. That is an extreme example, but the point is that sometimes we need to look not at the disposition of the recipient but at the mode of distribution itself - this is what the question was addressing, whether taken objectively, communion in the hand is less reverent than communion in the tongue. Instead of answering this, Fr. Joe seems to say that as each mode is equally legal, so each mode is equally reverent depending on the disposition of the recipient.

Also, why no mention that Pope Benedict himself mandates that at papal masses communion must be received not only on the tongue but kneeling? Surely the pope's own actions would have provided a valuable insight into which "option" the Church seems to think is best?

Regarding the actual question as to whether or not communion in the hand is intrinsically more disrespectful than communion in the tongue (the question Fr. Joe should have answered), I refer you to this article by Jude Huntz in a 1997 edition of "Homiletic and Pastoral Review." 

I'm not going to go on and on about all the arguments in favor of communion in the hand; that's not the point of this article. The point is that if people bring up this question, they deserve an honest answer, one that is at least true to history and logically consistent. Simply pointing out that both modes of reception are legal is hardly an answer; it is the absence of an answer. I like Fr. Joe and appreciate his addressing this issue. Usually I read his Q&A column with a smile, but I think this time a more thorough answer would have been better, especially as this is likely to become a more live issue in the near future as the Church continues to realign herself with Tradition.