With the gradual thawing of restrictions on public gatherings, some dioceses have begun to issue new sets of regulations for Masses. These regulations often include a stated preference for Communion in the hand or even a forbiddance of Communion on the tongue.
In this article, I will demonstrate two things: first, in regard to the “Ordinary Form,” bishops, while free to express a preference, have no authority to mandate reception in the hand or to forbid reception on the tongue (and, a fortiori, no pastor of a parish could have such authority). Second, with regard to the “Extraordinary Form,” Communion may be given only on the tongue.
Before going into these canonical issues, it is important to note that there is no evidence that the normative and traditional manner of receiving Communion — namely, on the tongue — is less sanitary or in any way more dangerous to public health than Communion in the hand. A canon lawyer wrote to me: “Many have pointed out that germs are spread as easily by frequent hand contact as by placing the host in the mouth (which, if the priest knows what he’s doing, should not involve any transfer of saliva).”
The Archdiocese of Portland released a statement on March 2 that includes the following:
We consulted with two physicians regarding this issue, one of whom is a specialist in immunology for the State of Oregon. They agreed that done properly the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand pose a more or less equal risk. The risk of touching the tongue and passing the saliva on to others is obviously a danger; however, the chance of touching someone’s hand is equally probable and one’s hands have a greater exposure to germs.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider argued along the same lines at the end of February.
Communion in the hand is no more hygienic than Communion in the mouth. Indeed, it can be dangerous for contagion. From a hygienic point of view, the hand carries a huge amount of bacteria. Many pathogens are transmitted through the hands. Whether by shaking other people’s hands or frequently touching objects, such as door handles or handrails and grab bars in public transport, germs can quickly pass from hand to hand; and with these unhygienic hands and fingers people then touch often their nose and mouth. Also, germs can sometimes survive on the surface of the touched objects for days. According to a 2006 study, published in the journal “BMC Infectious Diseases”, influenza viruses and similar viruses can persist on inanimate surfaces, such as e.g. door handles or handrails and handles in transport and public buildings for a few days.
Many people who come to church and then receive Holy Communion in their hands have first touched door handles or handrails and grab bars in public transport or other buildings. Thus, viruses are imprinted on the palm and fingers of their hands. And then during Holy Mass with these hands and fingers they are sometimes touching their nose or mouth. With these hands and fingers they touch the consecrated host, thus impressing the virus also on the host, thus transporting the viruses through the host into their mouth.
Communion in the mouth is certainly less dangerous and more hygienic compared to Communion in the hand. In fact, the palm and the fingers of the hand, without intense washing, undeniably contain an accumulation of viruses.
Another study done in the United Kingdom this past November discovered disturbing facts:
The next time you stop at McDonald’s, you may want to skip the new self-order machines, as a recent study found fecal matter on every touchscreen tested at the fast food restaurant. Conducted in November  by U.K. newspaper Metro, the study swabbed screens at eight different McDonald’s locations in London and Birmingham. All of the self-order kiosks tested positive for an array of harmful bacteria.
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf sums up the experience of all of the priests with whom I have spoken about this matter:
In my experience of nearly three decades of distributing Communion in both ways, on the hand and on the tongue, to whole congregations on the hand nearly exclusively with a few exceptions, and also to whole congregations on the tongue nearly exclusively with few exceptions during the Novus Ordo and no exceptions at the TLM, is that rarely — rarely — do my fingers come into contact with tongues but very often, nearly always, there is contact with my fingers and hands. Let me repeat: When distributing Communion directly on the tongue, I rarely, rarely, have any contact with the tongue. When distributing on the hand, there is often, quite often, contact with the communicant’s fingers or palms.… When both ways are done properly, whereas there is still often contact by Communion on the hand, there is virtually never contact with the tongue.
Pertinent Legislation on the Ordinary Form
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on November 12, 2002, in its 2011 U.S. edition, reads at n. 161:
If Communion is given only under the species of bread, the Priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, The Body of Christ. The communicant replies, Amen, and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed, in the hand, the choice lying with the communicant.
In support, the important Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum — Instruction on Certain Matters to Be Observed or to Be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, March 25, 2004, reads in art. 92:
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 [in that manner].
The Congregation for Divine Worship has expressed its mind at least three times in response to situations where attempts were made to enforce Communion in the hand. A letter of April 3, 1985 to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (later renamed USCCB) [Prot. 720/85] reads in part:
The Holy See, since 1969, while maintaining the traditional manner of distributing Communion, has granted to those Episcopal Conferences that have requested it, the faculty of distributing Communion by placing the host in the hands of the faithful[.] … 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.
Here is response from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, published in Notitiae (April 1999):
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.
Response: Certainly it is clear from the very documents of the Holy See that in dioceses where the Eucharistic bread is put in the hands of the faithful, the right to receive the Eucharistic bread on the tongue still remains intact to the faithful. Therefore, those who restrict communicants to receive Holy Communion only on 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.
More recently, during the Swine Flu epidemic, Fr. Anthony Ward, S.M., under-secretary of the same congregation, wrote in a letter to an inquirer (Prot. N. 655/09/L, dated 24 July 2009):
This Congregation … wishes to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 22 June 2009 regarding the right of the faithful to receive Holy Communion on the tongue. This Dicastery observes that the 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).
Back in February, when the first wave of local directives had emerged, I consulted with a canon lawyer, who wrote the following to me:
From my perspective, a bishop cannot require anyone to receive in the hand. Even in the Ordinary Form, the prescription [i.e., norm] is Communion on the tongue, with the [rescriptive] right to approach and receive in the hand. The norm is the norm, and it is based on the right of the faithful to choose how to worship God at a moment in the Mass that is deeply personal and not communal in nature. My opinion is based on the repeated jurisprudence from the Holy See upholding the rights of a Catholic to receive Communion on the tongue while kneeling during an OF Mass, even if his or her bishop has issued a particular law to the contrary. Such laws are considered suggestive in nature and in no way binding. If this is true for a bishop’s law, a fortiori it is true of a pastor of a parish. A layman may not be denied the Blessed Sacrament unless he is a notorious public sinner. A priest who, on his own initiative, told the people they must receive in the hand would be violating the law and leading the people into the violation of it.
To avoid all possible confusion, let me reiterate that all of the legislation cited above applies only to the Ordinary Form or Novus Ordo Missae.
Pertinent Legislation on the Extraordinary Form
Even as bishops have no authority to change universal ecclesiastical legislation on the manner of receiving Communion at the Ordinary Form, they have no authority to modify the legislation that governs the Extraordinary Form. The pertinent legislative document, the Instruction Universae Ecclesiae, determines as follows (n. 24 and n. 28):
The liturgical books of the forma extraordinaria are to be used as they stand. All who choose to celebrate according to the forma extraordinaria of the Roman Rite are required to know the pertinent rubrics and to follow them correctly in celebrations… Furthermore, since it is of course dealt with by special law, in respect of its own subject matter, the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum derogates from all liturgical laws that belong to the sacred rites, promulgated from the year 1962 onwards, and not coinciding with the rubrics of the liturgical books of the year 1962.
There has never been the slightest question about what these laws entail: at the Extraordinary Form, laity who approach to receive Communion must receive it on the tongue; no other way is envisaged or allowed by law. To have a new custom established (quod Deus avertat), a bishop or episcopal conference would have to request and obtain a rescript from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, just as the bishops of different countries had to ask Rome for a rescript to permit Communion in the hand decades ago. Moreover, even if a bishop could obtain such a rescript, it would not change the layman’s right to choose the manner in which to receive.
Psychologically, it would be abusive to tell Catholics who love the Extraordinary Form for its massive Eucharistic reverence to contradict every instinct and rubric of this older use of the Roman Rite by putting their hands out and taking the host in a way that (in the traditional understanding) only the sacred minister is set apart to do on Christ’s behalf.
Everyone understands that emergency situations can arise that may temporarily debar Catholics from the reception of sacraments. However, bishops have a solemn obligation to keep such periods as short as possible. Unquestionably they would be abusing their episcopal authority if they made arbitrary rules that not only contradicted universal legislation, but also redounded to the disadvantage of some members of the flock, such as those who adhere to the older form of the Roman rite.
The foregoing considerations, as important as they are, remain at the merely natural and legal levels. A complete consideration must also take into account the supernatural dimension of the reverence owed to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, which is not trumped by our health concerns, and which the Church’s laws are designed to protect and promote. As Bishop Schneider says, the shepherds and the sheep of the Church will stand condemned of worldliness if they are willing to make compromises about the appropriate treatment of the Body of Christ in order to preserve their mortal and perishable lives. We would be justly condemned for seeking first ourselves and not the Kingdom of God:
If the Church in our day does not endeavor again with the utmost zeal to increase the faith, reverence and security measures for the Body of Christ, all security measures for humans will be in vain. If the Church in our day will not convert and turn to Christ, giving primacy to Jesus, and, namely, to the Eucharistic Jesus, God will show the truth of His Word which says: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it” (Psalm 126:1-2).
(Some of the material in this article first appeared at New Liturgical Movement.)
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.