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September 8, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – J.D. Flynn, editor at Catholic News Service, has told his Twitter followers:

Every time I go to Mass it is hard for me to receive in the hand.

Every time I go to Mass, I have to say consciously, “He is the bishop, and you’re not, Flynn.”

That’s been an incredible source of grace. Obedience has been more fruitful for me than any devotion could be.

Mr. Flynn’s argument here is that his reception of Holy Communion in the hand is an exercise of the virtue of obedience, and therefore a source of graces. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

Most obviously, no bishop’s guidelines say that Catholics are obliged to receive at all. Catholics are, in normal times, obliged to receive Holy Communion once a year. Frequent reception of Holy Communion is recommended by the Church for Catholics in a state of grace, but here and now other factors are in play. Some Catholics in this situation have chosen not to receive at all for this period of time. Others have found priests, perhaps on the other side of diocesan boundaries, willing to distribute on the tongue, which of course is perfectly legal.

Consider a parallel. Mr. Flynn finds himself in a place for an extended period of time where Holy Communion is available only from priests who are not in Communion with the Pope. It is available, but there is this other factor in play. Would it be ridiculous to abstain? Of course not. The reception of Holy Communion is not obligatory, and it not immediately necessary to our salvation. Many of our Catholic predecessors received only once a year, and I don’t think the present generation is going to be so terribly superior to them on the Day of Judgment. If one can only receive under the condition that one do something it would be better one not do, then that is a serious consideration. Readers may like to consider other examples. Suppose Nazis insisted we kiss a copy of Mein Kampf before going up. Suppose pagans insisted we trample on a crucifix. What do you do? It’s not a terrible dilemma. You don’t go up to Communion, but sit tight in your pew.

I can hear Mr. Flynn and his supporters say these are silly parallels, and it’s not like that at all. They must however argue for this: they must argue that reception in the hand is no big deal. That’s something Mr. Flynn is extremely reluctant to do, and I’m not going to help him out here. But even if he comes up with an argument, it is not going to be an argument about obedience. Obedience has got nothing to do with it.

Let’s think some more about those episcopal guidelines. Do they actually impose any kind of obligation on Catholics in a diocese? No, they do not, for two reasons. One is that such documents are only binding as a matter of Church law if they are framed as a proper decree, something which bishops very rarely bother to do. The other is that even if they did do this, they would fail to bind anyone in this case, because they do not have the power to forbid the reception of Holy Communion on the Tongue. The right to receive on the tongue is explicitly guaranteed by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (for the reformed Mass) in §160. Bishops simply do not have the authority to overturn this.

Is it an exercise of the virtue of obedience to obey a directive which exceeds the authority of the person giving it? No, because this would not be a genuine law. One can’t preen oneself on one’s obedience to fake laws. Obeying them is not a way to build up a virtue pertaining to respect for real authority.

There is scope for obedience here, however. What many Catholics have decided on this issue is that there is a precept with normative force at issue here. It is the force of the uninterrupted tradition of the Western Church for more than a thousand years. This is telling us that to receive on the tongue is more reverent and fitting. We need not insist that this custom creates a strict legal obligation, but just that it has some weight. 

This is not an argument about canon law, but the Church is more than canon law. Traditions like this one convey to us the wisdom of centuries of Catholic practice. They are normative, action-guiding, in a deep sense, and command respect even from law more narrowly defined. As a matter of fact, that Holy Communion should only be received on the tongue remains the law of the Church: it can be permitted in the hand only by a dispensation, an exception to the law: see Memoriale Domini (1968).

Our question is whether to exercise the virtue of obedience in maintaining that tradition and law, perhaps in difficult circumstances, perhaps heroically. This would truly be an exercise of the virtue of obedience.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.