When receiving Communion in the hand can be sinful
July 2, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Many bishops around the world are attempting to compel Catholics, who are in the right dispositions to approach the Holy Eucharist, to receive Our Lord in the hand, contrary to their well formed consciences about the risks involved in that method and contrary to their canonical rights to receive on the tongue. I have received many questions from worried Catholics asking if the bishops really have such authority and if it is ever right for the faithful to go along with such decrees. Here, I present some of those questions and my answers.
While thankfully I have regular access to the Blessed Sacrament, my sons are currently residing in a diocese where the bishop, like so many others, has “mandated” Communion in the hand. I discussed with my sons how the bishop has no authority to mandate such a thing, and shared many articles (including yours), which my sons discussed with their priests. These priests, however, are going to “just do what the bishop says,” and for the past few weeks my sons have refrained from receiving Communion at all rather than have to receive on the hand. Should my sons continue to refrain from receiving? To me, it seems as if it would be just the capitulation the Devil desires if we were to say “okay, whatever — I need Communion, so I’ll go ahead and receive on the hand for now, since it’s my only choice.” I hate to “give in” to this destructive progressivism in any way, but would it be actually wrong to receive on the hand if there was no other way available?
This is a painful cross that so many Catholics have to bear in these days of upside-down priorities. A few considerations.
1. Inasmuch as the bishops are abusing their authority (and that they are doing so is beyond doubt, given universal law, which they cannot simply put aside), it is wrong to capitulate to their requests, since this would only confirm them in their contempt for law, tradition, and the legitimate rights of the faithful. The same is true for the priests: they want to be “obedient,” but they are actually being enablers of episcopal overreach, as I explain here. We may pardon their weakness, but we shouldn’t applaud it by “falling in line.” Remember the Austrian Catholics at the time of Hitler? They fell into line except for Franz Jägerstätter: they all said “Oh, we can square this National Socialist oath of allegiance with Catholicism,” and he said: “Not so fast: I don’t see how I can.” He is acknowledged by the Church as a martyr. We can hope the Lord had mercy on the rest who caved in.
2. “Is it a big deal to receive in the hand?” Well, for starters, if we were doing it in the ancient manner, we would receive in the right hand (not the left!), and bow down in adoration to take up the holy bread with our tongue, and then would lick our palm to make sure no fragments would be left over. (One still sees Byzantine priests licking their fingers as they clean the antimension after Communion.) In other words, not at all what is being done today since the faux “revival” of Communion in the hand in the 1960s and ’70s. It might be possible to receive in the truly ancient manner without sin, but in doing so one would very obviously “stick out” from the rest of the people — and one would still be licking one’s hand, which is hardly sanitary by today’s standards, especially if there is a danger of harmful germs. Put differently, the ancient manner of receiving in the hand has twice the disadvantage, from a hygienic point of view, of receiving directly on the tongue.
3. It seems to me that there is a great risk of consequentialism here: “We want sacrament X...therefore we are willing to receive it less reverently.” If sacrament X were one of absolute necessity, that would be more understandable; but the only such sacrament is baptism. The sacraments are not just for my personal benefit, but for the adoration of God in Himself, and for His glorification in me. So I must not simply discount the manner in which the Holy Spirit has led the Church to perfect her expressions of reverence, above all when it comes to the reception of the God-Man Jesus Christ in Holy Communion.
4. Practically speaking, we should try to find priests who are willing, at least privately, to give Communion in the traditional and still normative way — i.e., on the tongue — and if this is not possible, then perhaps one could, once a month, drive to a place where that is possible and make a half-day of it, praying the rosary or some part of the Divine Office, and treating the Eucharistic Lord with the honor He deserves. In the meantime, we know that saints have not only recommended spiritual communion, but have emphasized its power. St Thérèse at the end of her life was compelled to make spiritual communions because she could not keep food down, and she turned that into yet another means of purification and sanctification.
It seems to me that this dire situation cannot last forever. There will always be clergy who — in spite of being compared to rebellious adolescents by the pope — will see clearly their solemn duties before God and man and will take these duties seriously. Meanwhile, we must keep up our prayer life in all the ways that are open to us as laymen. In this way, we will be strengthened for the journey through the desert.
There has been a big debate between some of my friends and me over the matter of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. One young man, although favoring the abrogation of hand Communion, believes that it is wrong to say it is sinful. His main argument is that “the living Magisterium has allowed it” (see Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 92), thus to hold that opinion would be the result of an improperly formed conscience. This to me sounds like a positivistic and ultramontanist approach. There is an objective liturgical tradition that the living Magisterium must adhere to. It seems to me that Communion in the hand could be a sacrilege, and if so, we know that sacrilege is a sin. I think the broader question is, can the living Magisterium promote something sinful through official documents?
It would be difficult to maintain that it is necessarily a sin to receive the Eucharist in one’s hand, if adequate precautions were taken. After all, if it were sinful in itself, it could never have been practiced in the early Church. If one followed the description attributed to St. Cyril, one would place the right hand above the left hand, and when the host is in the palm, one would bow down to the hand (not moving the hand) and take up the host with one’s mouth, licking the area on the palm in order to make sure no particles remained. This is not a form of “self-communication” but is simply using the right hand as a paten, and showing adoration by the bow. (I speak of this here.)
All the same, we do not live anymore in the fifth century; we live in the twenty-first, after a millennium during which the Church, moved by the Holy Spirit, abandoned Communion in the hand everywhere because of ever growing reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament, a deepening appreciation of the special anointing conferred on the hands of the priest for handling sacred things, and a realization of the dangers connected with hand reception. Something that might have been acceptable in one age comes to be seen as unacceptable in another, precisely because the Church’s practice develops, even as her insight into revealed mysteries develops. (And if one were to counter that this development went in the direction of corruption, he has basically become a Protestant or a devotee of the error of false antiquarianism.)
For those who realize, as every well catechized Catholic should, that the Church’s traditions are to be revered and trusted, and who know that Communion on the hand had long been abandoned and replaced for fitting reasons with Communion on the tongue, it would be sinful to receive on the hand, because one would be acting against one’s conscience and against one’s understanding of the Faith. However, there are very many Catholics who are so poorly trained and so ignorant that they actually do not know what the tradition was or why it was that way — or even that we should trust our traditions to begin with. Such a Catholic, if in a state of grace and attempting to do what he believes the Church is asking him to do, would not (necessarily) be committing a sin.
Obviously, saying this doesn’t cancel out in any way the serious problems with Communion in the hand. It is unfitting for unanointed hands to handle the Body of Christ. It risks profaning Our Lord by the loss of fragments. It is contrary to organic tradition. The living Magisterium itself, as you rightly say, has an obligation to adhere to the tradition and not to contradict it, which would be equivalent to telling the Holy Spirit to get lost. Even Paul VI, who was colorblind and tone-deaf when it came to liturgy, seems to have recognized this (see the strangely contradictory document Memoriale Domini of May 29, 1969, from the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, approved by Paul VI), but he was too weak and self-doubting to uphold what he knew to be true. We, on the other hand, should not be weak and self-doubting in following the wisdom of tradition.
Some people say Communion in the hand can be sinful in the context of the traditional Latin Mass, because it is forbidden there, yet not sinful in the New Rite, where it is permitted. How could this make any sense? Can something be sinful in one rite but not the next? Or are you saying the act in itself is not a sin, but the knowledge of the receiver can determine their culpability and thus the weight of the sin?
Also, is it always wrong to go against one’s conscience? Let’s say someone’s conscience bothers him about receiving in the hand; should he confess it? I would think yes, and we should never go against our conscience, but I just wanted to clarify.
It can be a sin to go against required rubrics. Since Communion on the tongue is required in the old rite, to hold that in contempt would be a sin. In the new rite, by contrast, Communion in the hand is not required; it is permitted. In fact, the universal norm is on the tongue, with Communion in the hand being an exception to the norm. That means it could never be sinful to refuse to receive Communion in the hand, just as it could never be wrong to insist on receiving on the tongue, provided one was in a condition to approach the Sacrament.
According to Memoriale Domini, a number of specific conditions have to be met before Communion in the hand can be allowed, and if any conditions cease to be met, it must be discontinued. These conditions are seldom respected or achieved, and the evidence indicates that they are habitually violated. Once clergy become aware of that fact, they have an obligation, based on natural law, divine law, and ecclesiastical law, to curtail Communion in the hand and eventually to replace it with the normative traditional practice.
In general, once one becomes aware of the problems surrounding Communion in the hand — that it risks profanation, that it leads to a loss of faith in the Real Presence and the special nature of the ordained priesthood, that it is contrary to a fitting tradition of many centuries, that it is contrary even to Paul VI’s stipulations, that it facilitates the theft of the Host for satanic rituals, etc.—then it would be contrary to a well informed conscience to receive in that way, and so, it would be sinful.
This is not, after all, a strange situation. Many times, people are badly informed about moral actions, and it can be that they were so badly formed and at such a disadvantage that they are not culpable for their ignorance. People can do objectively wrong things while not being subjectively guilty of choosing them as evil. However, once they “wise up,” then they are obliged to follow their better informed consciences.
We must also remember the clear teaching of Scripture and of the saints: God is still displeased by objectively evil actions, even when their perpetrators are ignorant or deceived about what they are doing. Moreover, people will still suffer negative consequences for evil actions. The one who thinks contraception is morally acceptable is nonetheless injured in his life and relationships by practicing it and truly contradicts the will of God, Creator and Lord of life.
That is why the Catholic tradition places such a premium on the accurate formation of conscience and why it makes sense for someone to confess anything that seems, to him, to be a sin against what is known or believed to be pleasing to God.