Rorate Caeli

Can a Bishop Require Communion in the Hand to Prevent the Spread of the Coronavirus? (And Would This Apply to the TLM?)

The following article is intended as a follow-up on yesterday's post by Bishop Athanasius Schneider.

A friend posed this question to me: “Our bishop sent out a notice suspending communion on the tongue temporarily in response to the coronavirus, and our pastor thinks that this applies to our Latin Mass. Do you know of any legislation or magisterial statement clarifying that not even a bishop has the authority to do this?”

I’ve been hearing a lot about this lately, and I suspect we will hear more and more as the virus continues to spread. A canon lawyer whom I consulted made the following response:

From my perspective, a bishop cannot require anyone to receive in the hand. Even in the Ordinary Form, the prescription is communion on the tongue, with the 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.

Whatever may be the case with the Ordinary Form of the Mass, it must be understood that bishops have no authority whatsoever to modify the rubrics for the Extraordinary Form, which is governed by the rubrics and laws in force in 1962 (as Cardinal Burke also had to remind people in connection with the similar issue of whether girls may act as altar servers). The pertinent legislative document, the Instruction Universae Ecclesiae, determines as follows:

24. 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.

28. 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.

At the Extraordinary Form, the laity must receive Communion on the tongue; there is no other way envisioned or allowed by law. To have a new custom established (quod Deus avertat), a bishop or episcopal conference would have to request 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. And even if a bishop obtained this rescript, it would remain at the option of the layman, who cannot be denied the Blessed Sacrament unless he is a notorious public sinner. A priest who, on his own initiative, told the people they had to receive in the hand would be violating the law and leading the people into the violation of it.

Psychologically, it would be abusive to tell Catholics who love the TLM for its massive Eucharistic reverence to contradict every instinct and rubric of this form 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.

Another canon lawyer I consulted agreed with me about the rescript, and further opined:

I do not think he could require in ordinary circumstances that Holy Communion only be given in the hand at the EF, as the Holy See does not allow that even in the OF. In a medical emergency the bishop has a right to take reasonable steps to protect the health of parishioners. That being said, the faithful should do that they want and feel no obligation to receive Holy Communion in the hand. They cannot be required to do that in either the OF or (theoretically) the EF in emergency circumstances.

On a practical note, 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). As Bishop Athanasius Schneider explained:

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.

A priest who believed in conscience that the risk of contagion was too great should be prepared to offer a Mass at which he alone communicates. This is not the end of the world; the Mass has its own intrinsic purposes and should not be reduced to a communion service.

In conclusion, any affected TLM communities should continue to follow the rubrics (as indeed they must), and any faithful who are afraid of infection or fear they may be carrying the virus should refrain from approaching communion and make instead a spiritual communion, which so many saints have recommended.

Bishop Schneider suggests a prayer like the following:

At Thy feet, O my Jesus, I prostrate myself, and I offer Thee the repentance of my contrite heart, which is humbled in its nothingness and in Thy holy presence. I adore Thee in the Sacrament of Thy love, the ineffable Eucharist. I desire to receive Thee into the poor dwelling that my heart offers Thee. While waiting for the happiness of sacramental Communion, I wish to possess Thee in spirit. Come to me, O my Jesus, since I, for my part, am coming to Thee! The love embrace my whole being in life and in death. I believe in Thee, I hope in Thee, I love Thee. Amen.

We have the tools we need to deal with this situation, without rushing to novelties. Ultimately, as Bishop Schneider says, the Western Church stands condemned of worldliness if it is willing to make compromises about the appropriate treatment of the Body of Christ in order to preserve this mortal and perishable life of ours. 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 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).


To any readers who may be wondering (or who would like to have the wherewithal to respond to those who may be wondering): “What’s the big deal with receiving in the hand (or, more broadly, laity handling the host)?,” the the following three articles may be recommended:

Second Postscript

Those who, attending the Ordinary Form, prefer to receive on the tongue but do so standing instead of kneeling are part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is extremely awkward for a minister to place the host in the mouth of a standing person who is as tall as or taller than the minister. There is a common sense connection between kneeling and receiving on the tongue: the recipient can tilt his head back a little and stick out his tongue, and the standing distributor has a very easy time of it. (In the Byzantine rite, the communicant usually bends somewhat at the knee, tilts his head back, and opens his mouth wide so that the content of the spoon can be readily deposited. It is the same principle.) 

In short: if you want to follow the noble tradition of receiving on the tongue, then please do everyone a favor by also following the tradition of receiving while kneeling. It is completely permissible in the Ordinary Form, as this article demonstrates.

(Re-posted from New Liturgical Movement, with permission.)