Communion in the Hand — Grave Error
“Not to oppose error is to approve it, and not to defend the truth is to suppress it” – Pope St. Felix III
The decline of belief and faith among Catholics has been spiraling downward ever since the introduction of Communion in the hand in 1969. What started out as disobedience among a few select bishops in Belgium in the 1960’s, has now been spread like wildfire among the average Catholic worldwide, in what is largely known in the Catholic world as a third rail topic. There is widespread confusion as to how this can be a disobedient act when it has been approved by the Church. The facts are that Communion on the tongue is still the law of the Church, while Communion in the hand is an exception to the law granted by an indult, which was granted with severe reservations by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter “Memoriale Domini”. Fr. Matthias Gaudron explains how this happened in his book The Cathechism of the Crisis in the Church, “Communion in the hand was first practiced without any authorization in a few very progressive groups against the explicit rules of the Church.” And it is that fact that I will explore further in this essay. Fr. Gaudron continues, “On May 29, 1969, the Instruction Memoriale Domini took cognizance of this disobedience and reiterated in detail the advantages of Communion on the tongue” (156). Fr. Gaudron explains that after a survey was given to the bishops about whether not they would be in support of introducing Communion in the hand, 58 percent opposed it, and only 27 percent were in favor of it (156).
The outcome of this practice has been a large diminishing of the belief of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. A gallop poll taken only a few years ago, the results of which were referenced in the Remnant Newspaper, indicates that just 30 percent of U.S. Catholics now believe in the True Presence. The other 70 percent did not, and their belief system was sprinkled with an odd mixture of Protestant belief and Catholic Theology, or they simply had no understanding of authentic Catholic teaching.
There is a faction of progressive Catholics who either knowingly or unknowingly obscure the facts of history. They mistakenly believe that they are returning to the ancient practice of the early Christians. But the facts show that this simply isn’t the case. It is true that Holy Communion in the hand did indeed happen. However, when we read the Early Church Fathers we discover the reasons for why Holy Communion in the hand was allowed. It was only tolerated during times of Church persecution.
Dr. Taylor Marshall has researched this subject and reports that Saint Basil had this to say on this subject. “Communion in the hand is allowed only in two instances, 1) under times of persecution where no priest is present, 2) for hermits and ascetics in the wilderness who do not have priests.” This point needs to be stressed; it was a rare exception, and not the norm. Otherwise, according to Saint Basil, to receive Communion in the hand was considered a “grave immoderation” under normal circumstances. This practice goes way back in Church history. One of the earliest references we have about it is from Pope St. Sixtus I, who reigned from 115-125 AD, “it is prohibited for the faithful to even touch the sacred vessels, or receive in the hand”. Saint Paul himself mentions the importance of the Eucharist repeatedly in the scriptures and how one should not approach it unworthily in 1 Corinthians chapters ten and eleven.
Belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist is taken straight from scripture. When Jesus told His disciples that “My Flesh is real food and My Blood real drink” (Jn. 6:55), His disciples took Him literally and said, “This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?” (Jn. 6:60). St. John’s Gospel continues to report; “Jesus was fully aware that His disciples were murmuring in protest at what He had said” (Jn. 6:61). John then states that, “From this time on, many of His disciples broke away and would not remain in His company any longer. Jesus then said to the Twelve Disciples, “Do you want to leave Me too?” (Jn. 6:66-67). “The Twelve stayed with Jesus because they trusted His words” (Jn. 6:69-71).
Jesus was fully aware that the departing disciples understood His teaching literally. If Jesus had only meant that they would eat his Body and drink his Blood symbolically, He would have said so before they walked away. And there are plenty of places in Scripture where the disciples were confused about His teachings so Jesus retold the parable in a way they could understand it, making the message clearer to them. Since He didn’t try to re-explain what He meant when instituting the Eucharist, we know that He meant His words literally, and of course, not in a cannibalistic sense, but supernaturally.
For the last thousand years, and right up to today, Eucharistic miracles have continued to occur that baffle believers and non-believers. Now, thanks to modern technology and modern science, we can examine them thoroughly. The subject of which has been written about extensively in Joan Carroll Cruz’s book, Eucharistic Miracles. Another wonderful book about the origins of the Eucharist, and as to why Jesus would establish such a practice, which by the way goes straight back to the Old Testament and Ancient Judaism, I highly recommend Dr. Brandt Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.
The teaching on Christ’s Eucharistic Presence was not sincerely contested until the eleventh century, a thousand years after He instituted it. According to Rev. Regis Scanlon, Berengarius of Tours began teaching that Christ was present in the Eucharist only “as mere sign and symbol” and that after the consecration, “bread must remain.” Berengarius held, “That which is consecrated (the bread) is not able to cease existing materially”. In the thirteen century, St. Thomas Aquinas names “Berengarius, the first deviser of this heresy,” claiming that the consecrated Bread and Wine are only a “sign” of Christ’s Body and Blood.”
St. Thomas gives a valid reason why bread and wine does not remain once the consecration takes place, “Because it would be opposed to the veneration of this sacrament, if any substance were there, which could not be adored with adoration of “latria”.” Meaning, Catholics would be guilty of the sin of idolatry by worshipping the bread and wine. Therefore, the physical nature of bread and wine no longer remains, it only appears to remain.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563), agrees with what St. Thomas correctly taught:
If anyone says that in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist there remains the substance of bread and wine together with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the entire substance of the wine into the Blood, the species of the bread and wine only remaining, a change which the Catholic Church most fittingly calls transubstantiation: let him be anathema (79).
This Council was called to declare Catholic Truth that was being challenged by the Protestant Revolt led by Martin Luther, a renegade Monk who suffered from severe scrupulosity, and sadly, due to his misinterpretations of scripture, as well as his adding to and removal of them, split the Church, leaving us today with over 34,000 Protestant groups and counting.
By the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), there were in place a somewhat large faction of progressive theologians, many of whom were censored by Pius XII, who managed to get themselves invited into the Council by Pope John XXIII, and to even participate in its preceding’s. These theologians were successful in holding sway at the Council, much to the orthodox bishops frustrations, and helped to word the sixteen documents produced from the Council with ambiguous language that has confused the faithful right up to this day. Then, in 1969, some of these same theologians helped to promulgate a new Mass by eliciting the aid of the then current Pope Paul VI. With this Mass in place, the rapid decline of Catholic belief, Mass attendance, and religious vocations began.
Adding to this confusion was the progressive undertakings of a group of bishops who incessantly had one agenda in mind, the introduction of Communion in the hand. Communion in the hand was illegally introduced into Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the United States. The Church adamantly opposed this disobedient and abusive practice from the very beginning. According to Bishop Laise, from his book Communion in the Hand, On October 12, 1965, the “Consilium” wrote to Bernard Cardinal Alfrink, Archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands, “The Holy Father does not consider it opportune that the sacred Particle be distributed in the hand and later consumed in different manners by the faithful, and therefore, he vehemently exhorts [that] the Conference offer the opportune resolutions so that the traditional manner of communicating be restored” (32).
Pope Paul VI vehemently looked for a solution to this crisis. He considered two options, either close the door to all concessions, or allow the concession only where its use was already established. The Pope took a risk and asked for the opinions of the local bishops to help him in this growing disobedience. Unfortunately, the bishops did not help Pope Paul VI, but opened the doors even wider for abuse. Communion in the hand was introduced without authorization, the Pope persistently opposed allowing it but decided to grant an indult, but only where its use was firmly established so as not to call attention to the disobedience of those bishops among their flock.
Pope Paul VI’s compromise was the document Memoriale Domini (May 29, 1969), while reconfirming that Communion on the tongue is “more conducive to faith, reverence and humility.” The Pope wisely cautioned that Communion in the hand “carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering Holy Communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the August sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine.”
There are plenty of Catholics who sincerely believe that it makes no difference on how they receive Communion. They don’t understand the law of the Church, the history, or the warnings against receiving Communion in the hand. Pope Paul VI again repeated in Memoriale Domini the Churches position on this matter, “He should not forget, on the other hand, that the position of the Holy See in this matter is not a neutral one, but rather that it vehemently exhorts him to diligently submit to the law in force (Communion on the tongue).
The truth of the matter is that Communion in the hand was spread through disobedience to the Pope. Pope Paul VI tried hard to put into place many obstacles to slow this disobedient practice from spreading. In Memoriale Domini he stated four restrictions; (a) the indult could only be requested if Communion in the hand was an already established custom in the country, and (b) if by a secret vote and with a two-thirds majority the episcopal conference petitions Rome, c) then Rome would grant the necessary permission, (d) once the permission was granted, several conditions had to exist simultaneously (among these conditions, no loss of sacred particles and no loss of faith in the Real Presence) (En réponse à la demande). If any of those conditions were not met than Communion in the hand was not permitted, even with the indult. These restrictions are part of the Pope’s instructions which are found attached to his document Memoriale Domini.
However, the American bishops successfully managed to maneuver around Pope Paul VI’s restrictions. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the then president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, unsuccessfully attempted twice to establish Communion in the hand in America, in 1975 and 1976. Unfortunately, he finally prevailed in May 1977 when Communion in the hand was illegally authorized in the United States. The bishops totally ignored Pope Paul VI’s requirements expressed in his indult about not allowing the practice of Communion in the hand where it was not already established.
Proceeding on their own initiative, the American bishops decided to vote on whether not they could get this disobedient practice introduced into their own country, despite all the historical evidence and warnings by Saints and Doctors of the Church throughout Her two thousand year history, warning against such a practice.
After the initial voting had concluded, Archbishop Bernardin reported that the vote had fallen short of the required two-thirds of all legally present members and that the matter could not be concluded until the absent bishops were polled. Bernardin was dead-set on getting Communion in the hand one way or another, even if it had just been voted down. To get around the lack of votes, bishops who were not present, retired, or even dying, were polled illegally.
Canon lawyer, Fr. Kunz, has stated that obtaining votes from absent bishops absolutely invalidates the petition for an indult, making the indult non-void. This tactic manipulated and masterminded by Cardinal Bernardin to acquire the votes simply makes the indult invalid, since only members present at the meeting could legally vote. Renowned theologian Fr. John Hardon, S.J., stated in 1997, “To get enough votes to give Communion on the hand, bishops who were retired, bishops who were dying, were solicited to vote to make sure that the vote would be an affirmative in favor of Communion in the hand. Whatever you can do to stop Communion in the hand will be blessed by God.”
The result of Cardinal Bernardin efforts in swaying the American bishops into promoting Communion in the hand, resulted in the Holy See granting permission for the indult which allowed Communion in the hand in the United States. The National Catholic Register quotes Bishop Blanchette:
“What bothers me is that in the minds of many it will seem that disobedience is being rewarded. And that troubles me because if people persist in being disobedient, and that is used as a reason for changing the discipline, then we’re very close to chaos or what I would call selective obedience, which is no obedience at all.” (National Catholic Register, “Bishop Blanchette: A Clear Call for Obedience,” June 12, 1977)
Having been a Catholic for eight years, I have witnessed the lack of reverence and indifference among Catholics who go to Communion. The majority receive in the hand, their body language and stance clearly shows that they either don’t believe in the Eucharist, or simply haven’t been told about Who and What It truly is. All polls are consistent with what I and other Catholics have suspected all along. Since the illegal introduction of Communion in the hand, belief in the Real Presence has not only plummeted, it is simply not being taught nor emphasized.
It wasn’t until October of 2008, over four years of being a Catholic, did I have the good fortune of meeting a traditional Catholic Priest, Fr. Isaac Mary Relyea, who not only instructed me properly on this Church teaching, but on many others as well.
Communion in the hand, and the lack of solid Catholic formation, has certainly attributed to this loss of faith. Fr. John Hardon has affirmed, “Behind Communion in the hand, I wish to repeat and make as plain as I can, is a weakening, a conscious, deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence.”
So today it seems we are stuck with Communion in the hand. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out numerous times that he is not in favor of this practice. He has even made it known that anyone attending his Mass in Saint Peter’s Square must receive Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue. It would be wonderful if the holy Father would entirely do away with this practice, most especially since it was only granted permission through an illegal voting process, and since it was introduced through an act of disobedience.
Faithful Catholics like myself either look the other way, try to educate others, or simply avoid a Mass that allows Communion in the hand. Today, I have taken the last option and attend only the Tridentine Mass, or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, codified by Pope Pius V in 1570. There is nothing in the rubrics that will allow Communion in the hand, it is the most ancient form of the Mass in existence, having been instituted over 1,500 years ago. Myself, and others pray for the day the Church fully returns to Her traditional practices and Communion in the hand is nothing more than a bad footnote in Church history, and an extinct one at that!
~ John Andrew Dorsey
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