Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Redemptionis Sacramentum clearly mentions that the one who receives Communion has a right to receive the host on the tongue or in the hand. This right cannot be denied to him by the priest or even by a bishop. During this pandemic in many parishes, the priests have denied Communion on the tongue, and they insist that people receive only in the hand. I came across many circulars from bishops of different dioceses saying that Communion will be distributed only in the hand. I also came across videos stating that bishops cannot suspend this right [to receive on the tongue], but only Pope can do this. Has the Pope suspended this right for the faithful during this pandemic? — M.L., Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India
A: The text to which our reader refers is the following:
“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 recognition of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her. However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.”
It is understandable that a Catholic whose lifelong practice has been to receive Communion on the tongue could find it extremely difficult to accept a bishop’s mandate to only receive in the hand.
However, the question posed is whether such a mandate exceeds the bishop’s authority, and we must address this question with clarity.
First, an overarching principle regarding the bishop’s authority over the liturgy is that he should not forbid what is permitted nor permit what is forbidden. There might be some punctual exceptions to this principle based on the bishop’s general authority to dispense from universal and particular disciplinary laws not reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law, 87).
With respect to the liturgy, the Code of Canon Law also states:
“Canon 838. §1 — The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop….
“§ 4 Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all.”
This general principle is also found in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, the same document cited by our reader:
“21. It pertains to the diocesan Bishop, then, ‘within the limits of his competence, to set forth liturgical norms in his Diocese, by which all are bound.’ Still, the Bishop must take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted in an intelligent manner to the Church building, or to the group of the faithful who are present, or to particular pastoral circumstances in such a way that the universal sacred rite is truly accommodated to human understanding.”
Now, general laws such as the above instruction are formulated for normal circumstances, and it is clear that a bishop does not have the authority to limit the faithful’s right to receive Communion on the tongue in common pastoral circumstances.
It is not so clear, however, that the bishop does not have the authority to limit Communion on the tongue as a temporary emergency measure that seeks to avoid the spread of a pandemic and reduce the risk of infection.
The current year has seen individual bishops and episcopal conferences take even more drastic action. All over the world, we have seen the cancellation of all public Masses for several months, and this is still a reality in some countries. In others, the number of faithful who can attend Mass is limited and only by observing strict health protocols.
Attendance at Sunday Mass is a higher law than that regarding the manner of receiving Communion. Thus, if there is no doubt regarding a bishop’s authority to dispense his flock from this solemn obligation, I think it certainly falls within his province to temporarily suspend a general law such as the right to receive Communion on the tongue for the sake of the common good in an emergency.
There would be no need for a special papal indult, as the situation is covered by general canonical principles and practice in analogous cases such as in 2009.
I also believe it is necessary to defer to the bishop’s prudential judgment in reaching a decision. Since most bishops are not doctors of medicine, they would usually consult with experts and with public health authorities regarding appropriate actions to take in the face of objective risk.
Nor should we believe that these are easy or superficial decisions. Some of the bishops who have mandated Communion in the hand during the pandemic are ardent promoters and defenders of Communion on the tongue as the general practice. In some countries, it has been mandated even where Communion on the tongue is the general custom.
That said, I also believe that priests can freely respond pastorally to individual needs. For example, if a particular member of the faithful is very distressed at the prospect of Communion in the hand, a priest could privately administer Communion on the tongue after Mass, while taking all necessary precautions in the area of hygiene.
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