ASK FATHER: Can a bishop forbid Communion on the tongue during an epidemic?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

Can a bishop lawfully ban the faithful from receiving Holy Communion on the tongue in the midst of a flu outbreak or for some other reason?

This sounds to me like overkill… perhaps even hysteria.

I think a bishop can not do this, since reception on the tongue is the normative means of receiving Holy Communion.

He could encourage reception in the hand for sanitary reasons.  Of course you could make a counter-argument that our hands are by far the more likely the culprit in spreading of diseases.

Wanna get creeped out?

Were there a major epidemic, or SHFT-level TEOTWAWKI pandemic – HEY! We are due… wayyyy past due! – I could see encouraging people to make spiritual Communions, especially if the bishops and priests are themselves infected.

That said, in the current environment, were this to happen, were a bishop to issue such a decree, and were someone appeal to Rome against this decree, I can’t say what sort of response they would get, if they got one at all.

Remember: You are not obliged to go to Communion at every Mass.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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37 Responses to ASK FATHER: Can a bishop forbid Communion on the tongue during an epidemic?

  1. Muv says:

    Very glad you have raised this, Fr. Z. A few years ago when media-hype was aflame with imminent worldwide death by nasty virus our local bishop issued a letter to all parishes saying no communion on the tongue, far too many beastly germs about, and the Health Authorities advise against it. Can’t remember the exact wording, but I ignored it, and made sure I was last in the queue so no one could say I didn’t care about the person after me.

  2. jacobi says:

    Father,

    I like your reminder that we are not obliged to go to Holy Communion at every Mass. The Sacrifice of the Mass is not a Protestant communion service and we are obliged, only, to receive “at Easter or thereabouts”.

    Personally, I think the well intended exhortation of St Pius X has had unfortunate consequences. It was intended, for good Catholics, or those who would achieve that state, and not for nominal or tribal Catholics.

    Incidentally, I think a bishop would be well advised to urge congregations not to receive from the chalice during times of infection. That is surely a much more efficient means of transmission than hands?

  3. mcferran says:

    In 2003 in response to the SARS epidemic the Archbishop of Toronto issued several temporary rules which prohibited the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue, the reception of the Precious Blood by the lay faithful, and shaking hands as a means of sharing the Sign of Peace. When the SARS epidemic concluded, the rules were removed. The long-term effect has been that many people now just nod as a means of sharing the Sign of Peace.

  4. Servus Tuus says:

    In the Diocese of San Jose in California, Bishop Patrick McGrath has twice now instituted “temporary adaptations” to the reception of Holy Communion during flu season, including right now. The precious blood is not distributed and communion “will only be distributed on the hand.” He also asks us to NOT hold hands during the Our Father. (Why? We shouldn’t be doing that anyway.)

    Regardless, when he instituted this last year I did send a question to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. The reply was something to the effect of “this Congregation does foresee the necessity of such adaptations,” meaning a bishop does have the faculty to prohibit communion directly on the tongue. The response also clearly stated that one should obey their ordinary, which of course I do.

    Perhaps I will post the letter if I can find it.

  5. DisturbedMary says:

    mcferran, Good thing it is the Sign of Peace. I could be remembering wrong, but I think it used to be the Kiss of Peace — but that was before we actually made physical contact.

  6. Fr AJ says:

    A few years ago one bad flu season our Bishop forbade receiving from the chalice and strongly recommended against (but did not ban) receiving on the tongue, he also banned shaking hands at the Sign of Peace.

  7. Jerome Vincent says:

    Thanks, Father. Makes sense.

    … my college friends and I look back rather fondly on the brief swine flu era a while back, when the university’s Powers That Be suspended both the sign of peace and their obsession with distributing the Precious Blood at every Mass, for disease-control reasons. Kinda nice while it lasted.

  8. APX says:

    Up in Edmonton the bishop has forbidden COTT, so the EF people are making spiritual communions.

    This year the bishop of Calgary hasn’t implemented any restrictions. Though, in 2009 after the Calgary fiasco, Rome issued a letter indicating that COTT couldn’t be suppressed.

  9. pelerin says:

    Interesting comments re the powers of the bishops. For a long time now I had hoped that one day they would stop the hand shaking at the Kiss of Peace. However I have had to rethink this since my parish priest/pastor let us know that one of his parishioners told him that the contact at this time was the only human contact he had each week and he welcomed it. But please, I do appeal to those who like shaking hands at this time, do be gentle. Firm handshakes can be very painful for those with arthritis and I do wish another form of greeting could be suggested by the bishops.

  10. New Sister says:

    Then there is Saint Therese, who warns against the “wiles of satan” who would have us “deprive Jesus of a loving tabernacle”, by our not receiving Holy Communion.
    [attributed to a Canon Travert, at http://www.infanciaespiritual.info/Doctor%20Mystical.htm

    " ...Msgr. de Teil, vice-postulator of the cause of the Saint, had shown the Holy Father [Pius X] a letter written by the young Carmelite to her cousin Marie Guerin, who was allowing scruples to keep her away from Holy Communion. Here Saint Therese warns…against the wiles of Satan “who seeks to deprive Jesus of a loved tabernacle, well knowing that he will then have won the victory over this poor heart, empty without its Lord.”
    The reaction of Pope Pius X to this letter is described in the following passage: “‘Opportunissimo! Opportunissimo!’ he exclaimed on reading the opening lines; then, addressing Msgr. de Teil, ‘This is a great joy to me, we must use all speed in dealing with this process.’”….”

  11. Elizium23 says:

    The pastor of my visiting parish, during the swine flu pandemic or whatever it was, a good several years ago in the US, abolished the Sign of Peace entirely during every Mass at that parish. It has never come back. It is also interesting to note that 100% of the assembly disobediently exchanges signs of peace just before the Agnus Dei.

  12. Wiktor says:

    Ah, the Sign of Peace handshaking. It’s so hard to avoid it. And unthinkable to reject it once a hand is extended in your direction.
    And the alternative, the nodding, feels silly when it takes the form of randomly shaking your head in various directions, towards everyone and no one in particular.
    So I don’t nod my head. And I initiate handshaking only when standing near someone I know.

    But for the past year I attended mostly EF masses. Problem solved.

  13. midwestmom says:

    If a priest or EMHC learns how to give communion on the tongue without touching their fingers to the recipient’s lips, teeth or tongue, is the spread of disease likely?

  14. Uxixu says:

    One of the few times I would think either EMHC and/or in hand should be allowed. Still supervised and ideally protected with a paten.

    I am reminded that the other day at daily Mass Father did accidently slip and it was a great thing that paten was there. Deo Gratias.

  15. discipulus says:

    Our bishop in 2009 during the swine flu outbreak would not allow Communion on the tongue at the local EF on one Sunday mass. Communion was not distributed at mass that day. Thanks be to God though, it was resolved within a week, and Communion was distributed at mass again the next Sunday.

  16. Uxixu says:

    Speaking of the Sign of Peace, the EF parish by my work has a bunch of sick and/or recovering priests (whom I’m praying for), so we had a visiting priest filling in for the daily OF, who you could tell wasn’t used to Ad Orientem (altar is on the wall so he has no choice) since he was forgetting to turn around for most of the Dominus Vobiscum or for the Ecce Agnus Dei. The regular priests always skip the sign of peace for the congregation (which I understand is optional) but he did it and noone moved (probably a bit surprised like I was). Father never knew, though since he never turned around.

  17. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    If I met someone who told me he or she was preferred to refuse to receive the Lord in the Eucharist during an epidemic simply because they couldn’t receive on the tongue (if the only available mode was in the hand), I wouldn’t reply aloud so as not to be rude, but I would come away from the conversation unable to help wondering whether that person was aware that they were idolizing their own preferred method of receiving Our Lord instead of worshipping Our Lord.

  18. Geoffrey says:

    My parish has stopped offering the Precious Blood to the faithful and has asked everyone to “consider receiving in the hand”, so at least it is not a blanket prohibition of receiving on the tongue.

  19. Iacobus M says:

    During the H1N1 panic a few years back our diocese asked us not to shake hands, stopped offering the cup, and strongly encouraged receiving in the hand . . . except at the EF Mass, of course, because there the rubrics don’t allow for anything other than reception on the tongue. One would never have known anything out of the ordinary was going on outside. Can’t recall hearing that the Latin Mass attendees got any sicker than anyone else . . .
    -Iacobus M.
    vitafamiliariscatholica@blogspot.com

  20. Norah says:

    How many Greek Orthodox Catholics have gone down with Swine Flu etc because they receive Holy Communion from a spoon into their mouths. As far as I am aware, all receive from the same spoon.

  21. Nan says:

    @Norah, surely you mean Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox? The liturgy is nearly the same (pesky filioque!) but the affiliation differs. Yes, all receive from the same spoon but father has excellent aim and the laity present like baby birds; head tipped back and mouth open so communion is received without the spoon touching anyone.

  22. Gratias says:

    Drinking from a common cup of wine is where the infection chance lies. I always skip it. Intinction as practiced by our Pope Francis is a safe substitute which as a wonderful bonus guarantees reception on the tongue. Should the bishops know how important it is for catholic culture to receive kneeling they would allow it. Unfortunately this is not possible in the vast majority of American Ordinary Masses.

  23. Phil_NL says:

    Isn’t the real question if the bishop can order that the faithful do not receive communion at all for the duration of the epidemic?

    For starters, neither reception on the tongue nor in the hand can guarantee that there will be no spread of disease. That requires also that father has a steady, practiced hand. Not all our priests have that, contact does occasionally take place, especially if father has early parkison, to name an example. If a bishop wants to prevent headlines like “Catholic Parish decimated by bug” specifying the manner of reception will only go so far. Not receiving would be far safer.

    Now it seems to me a priest can indeed say that there will be no communion of the faithful during his Mass. Can the bishop require this from all his priests?

    (Ignoring of course the obvious elephant in the room, that if you have a bug around that is so communicable and nssty that any physical contact puts one in great peril, Mass attendance will be down substantially, and at some point the civil authorities will simply ban meetings of more than 5 people to help contain the spread)

  24. Norah says:

    Hi Nan, I have no idea how Greek Catholics receive Holy Communion but my husband who is Greek Orthodox told me that at times the spoon does touch parts of the mouth.

  25. Sonshine135 says:

    I thought the same as Father on this one. Sounds like a good reason to receive at the rail to me. Cut out the EMHC and let the Priest/ Deacon distribute. How do I know that my own hands are clean enough, especially after touching hymnals, pews, and door handles that were touched by others?

  26. Unwilling says:

    Fr. Z comments “having a same-sex attraction”…”is a deviation from God’s design”.
    [exactly "but it is a deviation..."]

    I would have thought that such perverse longings are, like all other kinds of concupiscence and temptations, permitted to try us, within God’s Providential design. Fr Z?

  27. Fr. W says:

    When I give out Holy Communion on the tongue, only RARELY is contact made with the person’s tongue. When I give out in the hand, my fingers touch EVERY SINGLE HAND that comes forward. This would mean, that if one person in the congregation has H1N1 flu, and has sneezed into his hand, the most likely way it is spread is by Communion in the hand.

  28. Sixupman says:

    Is there any record at all of an epidemic being originated or spread by receipt of Communion on the tongue?

  29. acricketchirps says:

    I can’t for the life of me think how communion on the tongue is any more risky than communion in the hand. Is there really a need for a no licking Father’s hand rule? There should definitely be a no EMHCs rule during an epidemic — and these days EMHC are epidemic.

  30. eulogos says:

    Norah and Nan, I belong to a “Greek Catholic” (Ruthenian in this case) parish. Priests used to giving communion on the spoon can tip the wine soaked Eucharistic bread onto one’s tongue without touching the mouth at all. People who are taller than the priest bend their knees as they receive, so that their mouths are lower than the priest’s hands, to make this easier for him. Even the small children learn not to close their mouths on the spoon. ( As for the “pesky filioque” Greek Catholics do not say it; about ten years ago they were given permission from Rome not to, as Rome’s official intention for them is to regain their full Eastern liturgical, spiritual and theological inheritance.)

    When I don’t get up in time to go to my Ruthenian parish I attend the EF mass, and I have noted that those priests never touch our tongues. I think the kneeling posture helps with that. When I receive on the tongue standing at an NO mass, the priest (or if I can’t avoid it, the EMHC) often does touch my mouth a bit. But then, they usually touch one’s hands giving communion in the hand, and contrary to popular belief, hands are just as or more likely to make you sick.

    I think the “no communion on the tongue because of flu” thing is silly, frankly. But if I were in a diocese where such silliness reigned, I would receive my Lord on my hands with reverence rather than be without Him. Not everyone needs to make the same choice about this as I would, though.
    Of course the Eastern rites will continue to recieve on the spoon no matter what, because that is how we receive and what else would you do? Just as prior to the new mass, Latin rite Catholics received on the tongue even during epidemics, because “that is how we receive, what else would we do?” I think we should stick with that attitude and forget trying to play at epidemiology.
    Susan Peterson

  31. Rich says:

    This is the second year in a row that my bishop has issued a directive for the faithful to receive Communion in the hand during the flu season. My wife refused to receive in the hand once last year, and it was interesting to see the reaction of the deacon administering Holy Communion when she refused to stick out her hands when he initially told her that we are only receiving in the hand. For a second, he denied her Holy Communion, and administered Holy Communion to someone else. Then, I think he thought the better of it and turned back to my wife to administer Holy Communion to her on the tongue. The deacon is one whom I am sure would shudder to think of denying Communion to anyone for any reason, and he had just for a second denied my wife Communion for wanting to receive on her tongue. Such situations put an interesting light on legitimate cases for denying Holy Communion, and those which are not so legitimate.

  32. frjim4321 says:

    I would never deny communion on the tongue even though I’m not a fan … nor would I deny the person who occasionally insists on kneeling. Mainly because I just know it would end up downtown and I really don’t want to go through all that.

    With respect to the kneeling person, occasionally my lower back pain is genuinely so bad that I truly might not be able to lean over, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, if we ever do.

  33. Fr. Jim,

    I concur. The last place to enforce ritual or ad hoc regulations about the reception of Communion is the Communion line or rail. I serve occasionally a diocese (mentioned above) where Communion on the tongue was forbidden this year for health reasons. Fine, but if someone presents themselves to receive on the tongue, I just do it, and not just under this circumstance, but at any time. Vice versa, when at an EF form Mass someone puts out their hand, often standing, I just give them communion using the Ordinary Form formula. I face that case every so often as I celebrate the Dominican Rite publicly two to three times a week. Rules have a place, but so does common sense when no infraction of faith or morals is involved. If catechesis is needed, I would do it outside the context of the rite.

    And I do hope that your first kneeler is not very short! I find that most people’s mouths are just about the height of my hand, no back bending involved. Now those over 6″ 3″ or so who want to receive on the tongue, well that really takes skill in aiming above my head.

  34. Alice says:

    As the mother of a child who will never be able to put his hands in the correct position to receive Communion in the hand, I really hope a bishop can’t forbid Communion on the tongue because then my son will be given the choice of not receiving or getting refused as an uncatechized kid due to his disability. *sigh*

  35. celpar says:

    When there was a panic about some disease or other, can’t even remember what, in the UK a few years ago, our parish priest announced that we could only receive communion in the hand and the chalice was not offered for the duration. He remarked that ‘your hand is just as good as your tongue’.
    It didn’t directly affect me at the time as I still received in the hand – have since mended my ways-, but I remember thinking that it was odd he didn’t ban the sign of peace, to prevent us receiving the Host in a hand which had just been grasped by several sweaty and possibly bacteria-laden hands…

  36. acricketchirps says:

    I think I get it. So if you’re worried about being denied Communion on the tongue just say to the Priest or UEMHC, “It’s okay, I’m gay.”