ASK FATHER: Can bishops or priests forbid Communion on the tongue?

From a reader…


Please help me to understand something about Communion on the hand.  As I’m understanding it, people can receive Communion on the hand if they want to but also on the tongue if they want that and the priest or EMHC isn’t supposed to force them one way or another.  Then COVID came along and people were being forced to receive only on the hand.  Maybe a virus pandemic is a good reason to restrict our rights. I don’t know.  I know there are arguments that Communion on the tongue is actually safer than on the hand.  In normal times can a bishop force priests to give Communion only on the hand?  Can a priest force that on his parish?   I know several priests who have been hammered by their bishop because in homilies they expressed their preferences for Communion on the tongue (over on the hand) even though they never denied anyone to receive on the hand.

There are several issues here.

Firstly, this applies to the Novus Ordo.  It is not permitted to give Communion in the hand when using the Usus Antiquior.

Next, no one is compelled to receive Communion at a given Mass.  You must receive once a year, according to the law.

Next, Communion in (or on) the hand is permitted – by an indult – in those places where it has been approved by the bishop.   NB: Communion in the hand is an exception to the norm.  The normative way of distribution is on the tongue.

Be clear about the equivocal use of “norm”.

“Norm” can be descriptive or prescriptive.   For example, in the sentence, “Weird behaviors among the Jesuits seems now to be the norm.”  Sorry about that, you good guys who drop me notes.  You also know what I mean.   In this case, we use “norm” to describe a prevailing behavior which isn’t necessarily mandated.  Or else, “Billy is above the norm when it comes to the other altar boys, since he knows not only all the Latin prayers, but all the rubrics, too.”  In this case, “norm” describes the average.   However, we also have in the 1st Book of the 1983 Code of Canon Law the Latin Church’s “General Norms”.  Here, a “norm” is pretty much synonymous with “laws” or “canon”.  A “canon” is “a standard, a measure, a rule”.   Think of how “rule” also means “law”, but can also just be a way of expressing what the general state is.   Hence, I like to make a distinction about “norm” as descriptive or prescriptive, depending on the context.

So, in one way, descriptively, it is the “norm” that people receive Communion on the hand.  Why?  Because that’s what most people do these days.  However, in another way, prescriptively, it is the “norm” that people receive Communion on the tongue because that is what the Church’s true law, “norm” establishes.

An indult is a permission granted for an exception from a particular norm (prescriptive sense) in certain circumstances.

In the case of Communion in the hand, the indult was originally a grant to make licit an abuse – the abuse was Communion in the hand – that hadn’t been suppressed successfully in specific places.

Where it was granted there was to be special catechesis against Communion in the hand (the abuse).  However, the Congregation in Rome started giving the indult to any bishops conference that asked!  The abuse turned into the common practice (norm, descriptive sense).

Moreover, in Paul VI’s 1969 Instruction Memoriale Domini, Latin for “Let’s Let The Cat Out Of The Bag”, we read about the conditions for the granting of the indult:


The condition is the complete avoidance of any cause for the faithful to be shocked and any danger of irreverence toward the Eucharist. The following norms must, therefore, be respected.

“1. The new manner of giving communion must not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional practice.


Reading that 1969 document is a little shocking.  What spectacular naiveté!  The overweening anthropocentrism that drove much of the Council was strongly in play, perhaps more than ever.

Think about this.  In some places the abuse of Communion on the hand was underway. So, someone in the Roman brain trust thought it would be a good idea to make the abuse licit through an indult so as to get rid of the abuse.

Let that sink in.

That’s like giving a hundred dollar bill and a new razor blade to a cocaine addict and then telling him that cocaine is bad.  That’s like telling Johnny not to swing his baseball bat in the living room ’cause he will break a lamp and then giving him a golf club.  That’s like telling criminals in New York City that they will be released without bail.

It all stems from that pervasive naïve optimism about the nature of fallen man that guided much of the Church’s doings from the 60’s onwards.  It fueled the anthropocentric drive of some of the Council’s documents, such as Gaudium et spes.  Example: remove the obligation to do X because, gee, it’s better if people do it willingly rather than out of a sense of duty.   That sure worked for Friday penance, Eucharistic fasting, Sunday Mass attendance, raising children in the Faith, etc. etc. etc.

I digress.

It was evident from the onset that Communion in the hand was diminishing reverence and increasing sacrilege.

In 1973 another Instruction was issued, Immensae caritatis, which addressed what Memoriale had.  It reminded about reverence and care for the Eucharist.

Then again in 1980 John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Domincae cenae:

[C]ases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist. It also happens, on occasion, that the free choice of those who prefer to continue the practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is not taken into account in those places where the distribution of Communion in the hand has been authorized.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in describing the manner of distribution, actually makes a statement about “appropriate reverence” and says that the whole Host has to be consumed.

The more often laws are repeated, the clearer it is that they are not working.

In 1999 a dubium was sent to Rome about Communion (Notitiae 35 (1999): 160–161) (my translation)

Q: Whether in dioceses where distributing Communion in the hands of the faithful is allowed, it is permitted to a priest or to extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to restrict communicants with the obligation that they receive the Holy only in the hands, but not upon the tongue.

R. Certainly it is clear from the documents of the Holy See themselves that in dioceses, where the Eucharistic bread is put into the hands of the faithful, nevertheless the right for them to receive on the tongue remains undiminished. Therefore, they act against the norms who either restrict communicants with the obligation to receive Holy Communion only on the hands or who refuse to the faithful to receive Communion in the hand in dioceses which enjoy this indult. Attention being paid to the norms concerning the distribution of Holy Communion, ordinary and extraordinary ministers should take care in a particular way that the host is consumed immediately by the faithful, in such a way that no one leaves with the Eucharistic species in his hand. However, let all remember that the centuries-long tradition is to receive the host on the tongue. Let the priest celebrant, if there is a danger of sacrilege, not give the faithful Communion in the hand, and let him inform them about this way of proceeding.

This response is cited in the 2002 Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which defends the right of the faithful to receive Communion on the tongue and tells ministers not to distribute on the hand if there is danger of sacrilege.  (There is always greater danger of sacrilege with Communion on the hand.)

Note the language, above: restrict with an obligation.

Use your phone’s camera

In working out how to apply the Church’s laws, we apply the interpretive principle that laws which place restrictions or obligations must be interpreted as strictly as possible.  That is, they must be interpreted narrowly so as to protect people from undue obligations.   On the other hand, laws which grant favorable things to people must be interpreted as generously as possible, so as to expand what people can do licitly.  Odia restringi et favores convenit ampliari. 

As to the restriction of the faithful with the obligation to receive on the hand – exactly what we read about above and in Redemptionis – because of COVID-1984, there was a bizzare circular letter from the CDW in August 2020 which said that in “times of difficulty (e.g., wars, pandemics) Bishops and Episcopal Conference can give provisional norms”.

Contrary to everything the Holy See has ever promulgated, suddenly – during COVID-1984 Theater – a bishop could oblige people to receive on the hand, thus restricting their right to receive according to the norm!

And just what is a “time of difficulty”?   Right now there is problem of employment, businesses are having a difficult time hiring.  It’s a time of difficulty. NO COMMUNION ON THE TONGUE… PROVISIONALLY!   Right now, inflation driving prices up makes the times difficult.  Provisionally we have to stop Communion on the tongue until the numbers change.  And why, may I ask, would time of war require restriction of Communion on the tongue?   It’s as if someone with his head screwed on in the right direction managed to put that “war” thing in there just to show people how weird the letter is.  Figure this out. An indult to suspend a condition for the granting of that older indult which made an abuse licit so as to help to end the abuse that led to the indult in the first place.

A “circular” letter indeed.  More like a Mobius strip letter.  The topside is the downside.

Note that, back when, Paul VI said that an indult could be given to conferences, regions of dioceses.  At the same time, just because the indult was given to a conference, a region, that didn’t oblige the individual bishops to implement the indult.  Individual bishops could choose not to make use of the indult.

This is made clear in the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship’s 1969 Letter to presidents of bishops conferences En réponse à la demande (Notitiae 5 (1969) 351-353):

“The Pope grants that throughout the territory of your conference, each bishop may, according to his prudent judgment and conscience, authorize in his diocese the introduction of the new rite for giving communion. The condition is the complete avoidance of any cause for the faithful to be shocked and any danger of irreverence toward the Eucharist.”

Of course years of Communion in the hand – along with the sloppy ars celebrandi of priests, hideous music, crummy architecture and ugly vestments – has, in fact, “shocked” the faithful into numbness and irreverence toward the Eucharist.


It is pretty clear that, pace the weird CDW letter, where common sense prevails people cannot be denied Communion on the tongue because Communion on the tongue is the true norm.

Odia restringi et favores convenit ampliari took a provisional vacation, I guess.

Furthermore, if a priest is called on the carpet for expressing a preference for the norm then something is upside down, particularly if he doesn’t deny people reception on the hand in the Novus Ordo.

Let a priest express his preference for Communion on the tongue, so long as he is accurate about the law and well-grounded in theology.   If another priest or the bishop himself has a contrary view, let them express their views.  People can decide which side is the most persuasive.

Could it be fear that drives the bullying of people into receiving on the hand?  After all, there are a lot of good reasons, and a great track record, for Communion on the tongue and rather few good reasons for reception on the hand.   Mustn’t let the people in on both sides of the issue!  Sheesh!  They might make an informed choice!

So long as there is an indult, and the bishop upholds the indult, then people must not (at the Novus Ordo) be denied Communion on the hand (i.e., restricted by an obligation to receive on the hand).  They also must not be denied Communion on the tongue.

Let them hear what Father has to say about it and then let them make up their own minds, rather than infantalize them through a condescending positivism based on a personal preference.

And may I just add that a diocesan bishop in a conference which received the indult could decide to end Communion in the hand in the diocese entrusted to his care.  If he were determined to decreased the danger of sacrilege and increase reverence for the Eucharist with a campaign of catechesis and particular laws, he would be entirely within the bounds of his authority to end Communion in the hand.

Of course libs would throw a spittle-flecked nutty.  There would ensue a storm of outrage and indignation and all manner of cant about “rights” and “turning back the clock”.  I’d wager that that bishop would even be called a “racist” and a “homophobe”.  The Rome of today would hurl lightning at that courageous bishop and probably figure out a way to sack him by Fiat, and I don’t mean the car.

Just as bishops can bully and torture priests in a thousand ways, so too Rome can bishops.

It comes down to power.  It comes down to courage.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. OzReader says:

    Some weeks ago where I am presently attending Mass, ‘Fr. Visitor’ denied me Holy Communion on the tongue (a voice inside told me he might present some problem).

    Meanwhile, the Diocesan Bishop administered Communion to several individuals on the tongue as I had been waiting in line. Who knows what the official stance is in this Diocese, but all the clergy that regularly minister there seem to take no issue with the practice whatsoever.

    Up to this point I had thought the Church accepted either reception method as completely valid. Still picking myself up off the floor at the thought of receiving in the hand being an abuse that was never suppressed properly. Wow.

  2. Philliesgirl says:

    When COVID stuck the UK the Bishops conference declared that Communion was ONLY to be distributed in the hand. My bishop, however, pointed out that no one could be banned from receiving on the tongue. My own parish priest was happy to give me Communion on the tongue, only asking that I came up last (so no one threw a hissy fit about being forced to receive Communion after that awful woman had received on the tongue!). There was even an occasion last summer when the bishop said Mass at my church and gave me Communion on the tongue. We were a lucky diocese, some bishops threatened to suspend or worse priests who dared to distribute on the tongue. Now things have eased the Bishops conference has lifted the ban but I think some bishops are still forbidding it in their dioceses. It’s sad to note though that in my parish where it was perfectly possible to receive on the tongue there were about six people who always used to receive on the tongue who now receive in the hand. I doubt very much that they’ll ever go back unless of course a miracle happens and Communion in the hand is totally banned. What a wonderful day that would be!

  3. JSzczuka says:

    I attend a diocesan TLM. First, let me say, I love my priests. They are hard working and dedicated and offer a TLM 7 days a week. Each week there are also 7 NO masses, 4 during the week and 3 weekend masses. We are in a diocese that has long allowed communion in the hand in the NO and of late strongly encouraged it. It has been the “norm”. My priests have never denied communion on the tongue at the NO, even during covid, but will also distribute on the hand at the TLM if someone puts out their hand. It bothers me to see this, but I suspect they might come under fire in this very liberal diocese (one of the 67 signers of that letter to delay the discussion) if someone complained of being denied.
    I used to never see this, but I see more post covid: 1 or 2 persons or groups per Sunday mass. And I’m not watching everyone. None at the daily masses.

  4. ProfKwasniewski says:

    Thank you, Father, for this excellent post on a most vexing and yet terribly important question!

    Readers may find additional helpful quotes and arguments here:

  5. Steve L. says:

    What bearing does canon 223§2 have on this discussion? Cf. GS 75 / DH 7

    Or the 2009 Protocol from the CDF (655/09/L) during the H1N1 concern?

    Or the apparently contrary 2020 response to Bishop Stika?

    I wrote on this topic for an intro to canon law class (before the 2020 response) and was persuaded in researching and writing the paper that bishops had the authority. But I concluded thusly:

    In the Church, laws “which restrict the free exercise of rights” require a “strict interpretation.” (c. 18). This would seem to apply both to c. 223§2 and any local law based upon it. But there is also a higher law, a certain generosity of spirit to which a Christian is called in the bonds of communio. On the placement of obligations before rights in the 1983 CIC, one interpretation stands out: “Widespread voluntary acceptance of obligations is a real test of social health, an
    infallible sign of the respect of each member of a community for his fellows […].
    If we are sincerely pro-human rights […] we will love and fulfill our obligations no less [than our rights] – for that is to love the rights of others.” (Cormac Burke, Authority and Freedom In the Church, 16) This suggests that the permissions given to ecclesiastical authority in c. 223§2 often might
    be more profitably engaged via a route other than legislation.

  6. APX says:

    Yesterday was the first day in 16 months that our Latin Mass Community was allowed to receive communion again after the covid ban of communion on the tongue.

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    From Things my wife wishes they had covered in RCIA, by Dr. Randall B. Smith
    April 24, 2021

    Summary: Because my wife—an adult convert to the Catholic Faith—knew nothing about the Church, every new thing has provoked wonder or befuddlement, or both.

    The article begins:

    I am an adult convert to Catholicism, as is my wife. She entered the Church after we were married and knew even less about Catholicism than I did when I entered, which wasn’t much.

    Because she knew nothing about the Church, every new thing has provoked wonder or befuddlement, or both. So, for example, when we started going to Mass together, we settled on a beautiful Church where the congregation received communion at a lovely altar rail. She had been to churches where people stood in line and received communion like a mechanical assembly line, so one day, after getting her blessing at the altar rail, she sat back down next to me in the pew and whispered, “That altar rail thing is a good idea. They should tell other churches about that.”

  8. comedyeye says:

    My bishop honored Redemptionis Sacramentum but strongly encouraged people to receive in the hand. A couple of parishes denied folks on the tongue and they were reported. I would like to give a shout out to a bishop in a neighboring diocese,
    Bishop Paul Bradley, who made 2020 a Year of the Eucharist for his flock, helping to encourage and increase reverence and piety towards the Blessed Sacrament.

  9. Littlemore says:

    Philliesgirl writes….
    My own parish priest was happy to give me Communion on the tongue, only asking that I came up last (so no one threw a hissy fit about being forced to receive Communion after that awful woman had received on the tongue!)

    One thing that confuses me, when we had pre-Covid times, people were against receiving on the tongue for hygiene reasons, so would receive on the hand, but these communicants then would receive happily from the Chalice, which by its’ very nature was not the best hygiene practice.
    I have just learnt recently that on the chalice there is some mark on the base,so that the priest always receives from the same edge thereby not leaving any of the Precious Blood during ablutions on the Chalice rim.

  10. Not says:

    In some Eastern Churches communion is given with the body of Christ (bread), dipped into the blood of Christ (wine), on a spoon. The spoon is purified along with the chalice and patten. I find that all the covid hysteria pushing for communion in the hand a removing holy water an affront to the power of God. How can the body and blood of Christ and holy water ever hurt you?

  11. Christ_opher1 says:

    Thank you Father for writing this article.

    We are in France and have only ever taught our two children of 7 and 9 years old to receive communion kneeling and in the mouth. However, the masses that we have attended since the first lockdown in France have only offered communion in the hand, which indicates the powerful effect of Covid19 + fear. When we have approached the priests and a retired Bishop about receiving communion in the mouth, they have been open to giving us communion in the mouth either at the end of the communion procession or after the mass and so the impression that I have is that maybe it is necessary to ask the priests if this is possible for them.

    The negative effect of communion in the hand has been seeing communion fall on the floor at least three times and strangely enough last Sunday during the mass the Curate of the parish had to run after a woman that went to communion.

    A really good piece of news. I recently saw a mass at Lourdes on Lourdes.TV and at the grotto we have seen every sort of mass that lacks any form of reverence. However, a few weeks back a visiting priest celebrated the mass ad-orientum and set up the altar in the way that it should be done. The most beautiful moment was at communion because the congregation were kneeling along the altar step and the good Father walked across right to left, left to right distributing communion with the utmost reverence into their mouths. I hope that this is a green shoot of how everything will revert back to how the mass should be celebrated.

  12. Hb says:

    As usual, great analysis Father.

    What a crazy world we live in.

    At the TLM there was never a question during covid. The only people who put out their hands readily complied and stuck out their tongue as they were visitors from the English Mass and didn’t know better.

    But at the Novus Ordo parish I repeatedly announced from the pulpit they had the option of receiving either way and that no one could forbid receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.

    At the Masses I did not have the pastor and deacons forbade Holy Communion on the tongue and refused Communion to anyone who tried.

    Then they went to the “special station” where the deacon washed his hands after every Communion – then to the back of the bus where anyone receiving in the tongue had to go last.

    Just Crazy.

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  14. bobbird says:

    In March 2003 I attended a Mass in St. Peter’s Square where four new Blesseds & Saints were being announced. Pope JP II was in attendance. I took a seat inside the security barriers and when HC time came, some priests were sent to our area with the ciboria.

    Ahead of me in line were some people whom they attempted to refuse HC when they knelt. I had no idea who they were or what language they or the priests spoke, but I said in English and Italian, “We have the right to receive HC in the kneeling position and on the tongue.” They looked at me in a startled way because they were challenged, and immediately relented. Sometimes that is all that is needed.

    A priest, however liberal, might face some sort of uncomfortable inquisition from his superior, even if that superior was in agreement. He might have been told, “We don’t refuse communion even to prochoice politicians, so you ought not to have done this. It will make it harder for me next time Biden, Murkowski, Kerry & Pelosi show up.”

    My son was recently refused in Fla by a visiting liberal Franciscan (I once thought that was a contradiction in terms), and he would not receive on the hand. He did not confront him, but got up and returned to the pew. Maybe he should have said he was a prochoice Catholic politician?

  15. TonyO says:

    Now that the UK bishops have re-captured the Friday abstinence from meat rule, and the US bishops have at least put that issue on the table for discussion, can we PLEASE re-visit the decisions to go with permitting communion in hand (CiH)?

    Contrary to the Nouvelle Theologie claims, there never was any good, (or even decent, or even half-decent) reasons to permit CiH in general. And now, with 50 years of data of the nonsense (and worse, much worse) to bolster the arguments from principle, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that CiH is a terrible idea. So, this should be adequate reason for the bishops to re-consider their (ill-considered) move to allow it in their dioceses (and Conference).

    As an aside: what the Vatican SHOULD have done, in 1969, was take the names of all the bishops asking for CiH permission, and (a) resolve never to promote any priest out of those dioceses to the bishopric, and (b) get those bishops out of there as soon as could happen without revolution. A bishop asking Rome for CiH “because it’s happening in the parishes” was tantamount to the bishop saying, first “I don’t actually believe in the Real Presence”, and secondly “I have no clue how to enforce rules in my diocese”, both of which were adequate reasons to remove a bishop. The Vatican supinely accepting the de facto revolt and giving in to it was worse than merely stupid (though it surely was that).

    One point I would like to see cleared up: there are claims that contrary to the wide-spread ASSUMPTION that CiH is better at not spreading germs, “actually, communion on the tongue is at least as good if not better” at not spreading germs. As far as I am AWARE (and that qualifier is significant), that claim is based only on practical guesstimates of what is PROBABLY happening, and nobody has actually attempted to scientifically test the actual reality by experimental observation under practical conditions. You know, with actual measurements of the rate and amount of germ spreading under each method. As a service to the Church, can some bishop (or the USCCB) actually pay for such a study, so we can establish it on a scientific basis? Please? My own (utterly non-scientific, WAG) is that the rate of germ transmission is driven at LEAST 60% (perhaps more) by the technical expertise of the priest, deacon, or EMHC, and because priests and deacons do it far, far more, they get more practice and “practice makes perfect” regardless of which method is used. This could be a reason to ditch EMHCs during times of epidemic!!!!!

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