In the time since David’s crossover piece (read HERE) and my initial post on the Eucharist, I have been approached on a number of occasions by a handful of readers who have expressed interest in knowing more about the dichotomy between the two allowed forms of receiving communion. These conversations have taken several forms: inquiry, suspicion and even concern. In response to these conversations, I feel it is worth examining the document the Church used to grant the allowance of the form of reception we are most accustomed to seeing—reception in the hand. The document itself is only four pages long plus a citations page. The document in its entirety can be read HERE. For the time-conscious, I wish to offer the abridged version and highlights. My hope is that you find this post persuasive for Church tradition, and if nothing else, informative of what is still a current event in Church history relatively speaking.
WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY
The document Memoriale Domini (Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion) was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship from the Vatican on May 29, 1969 at the behest of Pope Paul VI. Literally translated Memoriale Domini reads “the memorial of the Lord.” This title is taken as an excerpt from the first sentence of the document, as is customary of church documents. The document was issued in response to a worldwide poll of Latin-rite bishops regarding the potential for the adoption of communion in the hand as an allowable Catholic practice. The occasion for such a poll seems to be two-fold. The formal reason being that a small number of bishop’s conferences and individual bishops had asked for permission that such a practice be allowed into Catholic devotion. The informal reason being “in certain communities and in certain places this practice has been introduced without prior approval having been requested of the Holy See…” According to the Magisterium, communion in the hand began as a liturgical abuse.
The results of the poll were non-controversial with the worldwide collective of bishops overwhelmingly rejecting various proposals that would allow communion in the hand. The document summarizes the poll with these words, “from the returns it is clear that the vast majority of bishops believe that at the present discipline should not be changed, and that if it were, the change would be offensive to the sentiments and the spiritual culture of these bishops and of many of the faithful.”
Despite the results of the poll and ruling of the document that the reception of communion (on the tongue) should not change, a very narrow allowance was made. “Where contrary usage, that of placing holy communion on the hand, prevails, the Holy See…lays on those conferences [of bishops] the task of weighing carefully whatever special circumstances may exist there, taking care to avoid any risk of lack of respect or false opinions with regard to the Blessed Sacrament and to avoid any other ill effects that may follow.” The document goes on to say that the Vatican grants that—in places where the liturgical abuse had already become prominent and under specific circumstances—the practice may be allowed. Chiefly among these circumstances was that sufficient catechesis be provided to ensure belief in the Real Presence was not compromised.
THE CONGREGATION FOR DIVINE WORSHIP ON COMMUNION IN THE HAND
The document itself is not silent on the use and implications of communion in the hand. “A change in a matter of such a moment, based on the most ancient and venerable tradition, does not merely affect discipline. It 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.”
Likewise the Congregation is not silent on the preference for communion on the tongue:
“This method of distributing holy communion [on the tongue] must be retained…not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist.”
“Further, the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity.”
It is apparent from the very document that allows communion in the hand that the Church was skeptical about such an allowance. The Magisterium of Pope Paul VI was of the impression that such a transition would very rarely be a prudentially wise decision and that it could have far reaching consequences. Likewise, the document reasserts the primacy which should be given to the traditional form of reception of communion due to its time tested ability to more adequately express the faith and reverence. Almost fifty years of data overwhelmingly support the fear expressed in this often neglected document. As discussed in my previous post on Eucharistic piety, the overwhelming number of Catholics in the Latin-rite Church no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
To those who have come to me with your questions and concerns, I hope gaining a historical insight into this issue has been helpful. From this document we understand that the Church does not think the new norm is objectively wrong. She does however hold the new norm is not objectively good either. The almost prophetic voice of Memoriale Domini cautions, the new form is vulnerable to bad theology and time certainly seems to support this warning. In contrast, the traditional form is presented as a safe guard to all these non-desirable outcomes. Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica teaches that while the external ritual is subordinate to the internal disposition, the external is not inconsequential and provides the tangible experience to which man encounters his faith. In a time when so many Catholics, in the words of Saint Paul, eat and drink without discerning the body (1 Cor 11:29); perhaps we should no longer dismiss the external as inconsequential and heed the warnings of Memoriale Domini.