Communion in the hand was introduced by open disobedience in the 1960s—a story told in detail by Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise in his eye-opening book Holy Communion: Documents and History, summarized in a number of places online (e.g., by Fr. Richard Heilman in an article at NLM). Its beginning was therefore hardly auspicious, and Paul VI, in typical fashion, surrended to the rebel camp while repeating that he reaffirmed tradition and intended to change nothing.
Nevertheless, in the dark days of the late sixties and early seventies, Communion in the hand was only ever “permitted,” never required. The fact that many poor children were instructed to receive in the hand for their First Communion meant, in practice, a widespread evaporation of the older custom, but the Vatican continued to state in official documents that the traditional manner was normative and could always be chosen by the faithful. Thus, even where the norm became rare, it was always “on the books” as the norm—and Catholics were slowly but surely rediscovering it thanks to the good example of Benedict XVI at the Vatican and the spread of the traditional Latin Mass, governed by its own preconciliar rubrics.
What we are seeing today is the first time bishops are attempting to outlaw the traditional manner of receiving Our Lord and to mandate the novelty—not only in the Novus Ordo but, it seems, in the traditional Mass as well. The difference between Paul VI’s tergiversating cowardice and the steely determination of the Novus Ordo Saeclorum is well worth pondering. The breezy invocation of Canon 223 to override the rights of the faithful to receive sacraments is symptomatic of a new hyperepiscopal authoritarianism, modeled after that of Pope Francis. It is as if bishops have collectively grown spines not to stand up to overreaching secular governments but to reanimate the iconoclasm ad intra that had sputtered out during Ratzinger’s pontificate.
And if you think this arrangement is “merely temporary, until the pandemic passes,” you are incredibly naive.
First, our civil and ecclesiastical overlords will extend and perpetuate this “crisis” as long as they can—for years, if possible, and maybe forever, as soon as the “experts” declare that the world is full of so many evil viruses and bacteria that we will never be “safe” again.
Second, the point of all this monkeying with rubrics and canonical rights is not to keep people safe, since there is no compelling evidence that we cannot do communion on the tongue safely, or that hands are more hygienic. The point is to break people’s spirits, to make them violators of the sacred, to shatter the spiritual sensitivity that rightly causes laity who believe in the Real Presence to hesitate to take the host into their own hands as the ordained priest does and feed themselves.
Whether the bishops doing this are aware of it (some, certainly, come across as clueless enough not to be), or whether it is only their underworldly overlords who are aware of it, the COVID liturgical claptrap and rigamarole is a powerful engine of disenchantment, meant to stop, once and for all, Benedict XVI’s program of liturgical reenchantment. Yes, he dreamed the impossible dream of reconciling Catholic tradition and the postconciliar reform, but in the realm of action he unleashed a powerful momentum of recovery and restoration. This was getting to be too successful, especially among the younger clergy and faithful; it had to be stopped.
Someone might say: “You are blowing all this out of proportion. The regulations on communion are no more than a practical necessity in a difficult situation. It has none of the meanings you’re attributing to it, and will pass quickly.”
In the liturgy, nothing is merely practical or utilitarian; everything is symbolic. If clergy process solemnly or casually, that is symbolic. If they wear an elaborate vestment or a plain polyester one, that is symbolic. If they speak in an ancient hieratic tongue or a modern vernacular, that is symbolic. If they face eastwards with the people or face westwards over against the people, that is symbolic. If we are singing medieval plainchant or a folksy refrain from the ‘70s, that is symbolic. In fact, if there could be an event that was designed to be nothing but practical and utilitarian, that, in itself, would be symbolic. Human beings, as rational animals, are not just tool users but symbol users. It cannot be otherwise. When we act ceremonially, we signify who we are, who we believe God to be, and how we construe the relationship.
Thus, communion in the hand for one standing, and communion on the tongue for one kneeling, are obviously and profoundly different symbols. It doesn’t matter whether a bishop who is mandating the first and forbidding the second thinks it isn’t, or doesn’t care whether it is. It still is. “E pur si muove… and still it moves.” It moves the senses, the mind, and the heart. And we are moved, either towards greater faith, reverence, devotion, and adoration, or away from them. That is why what is happening is not a trivial matter, a simple temporary “expedient.” Nothing in the liturgy is trivial, and nothing should be reduced to expediency, which is not a spiritual or religious value.
JOIN THE CRUSADE!
Michael J. Matt kicks off Bishop Athanasius Schneider's July 2020 "International Eucharistic Reparation Crusade"
These communion regulations are habituating a generation of clergy and faithful in a form of obedience detached from truth, obedience in service of desacralization, obedience without fidelity to tradition or law. It is an organized antinomianism and a deconstructive mechanization poised against the liberating strictness of traditional worship and its intuitive language of ritual action.
Permission for communion in the hand was occasioned by a first wave of disobedience in the 1960s. The regulations of 2020—by moving from permission to an obligation with no end in sight—represent a second wave of disobedience to well-established Catholic tradition and canon law. Those who comply with these regulations enter into a double inheritance of disobedience and lose their opportunity to be the “martyrs” or witnesses from whose sacrifice a future truly blessed by God can arise. The least we can do is to forswear any agreement or complicity with these regulations, offering up our “Eucharistic fast” in a spirit of reparation for our own sins and for all sins committed against the Most Blessed Sacrament. May God have mercy on our souls.