Common cup II: intinction and infections

LsIn response to my last post on fears that shaking hands and sharing a common communion cup just might increase the chances of infection during flu season, reader Garrett Brown pointed us to an article by Anne LaGrange Loving, a professor of microbiology.

Loving shares the results of two studies that she conducted. The first pitted the process of intinction — in which the wafer or bread is dipped into wine and distributed to parishioners — against the more pedestrian process of people lining up and taking sips out of the same cup.

The one time I visited an Orthodox church, intinction was the mode of communion. The priest dumped a bunch of bread squares into a big chalice of wine and fished them out with a ladle to place them on people’s tongues. But I digress.

The intinction study found what one would might expect — that this variation on the common cup transmits less bacteria rather than no bacteria. Loving explains that as a member of a church "where many members use intinction, I was able to observe that the fingers of the parishioners and ministers often dip into the wine during the process of intinction," so she had a good idea of what she would find in advance.

But Loving was curious about the rates of infection for those who drink out of a common cup vs. those who don’t, and so she conducted another test. Here the results should cause some brows to furrow. The results of a ten-week survey of 681 people revealed essentially no difference in reported illness between those two groups. Those who supped from the chalice weekly or even daily were no more likely to get sick than those who got drunk the night before and slept in Sunday morning.

Now, it is entirely possible that Loving’s methodology was flawed. At a glance, I’d say that different groups might have reasons to report that they felt "sick" at varying rates. While the survey data may be useful, I would place a lot more trust in it if they had taken weekly throat cultures or similar, more objective, markers.

Still, the piece is well worth the price of admission. We learn about the various strategies by Christians who share a common cup to minimize the risk of infection, including using wine with higher alcohol content, coming up with crazy compartmentalization schemes, or (for the priests) wiping down the chalice with linen that’s been soaked in vodka.

There’s also an interesting inference from Renaissance art that I’ll leave you with:

Alternatives to the common cup have evolved over the 2,000 years of Christianity. Leonardo DaVinci’s "The Lord’s Supper" depicts the disciples with separate cups of wine, indicating that this practice may have been customary during his lifetime.

[A footnote: Yeah, I know what you're thinking. I thought that Loving's name practically screamed hoax but it turns out she's legit -- I think. There really is a Felician College, and one "Ann Loving" is listed as a professor emeritus in the directory. The journal that the article is said to have appeared in really does exist, though the archives do not go back as far as this particular issue. Same goes for the Journal of Environmental Health.]

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  • Maureen

    Re: inferring separate cups of wine in Leonardo’s lifetime from their presence in “The Last Supper”

    It was the Last _Supper_. IIRC, it was painted for a refectory — aka the monks’ dining hall. It depicts a _meal_ at which the Mass was instituted, not a typical Mass.

    And at the time, what was _typical_ was receiving Communion only once or twice a year (unless you were a priest) and only a host, not from the cup at all (unless you were the priest/s celebrating the Mass).


    Now, I’m not a canon lawyer nor do I play one on the Internet; but it seems to me that something like what the art lady “infers” would either be a violation of canon law or require some kind of documentation saying it was okay. The canon lawyers would have this kind of info. So why the heck would a scholar just _speculate_ on such a matter instead of looking for real evidence — before opening her mouth in a national publication? Mindboggling.

  • Maureen

    Oh, wait. She’s not an art or history lady; she’s a microbiology lady. This puts her under the rule about not listening too hard to a scholar talking outside their own area of expertise.

    Still, it kills me that people criticize the Catholic Church one minute for being a 2000-year-old bureaucracy, and then forget the next minute that a bureaucracy _keeps records_. Renaissance Italy isn’t the dawn of prehistory; you can find out what people were doing back then.

  • andrea

    I’m a little concerned about your closing footnote. You really need to meet (and make friends with!) your local librarian.

    Loving, Anne LaGrange and Wolf, Lisa F. “The effects of receiving Holy Communion on health.” Journal of Environmental Health 60 (July-August 1997): 6-10.

    Loving, Anne LaGrange. “A controlled study on intinction: a safer alternative method for receiving Holy Communion.” Journal of Environmental Health 58 (July-August 1995): 24-28.

  • Kraft

    Just a note on intinction. When done correctly in the Catholic Church, only a priest can dip the host into the chalice and communicate someone. Lay Eucharistic Ministers and members of the faithful at large are forbidden from carrying out the intinction themselves. Not that it makes a huge difference, but nonetheless.

  • John Granger

    “Hunks of bread”? “Ladle”? I confess to shuddering at Mr. Lott’s language when discussing the Mystery of Communion in the Orthodox Church. Would he be as cavalier in discussing or describing the prostitute with the heart of gold? The work of an abortionist? I confess to having my doubts. Really, this worldly posture and smugness reflects badly on a site I respect. If Mr. Lott does not respect and shows something like disdain for the contranatural events of traditional worship, what can he expect those who “don’t get it” to do when writing about believers, their beliefs, and their practices?

  • Pontificator

    On the health issues posed by the common cup, I refer to my blog article “Coodies in the Cup?”

    If anything, the practice of intinction, particularly as practiced in the Episcopal Church, where the communicant self-dips, should have us worried!