Clarification of My Nuanced Position on Hand-Communion

Clarification of My Nuanced Position on Hand-Communion March 13, 2020

From a Facebook discussion, dated 7-8-13, initially about an earlier version of my paper, Holy Communion in the Hand (Norm till 500-900 AD). Words of Fr. John Abberton will be in blue, and Benjamin Baxter’s in green.

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The facts of the matter of early practice are undeniable, but it’s how they are interpreted in light of the present debate which is interesting. Lots of legalism and emotionalism in equal measure . . . I’m clearly being objective about it because I practice and prefer one method but refuse to run down (and actually defend to a large extent) the other, in terms of intrinsic inferiority, which is nonexistent.

The real and key difference runs through each human heart: reverent and pious and worshipful or not? Posture and demeanor (either method) will reflect and exhibit that. I can spot an irreverent person a mile away . . .

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The problem about “early Church” arguments in favour of certain practices is that it does not adequately deal with the question of development. Pope Paul VI warned against the attitude of seeking the “primitive” observance precisely because it leaves out the action of the Holy Spirit over time. if I remember correctly Pope Paul specifically warned against the arguments of those who say, “When Jesus was at the Last Supper…” etc. There were historical and cultural reasons for receiving on the tongue but this does not mean that the development was wrong or that we need to return to something earlier. There is actually no proof that returning to earlier practices is correct and there is every reason, when looking at the liturgy, to argue that, for the most part, developments have been good. Of course, there HAVE been problems following Vatican 11 which cannot be blamed on the documents but on erroneous or one-sided interpretations.

Fr. John,

I agree generally with your point about development (though I think liturgical development is different in kind from doctrinal, since there can be variability in a way that doesn’t apply to dogmas and doctrines). My own perspective (to clarify) is not:

“The early Church did it; therefore it is the best way and we should / must do the same.”

Rather, it is:

“The fact that reception in this manner was the norm far and wide and for centuries in the early Church is compelling proof that communion in the hand is not intrinsically irreverent and cannot be otherwise.”

I argue for preference in this time and place and culture (kneeling / on the tongue, from the priest), but I don’t argue for intrinsic superiority of same. And the early Church’s practice is a major reason why I don’t. It’s a classic case of where being aware of history has a real and important impact on a particular debate.

I also stress interior disposition, which is oftentimes lost in these discussions, by making posture the be-all and end-all. I don’ think so. It is the attitude and approach in our hearts, and our faith. Jesus applied that to all of faith in the Sermon on the Mount and it was usually the underlying theme in his denunciations of the Pharisees: “you clean the outside of the cup, but . . .,” etc.

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I’m not arguing for communion in the hand per se (it’s not my own practice, after all). My argument is that any approach that holds that communion in the hand is intrinsically irreverent is misguided and should be discontinued. Legitimate arguments advocating communion on the tongue can be made on various other grounds (I make them, myself), but this is not one of the ways that it should be done, in my humble opinion.

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People sometimes distort my argument (not the first time, believe me, and far from the last!), including this one: which has many subtleties and nuances. My position is that kneeling is more reverent, generally speaking, in this time and place. It may not be everywhere, and indeed, in Eastern Catholicism as a whole, it is not at all. But in the Latin rite, since we kneel at consecration, for example, it is clearly regarded as a particularly reverent posture.

Thus, I argue for it being more reverent in this culture at the present time (in the Latin, western rite), while carefully avoiding any fallacious argument from intrinsic superiority. It’s culturally relative to some extent (as many things are). The (almost sole) purpose of this post was to knock out the argument that communion in the hand is inherently irreverent: also to provide historical background that many (especially reactionaries and some legitimate traditionalists) appear to be unaware of.

The theological liberals were clearly pushing communion in the hand. They clearly thought it is more in line with their less-than-stellar eucharistic views. The fact that it was pushed in Germany and Holland is almost in itself proof that this is the case. :-) Germany in theological terms is sort of like Nazareth in the Bible: “can anything good come out of Germany?!” :-) Well, Pope Benedict did, but he was an extraordinary exception to the rule . . .

In any event, it doesn’t follow that everyone must think the same as theological liberals do (that receiving in the hand somehow waters down the Real Presence). We must studiously avoid mere guilt-by-association arguments, too.

So, Dave, would your position be more adequately expressed that reception in the hand is not intrinsically irreverent but extrinsically irreverent?

I think it is relatively less reverent in our culture and at this time: but only in a very broad sense, as a generalization. It has (here and now in America) less of what we might call a “conditioned reverence” than kneeling does.

In any event, I still hearken back to interior disposition and what is in one’s heart. That’s ultimately where it’s at, and trumps all else.

Does communion on the tongue facilitate a higher degree of conditioned reverence and allow for a better state of interior disposition?

I think it depends on person and place, as I keep saying. These blanket statements are too simplistic. I think the stuff you are citing probably presupposes cultural conditions, too. Certainly no one can say that the entire early Church was irreverent about Holy Communion.

There is a very good reason why the early Church did not have this practice. The early Church did not think of it at first, and later their attachment to their own traditions prevented much change from existing praxis.

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Photo credit: from the article, “John Paul II and Mother Theresa on Communion in the Hand” (Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, Pray Tell, 2-28-18)
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