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Catholic Culture Solidarity

What does ‘always’ mean? A reflection on the rights of the faithful

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 04, 2020

The Vatican instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (92) states that “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue.”

Always, except for sometimes. In Alabama, for instance:

Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Alabama, has warned his priests that they are not allowed to celebrate public Masses if they want to distribute Holy Communion on the tongue.

So the Catholics of Mobile retain the theoretical right to receive Communion on the tongue, but if any priest honors that right, he’ll be suspended from public ministry.

Which still leaves the Catholics of Mobile one step ahead of those in Italy, where the country’s bishops have reached an agreement with the government on the means of distributing Communion, requiring reception in the hand. Read that last sentence again. The Italian bishops have quietly accepted the authority of the secular government to set standards for the reception of Communion.

There are three questions to raise here. The first is whether the extraordinary measures that are being taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus are necessary and/or effective. On that question I am not qualified to make a judgment (although I strongly suspect that the answer is No). Nor are most bishops, priests, and politicians—save the few who may happen to have some background in epidemiology and public health. In fact, since qualified public-health officials have changed their minds repeatedly about which measures are appropriate, I wonder whether anyone has a reliable answer.

The second question is whether the Catholic Church can accept the imposition of these extraordinary measures without sacrificing the dignity of the Sacred Liturgy and—where the measures are imposed by secular government—the freedom of the Church. Edward Pentin addresses the first part of the question here. The second part answers itself. If the government can regulate the celebration of Mass, the Church is not free.

The third question is whether the Church hierarchy honors the rights of the faithful. Just as the coronavirus epidemic did not annul the US Constitution, so too it did not erase the Code of Canon Law. If the faithful “always” have the right to receive Communion on the tongue, then bishops cannot unapologetically deny them that right. But they did, and they do.

For that matter the same Vatican instruction (91) proclaims: “Hence any baptized Catholic who is not prevented by law must be admitted to Holy Communion.” During the past few months millions of Catholics all around the world have been barred from receiving Communion in any manner: on the tongue or in the hand.

Was this prudent and necessary? Maybe it was, but I doubt it.

Was it licit, by the standards of the Church’s own Code of Canon Law? Maybe it was, but I doubt it.

Was it explained to the lay faithful, in terms that they could understand, why they could not enjoy their rights? Absolutely not. Apparently no one has felt it necessary.

When mayors and governors have issued special regulations during the epidemic, they have invoked the provisions of emergency legislation. But few bishops have bothered to invoke a canonical justification for special restrictions. There is no question that a bishop has the authority to regulate the administration of the sacraments in his diocese. But does he have the authority to stop the administration of the sacraments? I know of no bishop who has imposed an interdict; I know of no bishop who has explained the legal basis for the restrictions.

As Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis has the authority to change canon law. He could have invoked—or even newly created—some authority giving bishops the right to impose restrictions on the sacraments. But he didn’t—even though he obviously approved of (or, at a minimum, accepted) the restrictions that bishops had put in place.

So faithful lay Catholics are left to wonder: If the bishops can shut down the administration of the sacraments, what else can they do? If we object, what recourse do we have?

If you worry about the deleterious effects of clericalism on the life of the Church, answer those questions.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 12, 2020 8:50 PM ET USA

    The bishops have now submitted to secular authority in changing when and how the liturgy and sacraments are administered. It’ll be interesting to see how long secular authority waits to present new demands for submission on other matters, such as the content of homilies.

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Jun. 08, 2020 10:04 AM ET USA

    In support of Phil's article, the USCCB's Guidelines on Sacraments and Pastoral Care (April 28, 2020) allow for Communion on the tongue: "It is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk." This is a weakly stated approval. Communion on the tongue is actually still the norm, per Redemptionis and other documents. Reception by hand was never officially approved for the U.S.

  • Posted by: roseofsharon - Jun. 06, 2020 12:28 PM ET USA

    Mr.Lawler writes, “There is no question that a bishop has the authority to regulate the administration of the sacraments in his diocese.” Yes, but HOW the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is received is the right of the one receiving the fruit of the Sacrifice. Receiving on the tongue has been the mandated method of the Church for over a thousand years. The option of receiving on the hand was forced upon the laity in 1977. No bishop can prevent a faithful Catholic from receiving on the tongue.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jun. 05, 2020 11:49 AM ET USA

    We are in an age episcopal antinomianism. They do what they like, starting at the top. The structures in the Vatican that should be protecting the rights of the faithful have been dismantled or rendered impotent. We are on our own.

  • Posted by: FrHughM - Jun. 05, 2020 3:36 AM ET USA

    And this seems akin to the tragic widespread failure to apply the severe penalties attached to clerical abuse of minors by Canon 2359 Sec. 2 before 1983 and Canon 1359 Sec. 2 after 1983.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 04, 2020 6:23 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the questions. I would add that none of the listed limitations should have the appearance of being permanent, as they do at the moment. Also, there is still no evidence whether the COVID virus survives in human digestive system. It is important because if it doesn't survive, then Holy Communion on the tongue might actually be the safer way of reception.