Cardinal Sarah has once again stirred up the progressive wing of the Church by summoning the Catholic faithful to return to receiving Holy Communion on the tongue and kneeling. In the preface of a new book, the prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship explains the irreverent manner in which so many Catholics today receive the Holy Eucharist is “sowing errors” and causing “Jesus to suffer for those who Profane Him.” Cardinal Sarah, for his part, offers the faithful models to follow in Saint Pope John Paul II and Saint Theresa of Calcutta regarding the proper reverence due to the most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Obviously the troubles with this flippant act are legion, as the Cardinal lays out in his forward, but what strikes me particularly involves the history of receiving the Eucharist on the hand. Not only was the practice mostly foreign to the faithful throughout Church history, but the discussion only seems to appear in relation to heretical strains of Christian communities attempting to subvert the Church. The Arians of the third century and the Protestant reformers both found the impious practice as a useful tool in their arsenals to undermine magisterial authority.
Communion in The Hand and the Reformation
The former Dominican Monk turned fire and brimstone Calvinist, Martin Bucer, could see a clear line from the laity receiving the Blessed Sacrament in their hand and achieving his goal of dividing the Church. In a scathing letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had initially affirmed the proper reception of the Eucharist on the tongue, he wrote:
As, therefore, every superstition of the Roman Antichrist is to be detested, and the simplicity of Christ, and the Apostles, and the ancient Churches, is to be recalled, I should wish that pastors and teachers of the people should be commanded that each is faithfully to teach the people that it is superstitious and wicked to think that the hands of those who truly believe in Christ are less pure than their mouths; or that the hands of the ministers are holier than the hands of the laity; so that it would be wicked, or less fitting, as was formerly wrongly believed by the ordinary folk, for the laity to receive these sacraments in the hand: and therefore that the indications of this wicked belief be removed—as that the ministers may handle the sacraments, but not allow the laity to do so, and instead put the sacraments into the mouth—which is not only foreign to what was instituted by the Lord but offensive to human reason.
A Child of Vatican II
As I have written in the past, I was raised in a household which left the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council unquestioned. My father was from a broken home, loosely Baptist, and sought out the Church in his early twenties–a decade after the revolutionary reforms. I was raised in a family that was faithfully Catholic in weekly practice, but void of any serious formation outside of my small parish. In every sincere metric regarding the Catholic faith, I am what they call an autodidact–self taught–and learning to properly receive the Eucharist is no different.
The change for me was as simple as aligning what I was told to believe about the Eucharist, from Christ onward, to what I had observed as a huge problem with reception on the hand. I would invariably find small fragments of the Host on my palm no matter how meticulously I tried to handle it. The logical conclusion was, if I take Transubstantiation seriously, then I must align my actions with my beliefs. Naturally this small change in approach, for me, found the ultimate fulfillment of a properly sacred attitude in the Tridentine Mass.
The Protestantization of Catholicism
Next regarding the profanity of the Blessed Sacrament, the problem has been what seemed so well understood to the Protestant revolutionaries five hundred years ago. That is, lackadaisical habits lead to apathetic attitudes, and from there the whole question of authority unravels. Belief is only partially what happens in the minds of practitioners, but just as well in the rituals that grow from their practice. My first parish priest was an old German who led the Mass in vernacular, but ended nearly every one with benediction. My next parish priest often referred to the “symbolism” of the Eucharist. The process of impiety does not necessarily happen overnight, but through attrition.
The connection between the reformation and the “modernization” of Catholicism should not be understated. Much of the effort to “translate church practice for the modern world” was just doublespeak for casting the liturgy in the image of Protestantism. This message is precisely what the anthropologist Mary Douglas maintained in her book Natural Symbols. Human behavior and belief is tightly connected to ritual, good or bad, therefore to loosen it in our practices is to loosen the very appeals to authority and tradition that bind them together. Cardinal Sarah is well aware of this connection, and has righteously spoken out against the preeminent symbol of a decadent Western church. But I would maintain his opponents are just as well aware of the impact of loosening ritual to the laity. The stakes are high which is why they are so emphatic in their vitriol against the Prophet of our time.