Priests have spoken of a “crisis of conscience” as bishops in England and Wales issue differing guidelines on the reception of Holy Communion.
The bishops’ conference recommends that Communion only be received in the hand, but individual bishops have the authority to make policy for their dioceses, and have adopted varying guidelines. A spokesperson for the bishops’ conference told the Tablet: “Bishops are strongly recommended to adopt the guidance but bishops have the right to act as they see fit in their own diocese and to accept the consequences of their actions.”
Clergy across the country have continued distributing Communion on the tongue where the faithful request it. But in some dioceses the practice has been forbidden, and several priests in various dioceses, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Catholic Herald that Communion guidelines had put them in “an impossible position” and caused a “crisis of conscience”.
Dioceses around the world have taken different stances, based on differing advice from public health experts.
A document issued by the Thomistic Institute, whose co-authors and contributors included several medical practitioners and professors, said that “some believe Communion on the tongue involves an elevated and, in the light of all the circumstances, an unreasonable risk; others disagree”. The authors concluded that with precautions, including sanitizing the hands after each communicant who receives on the tongue, “it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk”.
Neither the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, nor individual bishops, have published medical advice on the respective risks of the two methods.
In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, stating that “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice.”
The document referenced the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 161 which, in the edition for England and Wales, states that the communicant “receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed, in the hand, the choice lying with the communicant.”
Clergy fear they could be reported to their bishops even if nearly all parishioners are content with priests administering Communion on the tongue.
Last week, Church Militant claimed that Bishop Patrick McKinney of Nottingham had threatened to punish priests with suspension if they disobeyed the guidelines, leading to priests saying they were terrified of being reported to the bishop.
One anonymous priest was quoted as saying the guidelines created a “Stalinist state of intimidation and terror”.
Bishop McKinney told the Catholic Herald that he “wish[ed] to make it very clear that I have done no such thing.”
“Indeed many priests of the diocese have been in touch to express how upset and angry they are that such a false claim has been made against me,” he said. “I have no idea why ‘Church Militant’ would make such a claim.”
“Like other bishops of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, I have followed the government guidance concerning the safe distribution of Holy Communion during this time of the coronavirus, namely that Holy Communion is to be given hand to hand only and that social distancing is to be maintained with people moving into this space. As bishop in this diocese, I want to do everything possible to ensure that everyone involved, those who receive the precious gift of Our Lord in Holy Communion and those who distribute Holy Communion, may do so as safely as is possible during this time.
“Furthermore, because I was sensitive to the fact that some Catholics in the diocese might well be upset that, following government advice, they couldn’t receive on the tongue at this time, I wrote to all priests asking them to emphasise to parishioners ‘that this is only a necessary, temporary, emergency measure and that, as soon as it is possible, we will revert back to our usual canonical practice of offering people the choice of receiving Holy Communion either on the tongue or the hand.'”
Meanwhile, a priest in Oxford, Fr John Saward, declined to distribute Communion at Mass because, he said, the guidelines of the Archdiocese of Birmingham “make it difficult to receive Our Lord with reverence”.
Fr Saward is now in “fraternal dialogue” with the diocese after a single complaint from someone who was not physically present at the Mass. The parish, along with several others, has now suspended livestreaming.