Benedict XVI and Communion in the Hand: Put Aside Your Illusions

"Not opposed in principle."

EVER SINCE the post-Vatican II revolution began, the liturgical change that faithful Catholics regarded as most horrifying was communion in the hand. It overthrew everything — everything — we had been taught to believe about the ineffable holiness of the Real Presence and the sacred character of the priesthood.

The 16th-century Protestant heretics who abolished communion on the tongue and introduced communion in the hand were well aware of the doctrines the old practice represented, and changed the mode of receiving communion precisely in order to overthrow these teachings.

So too, during and after Vatican II. The modernist heretics great and small (and I knew many in the latter category) who promoted errors such as transfinalization, transignification, a “transient” presence of Christ in the Eucharist, assembly theology or a “lay” priesthood inevitably also advocated communion in the hand. Denying Catholic dogmas on the Real Presence and the priesthood went together with the new ritual practice — which said “Nothing special here; just plain old bread.”

Many who now advocate more traditional liturgical practices have looked upon Benedict XVI as a sympathetic ally who seeks to restore tradition in Catholic worship. Hence, the permission given for the old Mass, the reappearance of old-style vestments at St. Peter’s, the encouragement given to worthy sacred music, etc.

Since the reception of communion on the tongue logically would seem to be part of this package, and since Benedict XVI was rumored to be opposed to communion in the hand, many were shocked to see pictures of him personally distributing communion in the hand, most recently, to the Queen of Spain.

Various explanations were offered in the pro-Benedict traditionalist camp: the poor pope had been pressured into the practice, he did not want to cause scandal (!) by refusing someone communion, pastoral prudence motivated him, etc., etc. Few, it seems, wanted to put aside the image of Benedict as the Great-but-Patient-Restorer-of-Catholic-Liturgical-Tradition

One need speculate no longer about possible explanations. In an interview just published as a book (Light of the World), Benedict XVI says:

I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself.

So there we have it in Benedict’s own words: he  believes that there is nothing wrong in itself with communion in the hand.

But if there is no principle to oppose, why the widely-publicized business of communicants in St. Peter’s being made to kneel and receive on the tongue?

The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of Mass events we hold at Saint Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir.

The return to the traditional practice was, in other words, merely a practical expediency to forestall the incidental, by-the-way, regrettable problems of superficiality and souvenir hunting.

In this context, where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive Communion — everyone else is going up, so I will, too—I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear:  Something quite special is going on here! He is here, the  One before whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention!

This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to.

A question of "context."

In the foregoing passage and those which preceded it, we find more of the convolution so typical of modernist theological discourse. A few bones are thrown towards Catholics who hunger for tradition and the old dogmas (thus: “underscoring the Real Presence,” “something special,” “not just some social ritual”), while the larger and more fundamental issue at stake is rendered completely relative (“in this context,” “danger” of superficiality).

We have seen this before in Ratztinger/Benedict’s pronouncements on the liturgy. He comes out in favor of some traditional practice: the old Mass, facing “east” for the Eucharistic prayer, more Latin, traditional vestments, high-quality music, etc. Beleaguered conservatives and traditionalists rejoice: the restoration has begun!

But upon closer examination, one quickly discovers that Ratzinger/Benedict’s starting point for arriving at these conclusions is often located in another theological universe: e.g., attractive “sacrality,” culture, sensibilities, the Teilhardian cosmos, richness. (See Work of Human Hands, 5–6,  170–72)

This should come as no surprise, because the young Josef Ratzinger was himself formed in the mid-20th century modernist theological universe that rejected the methods and principles of Thomist (i.e. Catholic) theology.

So the traditional tone of Benedict’s practical conclusions should not divert us from the poisonous principles behind them. The modernist George Tyrrell (1861–1909), after all, was likewise a great fan of the Latin High Mass, “with all its suggestion of mystery, faith and reverence.” (Through Scylla and Charybdis, 34)

Courtesy of Benedict XVI, conservatives and advocates of officially-sanctioned celebrations of the old Mass are thus left without a fixed theological principle upon which to hang their opposition to communion in the hand. It’s all “context” now — the Holy Father says so!

As for sending what Benedict called “a clear signal,” ever since the advent of the Protestant and Modernist heresies on the nature of the Eucharist, the signal communion in the hand has sent is very clear indeed: I repudiate the dogma of transubstantiation.

So too, the signal Benedict XVI’s recent statement should send to conservatives: It is time to put aside your illusions.

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