When the bishops in the State of Minnesota decided to open their churches without accepting the state’s restrictions on public worship, concerned Catholics rejoiced at this defense of the rights of the Church against government interference. The action of the Minnesota bishops followed the example of former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who had called attention to similar interference by the Italian government with the Church’s authority, in violation of the Lateran Treaty.
While these recent developments in Church-State relations remind us of the proper role of the Church in society, there has been a parallel development within the Church herself, concerning the Church’s laws regarding the reception of Holy Communion during the coronavirus pandemic.
Among theologians and canonists, the question has recently been raised whether bishops, in the emergency brought about by the coronavirus, can suspend the right of the faithful to receive Communion on the tongue, on the assumption that this traditional manner of receiving Communion is more likely to spread the disease. This medical assumption has been challenged by Filippo Maria Boscia, President of the Association of Catholic Doctors in Italy. The manner in which the assumption is made overlooks fundamental principles regarding the Church’s liturgical legislation and its application. For the question is not whether a right can be temporarily suspended for the common good, but whether a law can be suspended on the basis of certain medical assumptions.
The distinction between a law and a right is interpreted in different ways by moral philosophers and theologians, but the common teaching is that a right is derived from a law, whether it be divine law or human law, ecclesiastical or civil. The law of the Church is that the universal norm for receiving Holy Communion is on the tongue, not in the hand. There is a right to receive Communion on the tongue derived from the universal laws of the Church, but there is no right to receive Communion in the hand. The laws of the Church regarding this were systematically analyzed and documented by Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise in his book Holy Communion.
After the current legislation was established, what subsequently occurred was that the laws promulgated by the Holy See were applied by many Episcopal Conferences in ways that were not consistent with the laws themselves. When this matter came up in Argentina in the 1990s, Bishop Laise consulted with the Holy See to verify the results of his own investigation. And he was assured by the Roman congregations that he was perfectly justified – not only on his own initiative but also with that of the priests of his diocese – to continue the exclusive practice of Communion on the tongue in his diocese, in spite of a decision of the Argentine Episcopal Conference to introduce the practice of Communion in the hand.
In his book Bishop Laise took these conclusions to their ultimate consequences. Not only was his own decision in conformity with the universal laws of the Church, but also the decisions of Episcopal Conferences to introduce a widespread practice of Communion in the hand were in violation of those laws. Bishop Laise’s courage in defending the Church’s legislation prompted the warm and respectful praise for him from Bishop Athanasius Schneider, in the preface he wrote for the Italian edition, now reproduced in translation in the American edition.
An ecclesiastical law can be temporarily suspended in a case of emergency. The assumption has been made that such is the case with the reception of Communion during the coronavirus pandemic, but at times this is done without an examination of the medical evidence. The universal Church established the practice of Communion on the tongue as the norm, and did this for a number of reasons. Since Communion in the hand was only introduced by ignoring these reasons, subsequent epidemics even before the coronavirus have provided occasions for trying to justify the violation of the Church’s universal laws, in the context of a contrary custom that was not in conformity with those laws, but which an effort is being made to legitimize by using the current pandemic.
The recent decision of the Minnesota bishops provides an example of the proper exercise of episcopal authority in another related context. Archbishop Viganò has pointed out that the national Episcopal Conferences have no authority to impose on individual bishops a policy of closing churches. The decision of the Minnesota bishops illustrates the fact that it is individual bishops, either by themselves or in groups, who interpret and apply the Church’s laws, and not national Episcopal Conferences when these go beyond the limits of their juridical authority. Episcopal Conferences did not have authority to make Communion in the hand a law, nor does that practice as a contrary custom legitimize the temporary suppression of Communion on the tongue, especially when medical assumptions for preventing disease through Communion in the hand are contradicted by the medical facts.
The current pandemic is clearly a crisis that Divine Providence has allowed in order to show how the Church is divinely governed. In his encyclical Mystici Corporis, Pope Pius XII explained that the Church is guided on one hand by its hierarchical authority, and on the other hand by special graces that add to this juridical structure. What the faithful are witnessing today is that it is the Faith, and fidelity to traditional doctrine and discipline, that distinguish the voices within the hierarchy itself – those voices that deviate from the Church’s Tradition, and other voices among the bishops who defend it, preserving the Church’s traditional liturgical laws, and defending the rights of the Church within society at large. Hearing these latter voices within the hierarchy, the faithful who strive to adhere to Tradition find shepherds whom they know they can confidently follow and obey.