Communion on the tongue unsanitary?

November 22, 2013
Source: District of the USA

Opponents of Communion on the tongue often assert that this practice is unsanitary compared to in-the-hand. But what is the reality?

Pastor's Corner for Sunday, November 24

First published in February 2012, we have republished this piece for reflection.

Communion on the tongue is unsanitary. So authoritatively stated an article published in the Australian Catholic Leader by Elizabeth Harrington, the education official for the Liturgy Commission of the Brisbane archdiocese:

…It is awkward for ministers to give communion on the tongue to people who are standing, which is the recommended posture for communion in Australia, and it is unhygienic because it is difficult for ministers to avoid passing saliva on to other communicants."[1]

This statement (often made by in-the-hand proponents) reveals an ignorance of the Roman Church’s traditional practice and the rubrics for the distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue.

In the first place, the communicant is supposed to kneel; obviously exceptions are made for the handicapped, who usually wish they could kneel. Not only does this show the communicants’ humility in receiving their Divine Eucharistic Lord (i.e., God), but this submissive posture also enables giving the Host on the tongue more practically, safely and… hygienically—in all three cases, much more so than Communion in the hand.

Another interesting aspect is that the traditional form of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue demonstrates the Roman character of practicality that pervades its namesake liturgical rite, resulting in a reverent and dignified manner of receiving the Bread of Angels, yet easily and efficiently.

The traditional rubrics of the Rituale Romanum[2] prescribe that the priest is to carefully pick up the Host by Its edge between his right thumb and index finger; no other digits may be used to perform this action. As diligently taught in traditional First Communion classes, the communicant is to tilt his head back slightly, open his mouth and extend his tongue a little creating what is often called “the pillow of the tongue”. The priest then easily places the Host on this “pillow” without touching the communicant’s tongue, mouth, or even lips—resulting in an absence of physical contact between the administrator and the communicant.

But with Communion in the hand, full hand-to-hand contact is made between the administrator (usually the ubiquitous Eucharistic Minister) and the communicants, who often have not washed (or sanitized) their hands prior to receiving. Hence with in-the-hand, there is a very real danger of spreading unwanted germs.

The fact is, before the progressivists’ clamor for Communion in the hand (something we might add episcopal conferences did without the Holy See’s approval[3]), the issue of hygiene was never raised concerning the traditional manner of receiving Holy Communion—and this during an era when the hygienic advocates were in full swing to make the world germ free.

The irony of this charge against Communion on the tongue is that those who promote in-the-hand for non-existent hygienic reasons simultaneously encourage the practice of “sharing the cup” (receiving the Precious Blood communally from a chalice) which the Roman Church ceased in ancient times precisely due to hygienic concerns (i.e., because of the backwash of saliva that inevitable occurs from a group of people drinking from the same vessel)—which in turn could lead to disdain of this Sacred Mystery.

This topic in fact provides just one more example of how through Holy Mother Church’s traditional practices, she is solicitous for both our spiritual and natural welfare. On the supernatural side, she provides us with a reverential manner in which we poor and unworthy sinners (“Domine non sum dignus” citing the sentiments of the centurion) may receive Our Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, yet in the natural sphere, in a way that does not jeopardize our bodily health.


1 This is the archdiocesan newspaper and the article was titled “Communion in the Hand” was published on February 12, 2012, in the column, “Liturgy Lines”. It is currently unavailable online without a subscription.

2 Three editions of the traditional Roman Ritual are currently available from Angelus Press, two in English, a pocket-size and Fr. Philip Weller's The Roman Ritual set (which he intended to also act as a catechism for the laity).

3 Cf. Bishop Juan Laise's groundbreaking book, Communion in the Hand: Documents and History and this webpage featuring a video extract from Cardinal Burke which includes many pertinent links about Communion in the hand.