Friday, May 29, 2020

Communion, Communion Spoons, and Irrational Fears

I recently came across a very insightful remark from a conservative writer (Denise McAllister) who was engaged in an online debate with someone over what the government should or should not be able to mandate. She wrote: "My freedom doesn’t end where your irrational fear begins." But of course the question of whether one's fears are rational or irrational is the question we have to consider.

There is unfortunately no risk free way for us to live in this world. If we were to avoid all risks, none of us would ever get into an automobile, but most of us do, because we consider that to be a manageable risk. If you drive while listening to the radio, or drinking a cup of coffee, you are adding to your risks... but these added risks are generally considered to be fairly minimal.

It is curious that while many local governments have closed churches, or severely restricted attendance, they have allowed marijuana shops and liquor stores to stay open. As a judge in Illinois recently pointed out, only 5 months ago, marijuana shops were not even legal, but they are now considered to be essential, but churches, which are protected by the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution are not (at least in many states). But, apparently, some risks are worth taking -- it's just a question of what you think is important. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has said that it is not yet safe for churches to give communion to their people, when asked whether people should refrain from hooking up with strangers for sex, said:
"If you're willing to take a risk—and you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks—you could figure out if you want to meet somebody. And it depends on the level of the interaction that you want to have.... If you're looking for a friend, sit in a room and put a mask on, and you know, chat a bit. If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that's your choice regarding a risk" (Newsweek: "Dr. Fauci Says You Can Meet a Tinder Date 'If You're Willing to Take a Risk'" 4/16/20).
So it is all a matter of what your priorities are.

The question of how the various levels of government in the United States have handled the Coronavirus is something that we will probably be debating for years to come, but within the Orthodox Church, there is also an ongoing debate regarding how various bishops have handled this crisis. The bishops have responded to this crisis in various ways. Some only imposed restrictions on services in those places in which this was mandated by the local authorities; while others either restricted attendance or cancelled them altogether, regardless of government mandates being imposed or not. I have seen many who have argued that bishops who imposed such restrictions are outright heretics and apostates. But I have never heard such arguments when a parish has cancelled services because of severe weather. It may be, that as we reflect on this crisis, many bishops will regret that they overreacted. It could also have been that if this virus had proven to be as deadly as many were saying, that some bishops might have regretted under-reacting. So this is not a question of heresy, but a question of wisdom -- i.e., what was the reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. We might disagree with a bishop's decisions, but even if he judged wrongly, one has to assume his motivations were good, and that a desire to subvert the faith was not among those motivations. But what concerns me most at present, is where some bishops are headed with their responses to how we should go forward liturgically, in the wake of this virus.

We currently have bishops mandating the use of a different spoon for each communicate, and some who have instituted the practice of giving people communion in the hand (with a portion of the intincted Eucharist), all driven by the fear that giving people communion with a communion spoon, as the Church has been doing for nearly a thousand years now, might cause someone to get the virus. The question we should ask, however, is whether or not this fear is rational or irrational.

It has been pointed out that the practice of the Church in the first millennium was for people to receive communion much in the same way that Orthodox clergy still do: first with the Body of Christ in the hand, and then by receiving the Blood directly from the chalice. Why did the Church end that practice, and begin communing people with a spoon? Because people were carelessly dropping portions of the Eucharist, and because of some people taking the Eucharist home for superstitious purposes. There is little reason to believe that people in our time will be more pious and careful than people in the first millennium -- and there is plenty of evidence to assume just the opposite.

While many are appealing to the older practice as a basis for what they propose as a solution to concerns over this virus, none are actually suggesting we return to that practice, because obviously, if the laity were all partaking from a common chalice, this would not be an improvement over using a single spoon. In fact, while the spoon is dipped back into the chalice and washed in the Blood of Christ after each person is communed, this does not happen to the outside of the chalice.

Those advocating for the use of multiple, or even disposable spoons, appeal to precedents from the past for how those known to be sick with infectious diseases have been communed. But the key factor is that this is how people who were known to have an infectious disease were communed -- such methods were never used as a preventative measure. Also, when a priest is communing the sick, he normally does so with the reserved sacrament, and so the wine that is in the chalice is unconsecrated wine.*

The question I have asked many people who have advocated that such changes are necessary is very simple: Is there any evidence that anyone has ever gotten sick from receiving communion with a spoon?  There answer to this question is "no." But some people then retort that this is simply because no one has ever done a scientific study of the question, but this is not true. It is true that, to my knowledge at least, there have been no studies involving the use of communion spoons, but there have actually been several studies of people using a common chalice -- which would be more likely to be a means of transmitting disease than a communion spoon, for the aforementioned reason -- and so such studies are a good way to answer the question of whether we are dealing with rational or irrational fears.

John Sanidopoulos, in his article "Scientific Studies on the Transmission of Infectious Diseases Through Holy Communion" has pointed to 6 relevant studies done between 1943 and 1998. One study found that even under ideal circumstances (ideal for allowing transmission, that is), the use of a common chalice showed 0.001% of organisms being transferred, but when studying conditions that actually followed real world practice, no transmission could be detected. In another study, three groups of people were studied: those who go to Church and receive communion, those who go to Church but who do not receive communion, and those who do not go to Church at all. What they found was that even among those who received communion as often as daily, there was no increase in one's risk of infection. And so even if you do not believe in God, fears of getting sick because of getting a virus from a communion spoon are irrational -- and if you do believe in God, and actually believe what we confess before we receive the Eucharist (which is that the Eucharist is truly Christ's Body and Blood), then you should have nothing to worry about.

Fr. Alkiviadis C. Calivas, in his article "A Note on the Common Communion Spoon," says that he himself has no such fears, but expresses his concern for those who do:
"In my sixty-four years in the priesthood, I have consumed the chalice thousands of times after countless Divine Liturgies without fear or hesitation, as every priest does. I am not certain, however, that every faithful parishioner would do the same, if they were asked. My point is this. Holy Communion should be a source of joy, hope and strength for everyone and not a test or measure of one’s faith in God’s providential care (Matt. 4:5-7). St. Paul reminds us that the love of Christ requires that we care for all persons, whatever their situation and be sensitive and responsive to their just needs and concerns for the sake of the Gospel (1 Cor. 9: 19-23)."
I have not been a priest for even half as long, but my experience supports Fr. Alkiviadis' conclusion that there is nothing to fear. When I commune the faithful, the last mouth that I place the spoon into before handing it off to the deacon is my own (to ensure that there is nothing left of the Eucharist on the spoon), and I have not so much as had a fever since several years before I was ordained a priest. If a virus could be transmitted via a communion spoon, there should be widespread instances of priests with oral herpes (which can be spread by the use of eating utensils that have been used by someone with that virus), but as a matter of fact, there is no evidence that anyone has gotten such a virus in this way.

I can appreciate Fr. Alkiviadis' concern for people who have irrational fears, but why should we encourage such irrational fears to persist by acting in a way that communicates to those suffering from them that we believe those fears are well founded?

I am afraid that we as a society may be raising up a generation of germaphobes who will spend their lives paralyzed by such irrational fears, and be so concerned about dying from the many germs and viruses that abound in our world, that they are unable to actually live. But it is far more concerning to contemplate the message that the Church would be sending to the faithful, if we act as if receiving communion is a physically dangerous act. It is indeed spiritually dangerous to receive communion in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27-29), but which of the saints ever taught or suggested that the Eucharist could be a means of transmitting a disease? None did. In fact there is a well known episode from the life of St. John of Shanghai:
"Vladyka's constant attention to self-mortification had its root in the fear of God, which he possessed in the tradition of the ancient Church and of Holy Russia. The following incident, told by O. Skopichenko and confirmed by many from Shanghai, well illustrates his daring, unshakable faith in Christ. "Mrs. Menshikova was bitten by a mad dog. The injections against rabies she either refused to take or took carelessly… And then she came down with this terrible disease. Bishop John found out about it and came to the dying woman. He gave her Holy Communion, but just then she began having one of the fits of this disease; she began to foam at the mouth, and at the same time she spit out the Holy Gifts which she had just received. The Holy Sacrament cannot be thrown out. So, Vladyka picked up and put in his mouth the Holy Gifts vomited by the sick woman. Those who were with him exclaimed: `Vladyka, what are you doing! Rabies is terribly contagious!' But Vladyka peacefully answered: `Nothing will happen; these are the Holy Gifts.' And indeed nothing did happen."
If someone does not really believe that the Eucharist is what we say it is, then indeed they should not receive communion, because "...he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body" (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Aside from all that has been said, when we speak of "risk" or "chance" as Christians, we should understand that these are simply means of referring to the many variable factors that we do not know. We, however, do not believe in a God that is a helpless observer, who fondly hopes that things will work out well for us. We believe, that if we are doing what God wants us to do, that we don't need to worry beyond that. The worst that can happen is that we will die, and go to be with Christ for all eternity. We believe that not a sparrow falls apart from the will of the Father (Matthew 10:29), and as St. Anthony of Optina said during a cholera epidemic (which killed far more people than the coronavirus is likely to):
"You should not be afraid of cholera, but of serious sins, for the scythe of death mows a person down like grass even without cholera. Therefore, place all your hope in the Lord God, without Whose will even the birds do not die, much less a person."
For more on this question, I would highly recommend the article: "A Response to "On administering Holy Communion in a Time of a Plague""

*I personally wouldn't worry about it even then, but this is perhaps why more caution is shown.

Update: You could just skip my article, and go directly to Presbytera Eugenia Constantinou's "More Dangerous than Covid-19," which says it about as well as it can be said.