You may have heard about a case in the Diocese of Phoenix in which there is controversy over a 10-year old autistic boy’s ability to receive Communion.
The boy’s autism apparently causes him to spit out things with certain textures, and a typical Host has such a texture. Neither can he swallow the Precious Blood, according to his father.
The solution that the family has arrived at is for their son to receive Communion in the form of the Host and, after a few seconds, for the boy’s father to take the Host and consume it himself.
The family argues that this practice was approved by the diocese in Pennsylvania when they lived there, though this is disputed.
The matter was referred by the pastor of their current parish in Arizona to the bishop, who indicated that the family’s current practice could not be approved but that the diocese wanted to work with the family to find a solution that would allow their son to receive Communion, perhaps using differently shaped Hosts.
Now the family is up in arms and the media has got the story.
This issue involves the intersection of three related fields: canon law, liturgical law, and sacramental theology.
I don’t have a solution on this one about what the law or theology definitely requires. It seems to me that the law is not designed to address this kind of situation and the matter may ultimately have to be decided by Rome if a mutally agreeable solution cannot be found on the diocesan level.
But let’s examine some of the relevant considerations that the involved parties (including potentially Rome) would want to consider.
Ed covers the canonical aspect, which centers on the boy’s presumptive (but not absolute) right to receive Communion and the bishop’s responsibility to enforce liturgical law and regulate the liturgical life of the parishes in his diocese.
Liturgical law is engaged on the subject of how Communion is distributed. Thus the General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides:
161. If Communion is given only under the species of bread, the priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, Corpus Christi (The Body of Christ). The communicant replies, Amen, and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand. As soon as the communicant receives the host, he or she consumes it entirely.
And the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum provides:
[92.] Although each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice, if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her. However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.
The Diocese of Phoenix has apparently appealed to these two documents in explaining the bishop’s decision, and these seem to be the two relevant passages.
You will note that the passage from Redemptionis Sacramentumdoes not specifically address the situation of the boy’s family. Since the father consumes the Host before leaving the presence of the priest "no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand." However this passage may contain a principle that the bishop is attempting to unearth and apply pastorally. (Or I may have the wrong passage; or the diocesan representative may have misspoken in referring to this document.)
The GIRM passage, however, does address the situation assuming that the word "consumes" has its usual signification, which would include not just placing something in one’s mouth but swallowing it as well.
But is that what is meant in this passage? It seems that a case can be made that what the text means is that the communicant is to put the sacred species entirely into his mouth. It doesn’t mean that he has to swallow it immediately after receiving it. If he allows it to dissolve in his mouth, or if he waits to chew and swallow until the host is softened and he is back in his seat, that is permitted (it could be argued) by this passage. So "consume" may not entail swallowing in this passage.
Certainly, by parallel, the passage in Redemptionis Sacramentum does not mean that the communicant must swallow the sacred species in the presence of the priest. It just means he has to put them in his mouth.
There’s also a dimension of this that goes beyond the law and engages sacramental theology:
What does it mean to receive Communion?
Jesus told the apostles to "take and eat" the species, and eating normally involves swallowing. But is swallowing the species necessary to receive Communion in all circumstances?
What about the widespread practice of individuals who allow the Host to disolve in their mouths before they swallow it. Since the process of letting the Host dissolve means that it no longer has the appearance of bread, this would mean that the Real Presence has ceased by the time they swallow. Yet the Church has not traditionally said that such people have not received Communion.
Further, what about people who are medically unable to receive more than a few drops of the Precious Blood? In the case of their reception of Communion, the Real Presence may also cease before they swallow as the sacred species are corrupted by the saliva in their mouths. Yet the Church does not deny these people Communion or say that they have not received Communion in these situations.
Whenever anyone receives Communion, the Real Presence ceases at some point when the action of their bodies sufficiently corrupts the species that the appearances of bread and wine are no longer present. In some people’s cases this happens in the stomach, and in some people’s cases it happens in the mouth. Where it happens does not seem to be determinative of whether the person has received Communion.
Further, the process of digestion actually begins in the mouth, as the saliva starts to soften the food we eat and our enzymes start working to decompose it. (Chewing also softens the food.) So even though a person hasn’t swallowed the food while it’s still in his mouth, anthropologically the process of consumption or eating has been initiated.
In the boy’s case the process of digestion is not carried through to completion, but then the Real Presence vanishes from everyone before the process is carried through to completion since the species never survive long enough as the body breaks them down.
A case can be made that what Communion fundamentally involves the oral ingestion of elements containing the Real Presence. If one has done that then, regardless of what happens afterward, one has received Communion. It isn’t necessary for the elements to be swallowed or fully digested.
Indeed, if–immediately after you received Communion–someone went into your stomach and retrieved the elements while they still had the Real Presence then we would not say that you had not received Communion. We would say that after you received Communion that someone took the elements before the Real Presence ceased.
That’s the closest analog to what is happening here, except that it’s occurring while the elements are still in the boy’s mouth rather than in his stomach.
A case thus can be made that the boy is receiving Communion in a fashion that would be recognized by sacramental theology as a reception of Communion, even if his father is then taking the elements and re-consuming them.
This, it seems to me, is where the real issue may lie. It may not be a question of "Is the boy receiving Communion even though he doesn’t swallow the elements?" A good case can be made that he is, as with people who are comatose and receive a few drops of the precious blood without swallowing them.
The question may be: Does the Church’s liturgical praxis allow–to prevent the desecration of the elements (by being spit out)–another person to re-consume the sacred species after they have been received by someone else?
I can’t recall a clear answer to that from canon or liturgical law. If there isn’t one already established then Rome may need to weigh in on this issue if the family and the diocese cannot come to a mutual agreement.
Let’s hope the latter happens.