Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in a recent interview that he does not consider the distribution of Holy Communion to yet be safe— even if distributed in the hand.
DENVER, Colo. — As dioceses across the United States start to reopen public Masses, the scientist leading the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic recommended that Catholic Churches ought not resume distribution of Holy Communion. But other medical experts told CNA there are ways that Communion can be distributed safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told America magazine May 26 that he does not consider the distribution of Holy Communion to yet be safe— even if distributed in the hand.
“I think for the time being, you just gotta forestall that,” Fauci said regarding Communion, calling for “common sense” measures to protect worshippers and the wider community such as masks, social distancing, and prohibiting singing.
“As many times as a priest can wash his hands, he gets to Communion, he puts it in somebody’s hand, they put it in their mouth…it’s that kind of close interaction that you don’t want when you’re in the middle of a deadly outbreak,” he told America.
Fauci’s recommendation on the Eucharist came a month after he said it could be possible for Americans to connect with people through dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, or Grindr.
“If you’re willing to take a risk…you could figure out if you want to meet somebody,” Fauci told Snapchat’s “Good Luck America.”
“If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that’s your choice regarding a risk,” he added.
Deacon Robert Lanciotti is a microbiologist and the former chief of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s diagnostic and reference laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado. Lanciotti told CNA that Fauci’s call for “common sense” measures to mitigate the risk of infection does not exclude the possibility of distributing Communion.
“The primary way that this virus is spread is by direct person to person contact; droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes that land on another person and then enter the respiratory tract,” Lanciotti told CNA in an email.
“Maintaining a 6-foot distance or wearing a cloth mask are both methods that disrupt this process. Utilizing one of these measures in a group setting where infected symptomatic people are not present should be a sufficient level of risk reduction.”
Lanciotti, a graduate of Loyola College, was ordained a deacon in 2017.
He took issue with Fauci’s concerns regarding Communion in the hand.
“With the use of hand sanitizer immediately prior to the distribution of Holy Communion, and being careful not to directly touch the communicant, there is virtually no risk in the distribution of Communion,” Lanciotti told CNA.
Deacon Lanciotti pointed to an April 28 document from the Thomistic Institute in Washington D.C., written by medical professionals, researchers, and theologians.
That group recommended that out of respect for the Mass, the priest ought not wear a mask or gloves during the Mass, and neither should anyone distributing Communion.
Under the group’s recommended guidelines, those who wish to receive could approach the altar, spaced six feet apart; if the priest believed he touched the hands or mouth of a recipient, he could use hand sanitizer sitting on a table next to him.
According to the Thomistic Institute’s recommendations, the Precious Blood ought not be distributed at Mass.
To date, dioceses that have developed Church reopening plans have called for suspension of distribution of the Precious Blood. The Catholic Church teaches that reception of either the host or the chalice is a complete act of Eucharistic reception.
The Thomistic Institute’s document, distributed to bishops by the U.S. bishops’ conference, also recommends— as did Dr. Fauci— that singing ought to be discouraged.
It also states that it could be possible to receive Holy Communion on the tongue “without unreasonable risk.”
The document recommends that the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions ought not attend Mass anyway, as they are at especially high risk.
“I completely agree with this statement…In the setting of a church service, the single most important safety measure is for symptomatic individuals to stay home,” Lanciotti told CNA.
“I would argue that having sick individuals stay home, followed by adopting one more measure— masks or social distancing— is a reasonable approach. Utilizing both masks and social distancing represents a safety redundancy that is excessive and counter to ‘common sense,’” he said.
At St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Masses resumed May 18, after more than two months of closure amid Italy’s coronavirus lockdown.
Visitors are advised to keep two meters apart, hand sanitizer is available at kiosks in the basilica, and, at the church’s entrance, the body temperatures of visitors are checked with scanning thermometers.
The Eucharist is distributed during Masses at the basilica.
Fauci, a Catholic, attended a Jesuit secondary school and Jesuit university.
In 2015, he told C-Span that he is no longer “a regular church-attender. I have evolved into less a Roman Catholic religion person to someone who tries to keep a degree of spirituality about them. I look upon myself as a humanist. I have faith in the goodness of mankind.”
He similarly told America that he appreciates his Catholic education, and especially the values he was taught at the Jesuit institutions he attended.
“I identify more, much more, with that than the concept of organized churches, religions,” he told America.
Other Catholic medical professionals have weighed in on the question of whether Holy Communion can be distributed safely.
An ad-hoc committee of seven Catholic doctors and medical school professors released on May 12 a document entitled “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely.” That group of doctors concluded that the safest recommendation is to receive Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue.
The document calls for Mass to be held with social distancing, and for the use of masks and hand sanitizer. Singing should be avoided, and those who are ill or believe they may have been exposed to the virus should stay home, it says.
One member of that committee is Dr. Andrea Baccarelli, chair of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s School of Public Health.
Baccarelli told CNA that he agrees with and appreciates Fauci’s suggestions, and that there is a risk to the distribution of Holy Communion.
“Our committee wrote a plan to minimize the risk to distribute communion. That doesn’t mean that there will be no risk nor that we advised on whether it was safe to do it now or in the future,” Baccarelli added. “We just provided a document to guide masses and distribute Communion whenever it will be safe enough to do so.”
“If Dr. Fauci suggests it is not time yet to distribute communion, I think we should listen to him and wait before doing that again,” Baccarelli said.
Another member of the committee told CNA last week that he believes Catholics can attend Mass safely, and sacraments can be administered with appropriate precautions.
“I think that if we just use common sense to compare apples to apples for metrics that we know matter – like density, for example – then there’s no real kind of objective scientific reason why Mass is any more dangerous than going to the grocery store. I think the difference here is a perceived risk,” Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist at the Yale University School of Medicine and one of the plan’s co-authors, told CNA.
The plan calls for confessions to be held in outdoor or well-ventilated indoor areas, with the use of masks, an impermeable barrier between the priest and penitent, and frequent sanitization of surfaces.
Wang said that distributing Holy Communion on the hand, rather than on the tongue, represents an appropriate precaution for churches, especially while some things about the coronavirus spread are not yet completely understood.
Acknowledging that some people may object to that recommendation, Wang said that in his perspective, “it boils down to, is it better to not have communion at all – and by extension not have Mass at all?”
Ultimately, Wang said, going to church at this time is not risk-free, just as any other public activity is not without risk during a pandemic. He noted that dioceses throughout the country have granted dispensations from the Sunday obligation for those who are unable to attend or are not comfortable with the risk involved.
Deacon Tim Flanigan is a member of the Thomistic Institute’s working group, an infectious disease specialist who has battled Ebola outbreaks, and a professor of medicine at Brown University. Flanigan also told CNA that Catholics can return to Mass and the sacraments safely – if they observe CDC protocols.
“The question is: can I follow the CDC guidance just as carefully, in each setting, in order to decrease transmission of coronavirus? Can I maintain safe distancing? Can I maintain good hand hygiene? Can I ensure that I am not ill?” Flanigan told CNA last week.
If CDC guidelines are followed, “There is no reason to prohibit church services when you don’t prohibit other gatherings,” Flanigan said.
“The CDC gives us that guidance to decrease the rate of transmission. It’s just as important that guidance be followed at a house of worship, as at a conference, as at any other gathering.”
“If somebody makes an arbitrary judgment that a church is not going to follow that guidance, without any evidence, that is biased and there is no evidence for that,” he said.
Flanigan questioned the categories of some governors who classified religious gatherings as “non-essential,” compared to more “essential” activities like grocery stores.
“Being able to come together and pray together, being able to receive the sacraments, to encounter the Lord, right there in the sacraments, is so important,” Flanigan said.
Mental health is just as important as physical health, just as important as spiritual health,” he said. “We are a whole self, which has a mind, a body, a heart a soul. To be able to pray together, to be able to support each other, to be able to worship together, to be able to receive the Lord in Communion, is so important for us to be healthy and to thrive.”
“That is why our churches are essential,” Flanigan told CNA.