Reception of Holy Communion on the tongue was the norm throughout the Latin Rite until 1969, when the Holy See issued an indult permitting the practice in the most difficult and disobedient Catholic countries. Later the indult was expanded. Italy did not have it until the 1980's - and Poland only two years ago.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, one of the twentieth-century's great moral theologians and Catholic writers, and deeply admired by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, warned that Communion in the hand could have the effect of undermining people's faith in the Real Presence. "To be allowed to touch the consecrated host with unannointed hands is in no way presented to the faithful as an awe-inspiring privilege," he wrote in a 1973 article called "Communion in the Hand Should Be Rejected." "It becomes the normal form of receiving Communion. And this fosters an irreverent attitude and thus corrodes faith in the real bodily presence of Christ." The late theologian Father John Hardon, S.J. , urged in 1997 that "whatever you can do to stop Communion in the hand will be blessed by God."
In the same way that a deeper understanding of the theology of the Eucharist and the extraordinary gift God has given us helped to foster the practice of Eucharistic adoration, a fuller appreciation of Christ's Real Presence also led over time to the rejection of Communion in the hand and the adoption of Communion on the tongue. As the Congregation for Divine Worship noted in 1969, "Later, with a deepening understanding of the truth of the eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in it, there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament and a deeper humility was felt to be demanded when receiving it. Thus the custom was established of the minister placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant."
[It is a fashion of the age to resurrect some ancient practice and claim it to be the ideal or "pure". However, Catholics should want to know how and why we came to have what we have. To not do that is to deny the action of the Holy Spirit who has led us over the centuries into the "way of all Truth". In other words, to deny the product of genuine and venerable tradition is to deny the authority of the Church and the action of the Spirit. Rather than throw out what the centuries have given us, we must strive to understand the beauty of what the Church has so long labored to give us.]
It was no accident that sixteenth-century Protestants like Martin Bucer, insisted so strongly on the reception of Communion in the hand. Although Protestant opinion varied, the consensus held that Catholic teaching on the Real Presence amounted to gross idolatry. Encouraging Communion in the hand, they believed, undermined two Catholic teachings at once: the ministerial priesthood and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. First, the distribution of Communion in the hand implied that there was nothing special about the ordained priest, since laymen had just as much right to touch the Eucharist as he did. Second, receiving the Host in the hand emphasized that the Eucharist was ordinary bread - for if it is nothing more than ordinary bread, why shouldn't a layman be able to receive it directly in his hand?
That the practice of Communion in the hand was observed well over a millennium ago is virtually irrelevant. As Pope Pius XII explained in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, the desire to introduce novel practices into Catholic worship when the existing practice is venerable and hallowed by tradition is at odds with a normal and healthy sensus Catholicus. May we apply this reproof to those Catholics in the 1960's who disobediently resurrected the discarded practice, centuries after Communion on the tongue had become the established norm?
In fact, Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise of San Luis, Argentina, who announced in 1996 that Communion in the hand was to be forbidden in his diocese, drew this very conclusion, citing this teaching of Pius XII in support of his policy. The bishop's decision was subsequently approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which informed him that "in deciding to maintain immutable the tradition of distributing Holy Communion in the mouth [you] have acted in conformity with the law and therefore have not broken with ecclesial communion."
When Paul VI grudgingly allowed Communion in the hand in 1969, his permission came in the context of a letter urging that the traditional practice of Communion on the tongue be retained. Allowance for Communion in the hand was made as a concession for parts of the world where disobedience on this point had already reached epidemic proportions. The Pontiff thus allowed the bishops to permit the practice if they thought it the best way to cope with the situation.
We read in Memoriale Domini, the Congregation for Divine Worship's 1969 Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion, that a "change in a matter of such moment, based on a most ancient and venerable tradition does not merely affect discipline. It carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering Holy Communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine. "For these and other reasons, the Congregation explained, "the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way of administering Holy Communion to the faithful. "The Congregation's warnings continued:
This method of distributing Holy Communion [on the tongue] must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist.
Further the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that Holy Communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species, in which "in a unique way, Christ, God and man, is present whole and entire, substantially and continually." Lastly it ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended.
The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed. It urges them to take account of the judgment given by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the liturgy, of the common good of the Church.
These were the urgings and warnings that preceded the Holy See's reluctant allowance for Communion in the hand in those countries where this forbidden practice had become widespread.
...the 1962 Missal contains an edifying and very beautiful instruction to the priest: from the moment of consecration until the final ablutions, he is to hold thumb and forefinger together, in order to prevent the profanation of any particle of the Sacred Species. If for centuries the Church taught her priests to show such fastidious devotion to Christ, then Father Hardon's desire to discourage Communion in the hand becomes a matter of simple common sense - for if priests were once concerned about Eucharistic fragments just between their thumbs and forefingers, so much greater is the problem presented by the layman who takes the entire Host into his outstretched hand.