A Privilege of the Ordained

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3. The Protestant Heresy

Reverence towards this Sacrament led to a number of signs of devotion which were observed universally throughout the Western Church until the time of the Protestant Reformation. Wherever the Protestant heresy triumphed, many or all of these signs of reverence were quite logically forbidden because, within the context of this heresy, the bread and wine are no more than symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. In themselves they remain bread and wine, no different and no more holy than bread and wine used outside the Communion Service. [1]

Catholics were accused of "bread worship" which, the Protestants alleged, constituted idolatry. Some sects abolished every sign of reverence which was offered to the Blessed Sacrament within the Catholic Church; others retained a number in the interests of good order and decorum. For example, the Church of England retained the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion, but added the notorious "Black Rubric" to its prayer book. This rubric stressed that the act of kneeling involved no adoration, that the bread and wine remained in their own natural substances, "and therefore may not be adored, for that were idolatry to be abhorred by all faithful Christians."

The first Protestant Prayer Book was imposed upon the English people in 1549. It retained the practices of kneeling and receiving Communion on the tongue. This was one of several details in the 1549 Prayer Book which evoked the displeasure of the more radical Protestant Reformers, particularly Martin Bucer, a German who exercised a considerable influence upon the liturgical work of Thomas Cranmer, principal author of the Anglican Prayer Book. In his criticism of the 1549 Prayer Book, Bucer wrote:

I have no doubt that the usage of not putting these sacraments into the hands of the faithful has been introduced out of a double superstition: firstly, the false honor they wish to show to this sacrament, and secondly, the wicked arrogance of priests claiming greater holiness than that of the people of Christ, by virtue of the oil of consecration.

Bucer decided that "as every superstition of the Roman anti-Christ is to be detested, and the simplicity of Christ, and the Apostles, and the ancient Churches, is to be recalled," the sacrament should be placed into the hand of the laity:
In that way good men will easily be brought to the point of all receiving the sacred symbols in the hand, conformity in receiving will be kept, and there will be safeguards against all furtive abuse of the sacraments. For, although for a time concession can be made to those whose faith is weak, by giving them the sacraments in the mouth when they so desire, if they are carefully taught they will soon conform themselves to the rest of the Church and take the sacraments in the hand.

When the revised edition of the Anglican Prayer Book was published in 1552, not only had the "Black Rubric" been added, but the practice of Communion in the hand was introduced. Thus, from the time of the Reformation, the placing of the sacrament in the hand of the communicant acquired a new signification. It signified rejection of the Catholic belief that there is a difference in essence between Eucharistic Bread and ordinary bread or a difference in essence between a priest and a layman. Although the practice is not intrinsically irreverent (a practice sanctioned by the Church so widely and for so long could not be intrinsically irreverent), as a result of the significance placed upon it by the Protestant Reformers, it became unacceptable to Catholics. [2] The reception of the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue by laymen testifies to their belief in the priesthood and Real Presence; the reception of their sacrament in the hand by Protestants testifies to their rejection of these beliefs. Thus the situation remained until the closure of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. When the Council ended, the Liturgical Revolution got underway.

1. The one exception was within the Lutheran heresy where the Body and Blood of Christ were said to co-exist with the bread and wine, i.e., the theory of consubstantiation.

2. An incident during the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great illustrates the manner in which a practice which is in no way intrinsically opposed to the faith can become unacceptable to Catholics because of the significance placed upon it by heretics. St. Gregory had been asked if it was licit to immerse a person being Baptized three times. It was suggested to the Pope that this could signify the three days' burial of Christ, and the final emergence the resurrection (in Baptism we die and rise with Christ). It was also pointed out that the threefold immersion could signify the Trinity. But certain heretics had adopted the practice and invested it with an anti-Catholic signification. It had become a symbol of their rejection of orthodoxy. In view of this St. Gregory answered as follows: "Since at the present day the infant is immersed three times by heretics, I think it ought not to be done by you, lest in numbering the immersions they divide the godhead, and in continuing their own practice they boast that they have changed our custom."