Self-Intinction

As an undergraduate at Wheaton College, there was a moment at the beginning of each term that everyone anticipated. The first chapel of each semester was a sharing of Holy Communion (Wheaton is inter-denominational; communion was shared with bread and grape juice after a reading of the institution narrative from 1 Corinthians). Wheaton’s chaplain back then was a beloved figure known affectionately as “Chappy K.” He had a slightly stiff, nasally delivery that, combined with riding a Harley Davidson and being a sensitive pastor, made him a favorite of the student body. The memorable part came when he introduced Communion. In his dry, nasal tone (think Stanley Hauerwas minus the volume and the profanity), he would explain: “Today, we will receive communion by a method known as [pause] intinction.” As soon as he articulated intinction, a word with which no one else was apparently familiar either, a snicker would ripple through the chapel. His method for articulating the word made it sound exotic, even slightly forbidden or mysterious, and the snicker indicated that the word was so unusual, that it sounded naughty.

Naughty it is not. But the frequency with which intinction–self-intinction, in particular–takes places within Episcopal churches is slightly perplexing. While versions of intinction are quite old, self-intinction when attending Mass is (as far as I can tell) rather novel. In the Catholic Church, only a priest is to intinct:

If Communion from the chalice is carried out by intinction, each communicant, holding a communion-plate under the chin, approaches the priest, who holds a vessel with the sacred particles, a minister standing at his side and holding the chalice. The priest takes a host, dips it partly into the chalice and, showing it, says, Corpus et Sanguis Christi (The Body and Blood of Christ). The communicant responds, Amen, receives the Sacrament in the mouth from the priest, and then withdraws. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 287).

Eusebius (HE, 6.44) recounts one form of intinction (sometimes now called “unsacramental intinction”) where the consecrated bread is softened with unconsecrated wise to make reception easier for the sick (one can imagine this happening if the consecrated bread is brought to a sick person’s home and they are unable to eat solid food). The ODCC describes a now outdated practice indicated in the Ordines Romani where unconsecrated wine is consecrated through contact with a previously consecrated host. Then, of course, there is the regular practice in many Eastern churches of the bread mixed with wine and both are administered with a communion spoon (λαβίς‎). Related to this was the practice of dipping consecrated bread in consecrated wine and allowing it to dry so that both kinds could be reserved for the sick for the Liturgy of the Presanctified.

Interestingly, one of the reasons given by the USCCB for why intinction might be desirable is this:

In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the Priest and the Deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary minister might in some circumstances constitute a reason either for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice. (Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America, 24.2)

The current American Book of Common Prayer has the same basic posture toward the ministers of the Sacrament, namely, that ordained ministers are its ordinary ministers:

When the celebrant is assisted by a deacon or another priest, it is customary for the celebrant to administer the consecrated Bread and the assistant the Chalice. When several deacons or priests are present, some may administer the Bread and others the Wine. In the absence of sufficient deacons and priests, lay persons licensed by the bishop according to the canon may administer the Chalice. (BCP, p. 408)

What remains perplexing is why self-intinction became so common, especially when the American Book of Common Prayer indicates that while “the sacrament may be received in both kinds simultaneously,” this can only take place “in a manner approved by the bishop” (BCP, p. 407-08). In my conversations with priests, the decision to allow the practice is made at the level of the parish and the bishop is not often consulted.

The most likely explanation for the growth of self-intinction is that it came out of fear of disease through use of a common cup, which is ironic since it turns out to be the least sanitary method to receive the Sacrament (think: bacteria under fingernails). Since moving to the midwest, I’ve observed self-intinction in many parishes where I have served as a supply priest, and in many instances, it’s not just the consecrated bread that makes it into the consecrated wine. In the wake of the AIDS crisis (and a misunderstanding about how it could be spread), intinction was explicitly described as an option by the Abps. of Canterbury and York in June 1989 in a statement on ‘Hygiene and the Chalice.’ In the wake of the SARS outbreak, places like the Diocese of Toronto engaged with the scientific communion in research that produced the following:

Intinction, long thought to be a practice which reduces the risk of contagion, may actual increase such risk. Hands, (children’s and adults) are at least as likely to be a source of contagion (often more so) as lips. Dipping the wafer into the wine may contaminate the wine with pathogens clinging to fingers, thus spreading contagion to others. Intinction offers no additional protection to the communicant.

Because of this, intinction (presumably self-intinction?) has been forbidden in Toronto since 2009.

Given the long history of reception in one kind only, the instinct amongst Anglicans in the face of severe health concern to turn to intinction rather than simply receiving only the consecrated bread might seem strange to Catholic ears. But it is important to remember that communion in one kind was a point of concern at the Reformation in the wake of the “denial” of the cup to the laity, and the English prayer book, for instance, is very clear that the people are to receive in both kinds. The current American BCP makes the direction even more strongly: “The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people” (BCP, p. 363). Related to this emphasis on receiving in both kinds in the relatively unusual development of reserving not just consecrated bread, but wine as well, at least amongst American Anglicans.

I have to admit that I have an instinctual aversion to self-intinction, though I struggle to articulate why in a way that I find completely satisfactory. In addition to the rather ridiculous exegesis which highlights the fact that Judas dipped his bread in the dish as a reason against intinction (presumably all the other apostles did as well!), some have suggested that self-intinction is more like “taking” the Sacrament, rather than receiving it, thereby obscuring the fact that the Sacrament is a gift. But it’s hard to see how this is really any different than receiving the chalice from a minister and drinking from it (as opposed to having someone guide it to one’s lips and tip it until one receives the wine).

I’ve also heard it critiqued because it obscures the “one cup” imagery and makes the act of communion more individualistic than communal. But the same could be said for the use of individual communion wafers and not bread which is literally broken and then shared.

The driving concern in official Catholic directions on the question seems to center on two matters: concern that the sacramental species be handled as reverently as possible and the centrality of the ordained ministers as the ordinary persons to administer the Sacrament. It is the first of these reasons, combined with the fact that it is the least sanitary method, that seem to be to be the most compelling reasons against the practice.

I’m interested to learn not only why the desire for self-intinction is so strong in some circles and if there are additional, persuasive arguments against self-intinction than the ones I have articulated.

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19 comments

  1. This Lutheran has used intinction in large and small congregations for years, though it is not the norm in any parish I know of. We traditionally make the Blood of Christ available in those stupid little plastic cups and the chalice from the altar. As indicated, the presider administers the Body of Christ and assistants the Blood of Christ. Lutherans traditionally kneel at the communion rail for reception, as well. Our parishes tend to be smaller, though many older sanctuaries have rails that very few can receive at one time.

    In the metro-Phoenix area, the Lutheran Cursillo Mananitas typically uses “self-intinction” without incident for the 15years I have been involved. Concern about contamination are understood, but no infections have been observed to date. Since they use baked break, there are often pieces of the bread left in the wine, which we celebrant and assistants consume after everyone has left.

  2. A couple of observations:
    1) Even if (self-)intinction is more sanitary than drinking from the cup, it only addresses the concerns of people about germs if nobody drinks from the cup. So I’ve never understood the people who want to intinct in a cup that a bunch of other people have already drunk from, unless they simply experience revulsion at the thought of putting their lips on the cup.

    2) As to reasons not to intinct: throughout the Old Testament we find the imagery of drinking the cup of suffering/wrath (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15; Lamentations 4:21; Habakkuk 2.16; Zechariah 12.2), which in the New Testament becomes the cup that Jesus drinks (Mark 14:36; John 18:11), and which in turn his disciples are to drink (Mark 10:38-39), though after the resurrection the cup of suffering becomes the cup of blessing (1 Corinthians 10:16). The imagery is drinking the cup, not simply receiving what is in it, and while intiction is a means of receiving Christ’s blood, it can’t really be called “drinking.”

      1. Sorry–that’s a bit of Latin legalism showing there Father Deacon. What about Eastern Catholics and Orthodox who receive Holy Communion only by intinction? Guess they’re all wrong too.

      2. No less a lover of the Byzantine liturgy than Robert Taft has written that the practice of reception via the spoon, rather than drinking from the chalice, is a less than ideal development in the Eastern liturgy.

        There is a difference between something being less-than-ideal and it being wrong. All churches have less-than-ideal practices. I think it less than ideal to have individual prefabricated wafters, or to give communion from species not consecrated at the Mass being celebrated, or to not offer the cup at all to the people. But these practices are not “wrong” in the sense that they invalidate the Mass or make it illicit, or even that under particular circumstances there might not be good reasons to do them. So I would say that my remark is the opposite of legalism. At least as it has manifested itself in the West, legalism would be to say that the only thing that matters is that the blood of Christ gets into the communicant’s body; the symbolism surrounding reception is unimportant.

      3. Of course these remarks are the opposite of legalism: “legalism would be to say that the only thing that matters is that the blood of Christ gets into the communicant’s body; the symbolism surrounding reception is unimportant”. Exactly.

        What is a typical manifestation of Latin legalism is to affirm that: “viable and lawful and reverent solution to a congregation receiving both species at every Mass. Self-intinction OTOH, is not,” while dismissing Fritz’s attempt to take into account the significance of the ritual form of reception of the Eucharist as “degrading this method because it doesn’t fit with some people’s idea of literally drinking”. In brief, it is lawful, therefore it is good. This is no more true in canon law than it is in civil law. An example from my late canon law professor: in the days of the Index of Forbidden Books, it would have been lawful to have member of a monastic community who happened to have permission to read a book on the Index read such book aloud in the refectory (on the basis that laws that restrict liberty are to be given their narrowest extension possible; and the laws governing censorship never forbade anyone from *listening* to a censored text being read). This may or may not have been the right thing to do, but it would certainly have been lawful. I certainly do not read what Fritz wrote as not being “tolerant or open or accepting”. He was asking, in the most polite and respectful way possible, the sort of questions that a sacramental and liturgical theologian ought to ask.

    1. Well, if the priest has a medical oral issue with the dryness of the host, simply following it with drinking from the chalice may not suffice. It would be odd, but it’s not utterly beyond the realm of possibility that he devised the method to address a problem.

  3. For Roman Catholics CDWDS has been pretty clear in banning self-intinction:
    ” Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist (March 25, 2004) :-
    [104.] The communicant must not be permitted to intinct the host himself in the chalice, nor to receive the intincted host in the hand. … ”
    I suspect that this is to avoid the possibility of a careless communicant splashing the Precious Blood about.
    The fact that it is outlawed does not prevent it occuring.

  4. How curious that when Jesus said “whom God has joined together let no one dare divide”, wiggle room is regarded as a grave threat to the integrity of the faith, but when he said “Take and drink”, all kinds of variations are tolerated. I am suspicious of Catholics who point to Orthodox intinction practices as a justification to further delimit the practice of extending the common cup in the Roman Rite. Most of them would be happy to further restricting or eliminating altogether the practice of communicating under both species since it seems to challenge the teaching about concomitance. It seems to me this whole matter is another manifestation of claiming special privileges for bishops and priests. We have been ordained not to “lord it over” the faithful but by laying down our lives in service to them. There are circumstances under which offering the cup of Christ’s blood is counter indicated, and I affirm the right of the faithful to decline to partake of the cup for various good reasons, but our common practice should welcome communicants to “take and eat, take and drink”.

  5. Stephen Woodland, i wholeheartedly concur with your dunk analogy. When i trained or refreshed my 120+ EMOHCs, i actually said Christ was not a cookie to be dunked. It was an image that stuck with them!

  6. We have had the experience in our parish that some people have come forward to receive communion and have sought to receive from the chalice by self-intinction. We have also managed to discourage the practice, for many of the reasons people have already mentioned. Our focus remains on the fullness of the ritual symbol, which is not just fulfilled in the parish offering communion under both kinds, but also through the actions of eating and drinking that we are called to do each time we celebrate the Eucharist.

    Another growing concern in some places is that of intolerance to gluten, which for some people, can be quite severe. People with such intolerance should be able to receive communion from the chalice, but this could be problematic if other communicants have engaged in self-intinction.

  7. At our 11 am parish Mass — solemn, sung Latin, rite of Paul VI, but not particularly “reform of the reform”; it hasn’t visibly changed since the promulgation of the current Mass — Communion is distributed in both kinds, the host administered on the hand or the tongue, standing or kneeling, as the communicant prefers. The ministers of the chalice, sometimes clerics but as often laypeople, stand about 2 metres from the ministers of the host.

    So, in addition to being formally prohibited, self-intinction creates a practical issue, since the communicant would need to take the host from one minister and walk with it to another. As far as I know, we have never had people deliberately walk off with a host, or behave in any profane manner at all; but in a very large congregation the risk is present. So parishioners are asked to consume the host immediately upon its reception, and this is courteously but firmly reinforced by ministers and altar servers.

  8. I pointed to Eastern Catholics and Orthodox only because they have an ancient and long established practice of receiving Holy Communion by intinction (with a spoon from one loaf in a common cup), Father Taft S.J. and his opinion not-withstanding, not as a means to limit distribution from the cup or to prohibit CITH. Although intinction is a modern innovation in the Roman Church, degradating this method because it doesn’t fit with some people’s idea of literally drinking isn’t particularly tolerant or open or accepting. It’s a viable and lawful and reverent solution to a congregation receiving both species at every Mass. Self-intinction OTOH, is not.

  9. Another reason for avoiding intinction is that the practice introduces particles of wheat into the consecrated wine, creating a problem for those coeliacs who can receive the Body and Blood of Christ only from the cup.
    Christ challenges us: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” Drinking from a common cup signifies our life together in Christ and our commitment to one another.

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