Evangelism, the Coronavirus, and Communion

They aren’t hearing what we mean to say;
A critique of our reaction to concerns about Communion and the coronavirus
Fr. AnthonyPerkins

Despite our intention and our ability to justify our words, our witness has been damaged by our response to this crisis.  We run the very real risk of strengthening the misperception that Orthodoxy is at odds with science.

Truth is important to me.  I’ve spent a lifetime as a social scientist, an intelligence analyst, and a theologian studying discernment and why it is so hard for us.  Both the psychology and the theology are clear: we are NOT wired for truth.  We feel the same when we believe and say something that is spectacularly wrong as we do when we say something that is absolutely true.  The Psalmist nailed it when he proclaimed in the spirit; “I said in my amazement; ‘every man is a liar!'” (Psalm 115:7/116:11).

Even when we intend to say something true, something that we are convinced we have thoroughly researched and prayed on, something that our God-given consciences tell us to be true, something that our most wise confidants confirm; we can still be utterly and completely wrong.

Let that sink in for a second.  Our calculations, our feelings, our conscience, the counsel of friends: none of these are reliable.  It’s easy for us to believe that this is true of “them” (heretics, the uneducated, the selfish), but the beginning of wisdom is recognizing that it is at least as true of ourselves.

Because we are Orthodox, educated, and kind, we can dress up our infidelity with otherwise sound theology, big words, and the best of intent.  If we are priests or bishops, we can further buttress our claims with authority.  But all these just make what we say more convincing.  They don’t make us any more right.

[Or wrong, for that matter.  Humility points in both directions.]

This has been in evidence over the last few weeks as we come to grips with the coronavirus, and especially when we talk about the risks of taking Communion.  Despite our intention and our ability to justify our words, our witness has been damaged by our response to this crisis.  We run the very real risk of driving people away and strengthening the misperception that Orthodoxy is at odds with science.

It is a matter of dogma that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and that this is the Medicine of Immortality for believers.  Anyone who denies this has separated themselves from Orthodoxy.  This is what well-meaning (Orthodox! Educated! Kind! Ordained!) people have been defending when they respond to those who are concerned about taking communion from a common spoon.  They know that people are in most need of Christ in times of great stress, and they don’t want anyone’s fear or skepticism to keep them from receiving Him in the Eucharist.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that the words we have been using have made things worse for the very people they were meant to help.

Example one; “The Body and Blood of Christ cannot hurt you.”

From the Hapgood Service BookThis one is theologically incorrect just on its face.  Our Prayers before Communion describe the Mystery as a “fire that burns the unworthy.”  There is a danger because God is present in the Gifts and because God is Awesome and Terrible.  Ironically, it is an appreciation for this that leads many believers to defend the Eucharist from insult.  But this “spiritual” danger is rarely what the discussion is about (except, perhaps, when we condemn skeptics).  Perhaps this is because this is a danger we are used to facing and against which we know how to prepare.  We deal with the risk of partaking unworthily through intentional preparation (e.g. fasting, Confession, prayers, humility, repentance) and by trusting that Christ will be merciful and allow us to receive His Body and Blood as He Himself instructed without it causing us harm in this way.  If defenders stopped here and said something like; “the Body and Blood of Christ will not hurt you because Christ would never hurt us for following His instruction regarding eating of His Body and drinking of His Blood” then the matter would be clear: it is a matter of faith.

But we don’t stop here.  First, we use something scientists call “concept creep” to claim that Communion cannot do the recipient any physical harm (concept creep often happens when a primal moral instinct, such as the desire to protect the sanctity of Communion, is at work).  The implication is that Communion is a sanctifying Mystery and it is blasphemous to claim that it can do the believer any harm at all.

I laud the motivation behind this claim (unless it is Pharisaical self-righteous judgmentalism), but the claim itself is demonstrably false.  First, I have known pious Orthodox Christians who suffered for days after receiving the Mystery of Communion because their bodies cannot tolerate gluten.  Communing someone with celiac disease from a chalice that has not had bread or the Host in it solves the problem.  This is anecdotal (meaning that we haven’t done double blind studies or even collected enough data for systematic analysis), but most people know someone with gluten intolerance who has faced this problem, and the accommodation of Communion by the Blood alone has been blessed by some bishops.  Second, the alcohol in the Mystery will get the cleric who consumes the gifts drunk if there is enough of it.  Driving would be risky (and illegal, depending on the size of the chalice).  As with gluten intolerance, the Body and Blood are sanctifying, but taking them brings a risk to some people in some conditions.

The broader implication of this concept creep, i.e. that the sanctifying Mysteries can only have a positive impact on a person’s well-being, is also demonstrably false.  A narcissistic or predatory priest can use the Mystery of Confession to manipulate or groom the penitent; in marriage, one of the “elements” (the man or woman) can be so tainted with some defect as to ruin the marriage and the life of his/her spouse; and ordination has ruined many a man’s life, not to mention the lives of the people he was called to serve.  It is easy for pious believers to “yeah, but” each of these, but the objective fact remains: under some conditions, participation in a Mystery (to include Communion, the Greatest Mystery) can cause damage to believers. The part of our audience we are most comfortable with (the part that accepts what we say without reservation) will not be bothered by our deviation from the facts, but we will ruin our credibility (and worse, that of the Church we represent) with those whose critical faculties are engaged in questioning what we say rather than justifying it.

Some of us will admit that the bread and wine can still affect people adversely, but then argue that this is different than a virus.  This is true.  The problem is that we then go on to say that it is impossible for pathogens to coexist with the Body and Blood of Christ.  The theology being evoked is that nothing negative can exist in the same place as God.  This is the theology of the Theophany (“The Jordan turned back!”), and it is sound.  However, its application to the bread and wine of the Eucharist (which retains the properties of bread and wine after it becomes the Body and Blood) is dubious.

During Great Lent, priests have to follow specific protocols to ensure that the intincted Host (i.e. the Host has been wet with some of the wine/Blood) does not become moldy by Wednesday or Friday; the implication is that the Host will become moldy if it is not treated properly (and there are priests who have experienced this).  The mold grows on the bread/wine, not on Christ Himself (He cannot be tainted by corruption!), and it is as likely to contain mycotoxins as any other moldy bread. Understanding this about the changed Host can help us grow in the Mystery of the God-man Christ.

Example two; “The alcohol in the wine and the gold of the spoon make Communion safe.”

Our credibility is further strained when we misuse science or misrepresent the data to make our point.  Three examples will suffice here.  First, there is the claim that the alcohol in the chalice is enough to keep the sacrament germ free, even if infected people are touching the spoon with their lips.  The alcohol in wine varies from 5% to 25% (St. John Commendaria is 15%).  While dipping the spoon in wine will reduce the risk (should pathogens make their way into the chalice or onto the spoon), it is far below the 80% recommended by the CDC for the coronavirus.  Nor will phenols, polyphenols, or adding hot water make up the difference.  The second example is similar to the first.  Studies have found that gold and silver have anti-microbial properties.  But, as with the alcohol content of the wine, the effect is not total; it mitigates the risk, but it does not remove it. In normal times, the alcohol content of Communion and the anti-microbial properties of the spoon may help bolster the faith of skeptics, but suggesting it as a serious defense against the coronavirus is counterproductive.

Example three; “No one has ever been hurt by taking Communion.”

The third example is different.  It offers as evidence of the safety of Communion the observation that no one, to include the clergy who regularly consume the gifts after everyone else, has ever fallen ill from taking Communion or consuming the Gifts.  While I am sure this makes perfect sense to those who have not been trained in scientific methodology, to those who have such training it’s incredibly problematic because no one has ever collected data on this phenomenon.  There isn’t even a category for it.  I taught analytic methodology for many years.  It is scientifically naïve to confirm a hypothesis based on a negative finding using data that has not even been collected.

Does this sound harsh?  Let me soften it a bit.  It may well be true that the lack of stories about people getting sick from Communion is, in fact, because no one has ever gotten sick from taking Communion.  But it could also be the case that lots of people died from it, but we haven’t noticed it because it isn’t even on our radar to think that way.  This is a variation of the old “the Greeks couldn’t see blue because they had no word for it” trope.  If you still doubt this, how would we react if someone used the fact that everyone who has received Communion has died as evidence that Communion causes harm?  Logically, it is the same problem.  Let me give a secular example.  Before we, as a society, started collecting racial data on things like bank loan applications, bankers could say “we treat everyone based on the facts, regardless of race.”  Once racial data was collected, it became clear that race had an independent effect on loan decisions.  The scientific method, to include a sound research design and rigorous data collection, is even more necessary when our emotions are involved, as they are when our identity (Orthodox!) and wellness (killer virus!) are at stake.

Moreover, it is hard to imagine (without a blasphemous scientific experiment) being able to pinpoint Communion as the cause of sickness even if it was.  Priests are already being diagnosed with COVID-19 (God protect and heal them).  Even if the priest’s only exposure to the virus was from an infected communicant, it would go beyond the evidence to claim that the virus was transmitted to the priest through the chalice or spoon.  After all, the priest and communicant were breathing the same air throughout the Divine Liturgy!  The infection is over-determined.  But it would also go beyond the evidence (meaning it would be a matter of faith and circular reasoning) to insist that it was NOT transmitted through the Eucharist.  Moreover, in terms of diagnosis, this would be the “best case scenario” for ascribing transmission to the Eucharist.  Few cases will ever be so clear-cut.  Think about it: how would we ever be able to pinpoint the Eucharist as a cause of illness?  Is it even possible?  And what would the costs be of collecting such data?  Honestly, it hurts even to think this way.  Going back to the race example, adding it as a category allowed us to find discrimination, but it also increased our racial thinking, a side-effect that is not entirely positive.  Considering the Eucharist as a potential cause of harm secularizes it in a way that makes all believers uncomfortable.

So what is the answer?  I personally believe that even if a virus could be transmitted through the spoon, the risk is quite small compared to sharing the same space in the pews with an infected person for an hour and a half.  As a priest, I believe that I am far more likely to get the virus confessing an infected person than consuming the gifts after them (but I could be wrong).  For the present, the best advice to believers is stay home if you are sick or worried about getting infected and to request a visit from your priest if you want Communion.  This (and stronger) is the very advice and directives our bishops are giving us because they love us and understand the risk.  In the medium to long term, we might consider loosening our modern insistence on frequent Communion (at least enough for people not to worry about missing a few Sundays for cause) and allow parishes to try various pious methods of distribution.  We could then compare notes (to include measures of health).  It may be the case that the combination of frequent communion, communion by spoon, and large communities is a difficult one to maintain, and that the coronavirus is making this difficulty clear.  If so, if we do not loosen the first two, enough people may vote with their feet to make the latter irrelevant.  Again, I could be wrong.

I have no problem with the spoon.  It’s convenient, pious, and matches beautifully with Isaiah 6:6-7.  I do not understand the mechanism of viral transmission and the relative risks of different methods, especially compared to the overall risk of just breathing near an infected person, to make a meaningful recommendation.  Few people do.  And none of us have reliable data on any of this.

But that’s not what this article is about.  This article is about the damage we do to the credibility of the Church when we say things that are demonstrably false and illogical.  We can defend our words (we are Orthodox, educated, kind, and ordained!), but that isn’t the point.  The point is that we are pastors and evangelists.  That means we are called to learn the language that our audience speaks and use it to share the Gospel.  If people were wiser and more patient, that is, if they were already transformed by the Gospel, they would hear what it was we meant to say or what it was that we should have said.  But they aren’t.  That’s our job, not theirs.  And when we say things about the Eucharist that are true in one sense but false in another (more obvious, at least to part of our audience) sense, it is our fault as poor teachers, not theirs as students, if they latch on to the latter.  When we insist that they hear the truth we meant to say rather than the misleading things we actually said, we put stumbling blocks out before them.  And when believers who are untrained in science (and charity) use our words to condemn their brothers and sisters for their skepticism, then not only will we have failed as evangelists, we will have succeeded in creating proselytes who are twice the servants of perdition than ourselves.