In the summer of 2020, during the long lent of the Covid-19 pandemic, Churches began opening up on a limited basis, and often with strict limitations: mask requirements, building capacity restrictions, social distancing, roped off pews, sign-up sheets. One of the greater challenges for many of us was when bishops and pastors asked that we receive communion in the hand. As someone who has received Holy Communion on the tongue for virtually all of my Catholic life – and exclusively for around 20 years – it wasn’t easy for me to accede to this request. But I did.
Others were unwilling to go this route, but they were accommodated at our parish. Our deacon was off to the side with an extra dose of hand sanitizer, a clear plastic drop-down facemask, a plastic smock, and a six-inch stack of purificator cloths lest a drop of moisture touched him. Plenty of people took advantage of this accommodation, but one man did not. The very last person in the communion line, rather than going to receive from Deacon Steve in his hazmat suit, knelt down in front of the priest and stuck out his tongue. The priest asked him to please go to the deacon if he wanted to receive on the tongue. Ultimately, the man stood up and returned to his seat without having received communion.
Note that I have absolutely no problem with receiving on the tongue, while kneeling, from a priest. And I have no problem with people who prefer it. This custom is based upon the rules for receiving communion prior to the Second Vatican Council and is still totally licit today. But it’s not the only licit way to receive. Unfortunately it seems that this man, after months without access to the sacraments, went away sad when he was presented with an opportunity to receive the Body of Christ in the hand from a priest (which is perfectly licit according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal), or to receive on the tongue from a deacon (who is an ordinary minister of Holy Communion in Church law).
And I can relate to his mindset. As a matter of fact, around 15 years ago, during flu season, when I was living in another diocese, our pastor read a letter from the bishop, in which he asked the faithful to refrain from the sign of peace, holding hands during the Our Father, communion in both kinds, and receiving communion on the tongue. As a fairly trad-adjacent young adult Catholic at the time, the first three instructions sounded great to me, but the fourth did not. I received communion on the tongue anyway and wrote an angry letter to the bishop when I got home.
After all – it seemed to me, anyway – communion on the hand was associated with heterodoxy, disobedience, and disbelief in the real presence. I actually believed at a certain level that one could pretty accurately gauge someone’s orthodoxy and the sincerity of their faith based on the way they received communion. Mother Teresa even said so (or so I thought at the time).
What were the other marks of orthodoxy? There were plenty. Examples included: wanting more Latin in the liturgy (as well as more chant and incense), praying the Rosary, going to the March for Life, praying in front of the abortion clinic, not using contraception, opposing women’s ordination, voting Republican, saying “I believe everything the Church believes,” being wary of the bishops, going to Mass every Sunday and holy day, generally liking the pope (but wishing he’d get rid of the lousy bishops), looking at Vatican II with not a little suspicion, and going to the parish with the most “reverent” liturgies. And of course, the most important teachings of all were those that had anything to do with sex.
Certainly there’s something resembling orthodox Catholicism somewhere under that pile of beliefs, and I spent much of my life forming my conscience around these propositions. In doing so, I sincerely desired to follow the precepts of the Church. And I sincerely believe God blessed me for my faithfulness. The Catholic Church was my home.
But where did I think my understanding of “orthodox Catholicism” came from? I don’t think anyone ever asked me that question. If it had come up, my response would have probably been “the Church,” I suppose. Or maybe from “Tradition.” To be honest, for all the importance I placed in being an orthodox Catholic, I had given very little thought on where a Catholic should look in order to learn what is and isn’t orthodox. Instead, I developed sort of an intuition about it. I had a general sense that new teachings could not contradict old ones. Much of my view was likely absorbed from Catholic books and articles and from being surrounded by people I knew who were very serious about their Catholic faith. I went to Catholic schools for 13 years, and at home I was regularly informed that my schools were not Catholic enough, not orthodox enough. When the Catechism of the Catholic Church came out in my teen years, I thought that was a pretty good resource, but I’d heard it was wishy-washy in certain areas and it wasn’t as straightforward as the Baltimore Catechism.
Growing up with an amorphous understanding of orthodoxy means living with fear and insecurity. I believed that very few bishops or priests are orthodox enough. The pope could be a huge disappointment (John Paul II allowing girls to serve at the altar was a huge letdown), but as he got older, the real fear – a heretical, modernist Pope – was always looming over the future. Helping to foster this worldview was the large sampling of the classic TAN Books catalogue on our family’s bookshelves and the new issue of The Wanderer that arrived in the mail every week.
By the mid-2000s, around the time I got married, there were a lot of people on the internet who confidently championed orthodoxy and seemed to be able to identify the good bishops and the bad ones, which parts of Vatican II were unreliable, which parts of the Catechism were too modernist, and all of the things that were wrong with the Vatican II liturgy. They seemed to base their knowledge on great authority, even in places where they totally contradicted one another.
Keep in mind, this whole time, I’d been a practicing Catholic. While a sinner, I don’t think I’ve missed a Sunday Mass without cause in my entire life. I did my best to follow the rules and precepts and the commandments of the Church and I said my prayers. I was always reading Catholic books, from older spiritual classics to popular apologetics to conversion stories to Chesterton. But for whatever reason, I was always confused about what the Church taught on many things. Was the Church for or against the death penalty? Was the war in Iraq just? Should we deport immigrants or welcome them? Is universal healthcare good or bad? Competing voices were all claiming to speak on behalf of the Church.
It wasn’t until a decade or so ago, when different groups of “orthodox” Catholics online were arguing about religious liberty and ecumenism, that I really started to dig for answers. Clearly the “liberals” went way too far in their acceptance of Vatican II’s teaching in its entirety, but there were differences of opinion on how much of the teaching should be accepted, which needed to be “interpreted in line with tradition,” and which needed to be discarded. Where were they getting their information? I wondered if there was a book or something that I didn’t know about that was telling them what was really orthodox and what wasn’t.
One day I asked a priest I knew to be orthodox and faithful, “How do you know which teachings from the pope and Vatican II are orthodox?” He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You know, like if a pope teaches on religious liberty or against the death penalty, is there a way to figure out if what he is saying is orthodox?”
This led to a long conversation between the two of us. He explained that Canon Law teaches “The First See is judged by no one,” and that the pope is known as the “Guarantor of Orthodoxy.” All of this was a bit baffling to me, but it also seemed to make a lot of sense. In the end, he recommended three things for me to read: Pastor Aeternus from Vatican I, Lumen Gentium from Vatican II (telling me to pay close attention to Chapter III and especially no. 25), and the 1998 CDF document, The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church.
I credit this conversation with changing my faith permanently and for the better. My life changed, I felt more free. With the security of the understanding that Christ gave us the pope as his promise of the Church’s fidelity, much of my fear and anxiety lifted. For the first time in my life my faith became joyful and liberating.
There is so much more that I can say about how my renewed understanding of the Church and the papacy had a positive impact, but I will save it for another time. It is important to say that all of this happened before Francis was elected pope. And after he was elected, everything I learned was put to the test. But looking at what’s happened to my fellow Catholics, many of whom I love and admire, I can’t help but think that even though they are striving to be orthodox, they don’t know where to look – to the pope. I am concerned that many of my fellow Catholics are looking for Truth in all the wrong places.
Likewise, YouTuber Michael Lofton, who has undergone his own journey of transformation in understanding the Magisterium, has recently been producing many videos discussing the papacy, ecclesiology, and authority in the Church. He has recognized that the crisis in the Church is, at its heart, ecclesial. People with sincere intentions, who want to be good Catholics, are turning against our authentic leadership and following others into what looks like inevitable schism. I’ll be joining him next Thursday to talk about it on his show.
The last thing I want to say for now is that if you haven’t read Anthony Steinhauser’s article, “What is the Church’s principle of orthodoxy?” from yesterday, please do. It lays out systematically and logically why the Living Magisterium must be the Church’s principle (or guarantor) of orthodoxy, because there is no other way to ensure the Church’s unity in faith and doctrine.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.