Since the 1970s, the practice of offering Communion under both species has become increasingly widespread in this country, and recently the bishop of Madison, Wis., announced plans for reducing this frequency. Rather widespread discussion has arisen regarding the one-species-two-species issue.

The Church teaches that under the species of bread alone a communicant receives the full grace of the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “For pastoral reasons this matter of receiving communion has been legitimately established as the most common form in the Latin rite” (No. 1390). (Note the phrase, “legitimately established,” to which we shall return.) Yet the Catechism adds that “the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly” when Communion is given under both species.

The Testimony of Scripture

Scripture refers to Communion in both forms. The earliest reference is 1 Corinthians 11:23-29. Verses 23-26 and 29 clearly specify receiving both species. Verse 27 (“whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup”) seems to reflect the Church doctrine of concomitance — namely, that full Eucharistic grace is received under the form of one species alone.

In John 6, Our Lord’s words about the Eucharist alternate between speaking of one species and speaking of both. Verses 51-52 refer to bread alone. Verses 53-56 specify both “flesh” and “blood” of the Divine Savior. Verses 57-58 indicate bread alone. The three accounts of the institution of the Eucharist refer to both species (see Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:17-19). Some commentators hold that the command both to eat and drink is binding only on the apostles and their successors. Acts 2:42 uses the term “the breaking of the bread” for the Eucharist, and Acts 20:7 refers to it as well. There seems, therefore, no dominical imposition of Communion under both kinds.

For a period of time, when the early Church was under persecution, the Eucharist was offered regularly only on the Lord’s Day. To receive the Blessed Sacrament during the week, communicants were allowed to take fragments of the Precious Body to their homes. Various Church Fathers — such as Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil and Tertullian — report that the Precious Body was entrusted to confessors in prison, to hermits in the desert, to travelers and to soldiers about to engage in battle.

The Council of Trent

By the time of the Council of Trent, Communion under one kind was the common practice. The reasons for restricting Communion under both kinds to the clergy are summarized in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1912 edition) as follows: “The danger of spilling the Precious Blood and of other forms of irreverence; the inconvenience and delay in administering the chalice to large numbers; the difficulty of reservation for Communion outside of Mass; the not unreasonable objection on hygienic and other grounds, to promiscuous drinking from the same chalice, which of itself alone would act as a strong deterrent to frequent Communion in the case of a great many otherwise well-disposed people” (“Catholic Doctrine and Modern Discipline,” under “Communion In Both Kinds”).

The Council of Trent reaffirmed the Church’s doctrine of concomitance. It also stated the Church’s plenary authority over the dispensation of the sacraments. She has no authority over the substance of the sacraments, but she can “ordain, or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times and places.”

Furthermore, the council acknowledged that from the Church’s beginning that giving Communion under both species has been practiced on occasions. Yet, said the council, “in progress of time, that custom has been already very widely changed.” The Church has approved of this custom of communicating under one species, and decreed that it was to be held as a law, which it is not lawful to reprobate, or to change at pleasure, without the authority of the Church itself (see documents from Session XXI, Chapter 3). Communion under one species, Trent decreed, is the “law.” Recall now the Catechism’s statement that receiving Communion under the form of bread “has been legitimately established as the most common form in the Latin rite.”

The Second Vatican Council

In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 55), the Second Vatican Council spoke to the question of Communion under both kinds. It began by saying, “The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent [remain] intact.” Communion under one kind is still the “law.” Yet Communion under both kinds “may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to cleric and religious but also the laity.”

In this and in all subsequent Church documents on this subject, whether Communion under both kinds will be granted to all the faithful is left up to the discretion of the diocesan bishop. The word “discretion” means “the power or right to decide or act according to one’s judgment.” If the bishop has authority to allow Communion under both kinds, but has no authority not to allow it, does the word “discretion” still carry its original meaning?

The constitution further specifies that the cases left up to the diocesan bishop’s discretion are “to be determined by the Apostolic See.” It gives the following examples of instances for offering Communion in both kinds: “To the newly ordained in the Mass of their ordination; to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession; to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism.”

Current Norms

In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America. The first 21 sections are a splendid summary of the Eucharist itself and of its liturgy.

Section 19 of those norms recalls that Vatican II “authorized the extension of the faculty for holy Communion under both kinds in Sacrosanctum Concilium.’’ This makes no reference to the Council of Trent or the discretionary power of the bishop in this matter. But the following section does refer to “the council’s decision to restore Communion under both kinds at the bishop’s discretion.”

We read in section 21 that “today the Church finds it salutary to restore a practice, when appropriate, that for various reasons was not opportune when the Council of Trent was convened in 1545.” As time has passed, “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the reform of the Second Vatican Council has resulted in the restoration of a practice by which the faithful are again able to experience ‘a fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet.’” In this context, use of the term “restoration” seems to ignore the purely discretionary nature of that restoration.

These norms give only one possible reason for limiting the administration of both species. The “excessive use of extraordinary ministers” may tend to obscure the fact that the priest and deacon are “the ordinary ministers of holy Communion” (No. 24). (Case in point: I once knew a priest in California who was pastor of a mid-sized parish. He proudly told me that in his parish he had appointed 150 extraordinary ministers.)

Four sections of the 2011 edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal focus on Communion under both kinds.

Section 281 contains a strong statement of the “fuller sign” of Communion given in both species. There the “sign of the Eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clear expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the connection between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the kingdom of the Father.”

According to section 282, pastors first of all must make the faithful aware of “the Catholic teaching on the form of holy Communion as laid down by the ecumenical Council of Trent.” Nothing further is said about Trent. (The three basic provisions of Trent’s teaching are that Communion under one kind is the “law”; that in receiving under one kind the faithful fully receive Christ; and that the Church has authority to determine how best the sacraments may be administered.)

The ritual books specify certain conditions under which Communion under both kinds is permitted. In addition to those exceptional situations, No. 283 of the General Instruction lists the following: priests unable to celebrate or concelebrate; deacons and others who perform some duty in the liturgy; members of communities in their conventual Mass; seminarians, retreatants, persons sharing in “a spiritual or pastoral gathering.”

This section empowers the bishop to “establish norms for Communion under both kinds for his own diocese.” He may allow a pastor to distribute Communion under both kinds “provided that the faithful have been well instructed and there is no danger of profanation of the Sacrament or of the rite’s becoming difficult because of the large number of participants or for some other cause.”

To sum up: In exceptional circumstances, at the bishop’s discretion he may allow, and provide norms for, distributing Communion under both species. That discretion must always be guided by the fact that for the Latin rite, the normal practice — indeed, the Church’s law — is to give Communion under one kind. And so the Roman Missal in use since 2011  makes no mention of distributing the Precious Blood.