With the coronavirus in the headlines, and parishes taking some steps to prevent the spread of germs, is the chalice really that dangerous?
I was curious, so did a little Googling.
One of the earliest newspaper articles I found was from The Washington Post in 1980:
Is holy communion from a common cup hazardous to your health?
“There’s not a priest in the world who hasn’t had that thought,” said the Rev. Jack Woodard of the Episcopal Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in the District of Columbia.
The American Medical Association hedges on the issue: “As far as we know, there have been no cases of transmission of germs to communicants using a common cup. The alcoholic content of the wine, plus the hygienic practice of wiping the cup and turning it to a new position for each communicant seems to remove any danger of disease.”
But the national Center for Disease Control in Atlanta says there are some dangers.
“We believe that there are risks, albeit small, of disease transmission from a common vessel used for religious communion,” says George F. Mallison, assistant director of the Center’s Bacterial Diseases Division.
“In addition to syphilitic lesions of the mouth . . . mononucleosis . . . also presumably could be transmitted by a common cup. In addition, mumps, some acute respiratory infections and herpes virus infections [cold sores] can be spread by virus in saliva of carriers, and Vincent’s angina [which causes trenchmouth] also might be spread,” he said.
A few years ago, The Los Angeles Times asked around:
“People who sip from the Communion cup don’t get sick more often than anyone else,” said Anne LaGrange Loving, a New Jersey microbiologist who has conducted one of the few studies on the subject. “It isn’t any riskier than standing in line at the movies.”
Concerns about catching a disease date to the 19th century and have spiked during epidemics, whether diphtheria and tuberculosis in the late 1800s, polio in the first half of the 20th century or AIDS in the 1980s.
The Very Rev. Peter D. Haynes, rector of St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Parish Church in Corona del Mar, said he brought in infectious-disease specialists in the late 1990s to soothe his congregants’ worries over catching the AIDS virus from the Communion cup.
“One doctor said, ‘The number of bugs you can get from a Communion cup don’t have a prayer,’ ” Haynes recalled. “The chances of getting sick are less than talking after the [service] with someone who has a cold.”
Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said inquiries about Communion cup dangers have been small but steady over the years.
“Theoretically, there’s a risk,” spokeswoman Bonnie Hebert said.
“But the risk is so small it’s probably undetectable.”
NCR weighed in on the subject in 2018:
One medical doctor colleague who served as a minister of the cup told us of his experience after all the people had communicated. He consumed the remaining Precious Blood. Not long afterward he came down with mononucleosis. He could think of no other reason for contracting mono than his experience of drinking the remains of the cup. Whether our friend’s analysis is correct or not, it discouraged him from being a communion minister and drinking from the cup.
A church organist told us she stopped receiving the Blood of Christ years ago when she found she was frequently getting sick with upper respiratory infections. One of our communion ministers of the cup recounted that at the end of communion when she looked into the cup with particles floating around and remembering all the people who have sipped, it turned her stomach. She would no longer serve as a communion minister because she said “what should be uplifting is gross.”
Why do more than 50 percent of Catholics after receiving the consecrated host hesitate to drink from the same cup at liturgy? Health! Most medical people would advise against the congregation drinking from the same cup.
Some people suggest that the alcohol in the wine protects the drinker. Unfortunately, the low alcohol content of the wine is not antiseptic. A swab from the cup and onto a nutrient petri dish would prove the point to the most devout communicant.
The NCR writers suggested an alternative: intinction, which is acceptable under USCCB norms:
Distribution of the Precious Blood by a spoon or through a straw is not customary in the Latin dioceses of the United States of America.
Holy Communion may be distributed by intinction in the following manner: “Each communicant, while holding a Communion-plate under the mouth, approaches the Priest who holds a vessel with the sacred particles, with a minister standing at his side and holding the chalice. The Priest takes a host, intincts it partly in the chalice and, showing it, says: ‘The Body and Blood of Christ.’ The communicant replies, ‘Amen,’ receives the Sacrament in the mouth from the Priest, and then withdraws.”
The communicant, including the extraordinary minister, is never allowed to self-communicate, even by means of intinction. Communion under either form, bread or wine, must always be given by an ordinary or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.