AN ARGUMENT REGARDING THE ISSUE OF CONTAGION THROUGH COMMUNION OF THE HOLY GIFTS

We have witnessed the rise of a novel (international) debate regarding the transmission of contagious diseases through communion, the subjacent question being whether the pathogens do survive in the Chalice. As far as we could understand, some defend the “cause” of the pathogens (the fact that it would be more responsible not to go for communion during pandemics being also suggested), other stand for the sterility of the Chalice, whilst the debate makes the believers wonder – do we contract diseases through communion or not, after all?

The Christians who confess their faith that contagious diseases do not pass from individual to individual through communion have been accused of being heretical[1] – namely docetists, as they would implicitly claim that Christ’s Body and Blood are not subject to the laws of nature, as a true human body would be. Here Docetism would consist in rejecting the possibility that viruses, that are part of God’s creation and ontologically good, would survive on our Lord’s Body, as on any truly human body, unable to harm Him, but able to harm us, humans, that are neither divine or without sin[2]. Critical remarks have already been brought against the perspective that Prof. Hovorun, the author of the cited paper, holds about the relation between Christ’s Body and natural laws[3]. But, is a debate conducted under these specific coordinates actually useful?

Speaking of Our Lord’s Body, we might also add that His Body is not “any human body”. It is the Body of “One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ[4]”. As said in patristics, “a common form cannot be admitted in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ. For neither was there ever, nor is there, nor will there ever be another Christ constituted of deity and humanity, and existing in deity and humanity at once perfect God and perfect man” [5]. He is the only One Who is both God and Man (Ο Θεἄνθρωπος), and this is why we consume His Body and Blood ”with the fear of God, faith and love”, ”for the remission of sins and life eternal”, whereas consuming the flesh and blood of another human being would make us cannibals.

Clearly, talking about the hypostatic union cannot assist us with deciding whether viruses would survive on His Body, without harming Him but able to harm us. Still, it might help by reminding us of the fact that through communion of the Holy Gifts we are all called to take part in a miracle that is offered to us without reserve and in such a manner that it can truly become part of our lives in view of life eternal. Under these circumstances, can a solid reason for not contracting diseases through communion be identified, independently of the (improper by their arrogance) speculations on the relationship between viruses and the Lord’s Body? Can a theological reason be identified in order to sustain the thesis that people cannot catch diseases through communion of the Holy Gifts, so that no doubt remains in the mind of the believers? Can we better understand why the stories about those who did not become ill when consuming the Holy Gifts after a contagious person are not the mere product of a pious but untenable tradition? We think the answer to all these questions is yes and we will try to develop the idea in the following.

What happens with the infectious agents that get into contact with the Holy Gifts it is evident that only God knows, and we consider decent not to speculate about. And, as it will also become obvious in the following, we do not even need to wonder about the fate of the pathogens in order to understand why we cannot catch diseases through communion.

For us, as human beings, it is not relevant or spiritually fruitful to inquire scholastically into what exactly happens with the pathogens that enter in contact with the Holy Eucharist. What is truly important is the significance of not catching diseases through the Holy Communion in the wider context of our struggle for salvation. And it is our view that this fact has a precise and understandable part into this larger picture, namely that it prevents us from stumbling and consequently refraining from taking the Holy Gifts out of fear of contagious diseases.

Just as the Holy Gifts preserve the appearance of bread and wine so that we do not stumble by perceiving their consummation as repugnant, also nobody acquires contagious diseases through communion, in order not to become frightened and stay away from Christ out of fear of contagion. Therefore, irrespective of our being weak, unworthy, vulnerable to disease because of various personal particularities, no one gets sick. On the contrary, the Tradition keeps accumulating testimonies about individuals that took the Holy Gifts after contagious persons and remained perfectly safe. This primarily correlates with God’s care for His people – not with the relationship between Christ’s Body and the laws of nature – and certainly helps us in our struggle for salvation.

Precisely how this “not-getting-sick” situation occurs, what happens or not to the pathogens that reach the Spoon and the Chalice only the Creator and Provider, our Almighty God knows and, instead of asking Him for unnecessary details, it would be by far more decent and appropriate to thank Him for His care.

Still, disease is not entirely ‘banned’, not even from church-going people, so we can catch it by any other available means that would not represent a stumbling rock with respect to communion – from another person, in the crowd at the church, or on our way to or from the church. And this is why we do not attend church now – in order not to pass the disease by human contact. As Christians, we should protect the vulnerable and not make church attendance or – even worse – communion into an object of selfishness, potentially accompanied by certain materialistic tendencies, as it might seem when we insist to take the Holy Gifts in order to be ‘sheltered’ from COVID-19. We should not forget that our goal should be the eternal, not the earthly, life and that disease is not an evil that we should be protected from by all means – the more extraordinary the best – but an instrument by which God rebukes us and offers us a chance to repent.

We should also be aware that we cannot force our faith upon the others. This is not constructive in principle and is even worse under circumstances accompanied by huge tensions, such as a pandemic. The obvious risk is to make our neighbour reject faith and God resolutely. Also, as people who love Christ, we should not keep offering those who do not embrace our faith excuses for blaming Him and the Church again and again – in this case, for the spreading of disease through church attendance, with or without communion.

In the light of the above remarks on the spiritual benefits of disease, the discussion can be continued, with the examination of certain elements that some might invoke in order to continue to support the possibility of getting sick through contagion during communion:

Local churches have confessed publicly, during this troubled period, the faith that the Holy Gifts can never be a source of sickness and death, but one of life and healing of the body and soul[6]. However, the Apostle talks about those who, being unworthy of the Holy Gifts, got sick and even died: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” (Corinthians I, 11, 29-30[7]). So, people can become ill after taking the Holy Gifts – moreover, they become ill precisely for taking communion, with the important remark that they get sick because of approaching Christ’s Body and Blood into an inadequate condition. Will then some of the believers catch COVID-19 through communion – not necessarily through the Holy Gifts, but through human saliva that might remain on the Spoon – and so get their rebuke from God for being unworthy?

We consider reasonable to presume that no, they would not. In the light of the same idea – that it is not spiritually profitable for the community that some of its members catch diseases through communion of the Holy Gifts. Therefore, we do not become sick, not even if we are unworthy of the Holy Gifts and worthy of being rebuked through disease[8]. If He would allow people – even the unworthy ones – to get sick under such circumstances, it might prove pedagogical for the one who acquires the disease, but it will certainly become a stumble block for the many. Human beings cannot know who is worthy or unworthy in the sense mentioned by the Apostle. All they could see would be a person who, after taking communion after a contagious individual, got sick too. That would have frightened us and most probably many would have refrained from communion, remaining far from Christ’s Body and Blood. Or, we would have been effectively forced to make a gesture of strong faith in order to continue to take communion, an action that how many could be realistically expected to embark on? Consequently, we can affirm that no one, not even the unworthy would catch diseases through communion of the Holy Gifts. They may get unwell in other ways and by a recognizably different agency, in order to make the pedagogical message obvious: you may suffer from disregarding the Holy Gifts, but you won’t catch diseases through communion.

Also, we should consider another reason for how dangerous it might have been for people to see that someone else got sick through communion, while they did not. It could have led them into the temptation of considering themselves ‘worthy’, while the one who got diseased would have been ‘identified’ as one of the ‘unworthy’ kind mentioned by the Apostle.

In the same line of argumentation: it is not implausible to presume that, among the many millions of Orthodox Christians, some would not have a problem with seeing flesh and blood in the Chalice. Still, most people would be uncomfortable with such a view and therefore it is not required from us to contemplate the Holy Gifts as such. Everyone sees them under the appearance of bread and wine. When the rare exceptions occur, they are precisely exceptions, meant to represent a severe warning from God. To be noticed –this situation is an exception, but it regards a phenomenon which is meant to be seen and strike fear of God in those who need to revise their attitude, whilst ‘the warning’ remains exterior to the body and does not imply the same developments as catching a disease and getting to suffer in the flesh. Seeing something like this, even though enormously impressive, remains however different by its consequences from becoming ill and it can be pedagogical without resulting in persistent and strong fear in the community.

In conclusion, leading the debate into the direction of “examining” the fate of the germs proves to be unnecessary and rather pertaining to sophism, scholasticism, and an approach to the issues of faith that can be regarded as pseudo-scientific and rationalistic. It also holds a danger of encouraging inappropriate enterprises, such as a scientific examination of the Holy Gifts, and possibly other utterly blasphemous developments that we fear to even imagine. As for the affirmation that only the righteous will remain untouched by contagious diseases when taking communion after the ill, this is also inconsistent with the larger context of our call to salvation and spiritually dangerous, as show above.

The discussion can and even needs to remain independent of the theoretical and (God forbid!) practical assessment of the “ecology of the Chalice”. The obvious and easily intelligible reason for the state of fact acknowledged by the Tradition, i. e. that no one catches diseases through communion of the Holy Gifts, can be identified in God’s loving provision that His people do not become afraid and are not tempted away from Christ. It is a simple but clear and strong reason, that can be easily identified and understood independently of any claims about the interaction between Christ’s Body and the rest of creation.

Of course, it is an argument of faith, but we address it to the faithful. If one truly believes that our Lord offers Himself to us in the Holy Gifts for our salvation, the supreme miracle given to us for our salvation and life eternal, then he or she will also understand easily that not contracting contagious diseases through communion is one of the ‘smaller’ miracles helping us to accept and embrace this supreme miracle unreservedly.  Which also leads to a final remark on “the propensity of examining the ecology of the Chalice” – perhaps the present pandemic is giving us the opportunity to decide whether we are Palamites or Baarlamites, in the depth of our soul.


[1] Cyril Hovorun, COVID-19 and Christian (?) Dualism, in Public Orthodoxy, A publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, available at: https://publicorthodoxy.org/2020/03/23/covid-19-and-dualism/ (accessed on 3.04.2020).

[2] We should mention that a position that might be interpreted by some – due to unproper citation by a secondary source – as similar with that of Prof. Hovorun was expressed by Archbishop Elpidophoros (GOCA). His Eminence said that “The same material elements that can convey the blessings of God are also subject to the broken nature of our fallen world. Science and our God-given reason demand that we employ every means available to protect ourselves and our families against the spread of Covid-19 and any other disease. The sacrament of sacraments, the Holy Eucharist, is not simply a material element but the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Encyclical of His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America and the Eparchial Synod on the Covid-19 Pandemic (Coronavirus), available at https://www.goarch.org/-/encyclical-covid-19-pandemic, accessed on 1.03.2020). Still, one secondary source “cuts” the quote, not mentioning anymore the final part, that is specific to Eucharist (see Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Issues Statement on Coronavirus, available at:  https://usa.greekreporter.com/2020/03/07/greek-orthodox-archdiocese-of-america-issues-coronavirus-statement/, accessed on 3.04.2020), and continuing with: “’In a crisis such as this, we need to exercise vigilance as a community, lest our churches become points of transmission of the disease,’ he added. Referring specifically to the Holy Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion), the statement encouraged those unwell, not to go to liturgies”.

[3] “According to the Gospel descriptions, we know that the resurrected Body of the Lord, to which we partake under the guise of bread and wine, has many properties that our bodies do not possess. Christ could instantly travel great distances, he could go through closed doors, he could appear and disappear, etc. What His resurrected body consisted of, what was its chemical composition, what trace elements and microorganisms were there – we will never know, yes, I think we don’t need it at all” (Aleksander Dvorkin, Ecological theology of Archimandrite Cyril (Govorun) – 03/25/20, available at: https://iriney.ru/main/polemika/ekologicheskoe-bogoslovie-arximandrita-kirilla-(govoruna).html, accessed 3.04.2020. The English translation proposed via the Google Chrome browser is coherent; we first got it from Facebook, where it was originally posted as such by Fr. Tomas Soroka from the OCA, at Prof. Dvorkin’s express request. According to Fr. Soroka, Dvorkin’s response was endorsed by Jean-Paul Larchet, so tending to become a reference, even though in our opinion it contains many elements that can be regarded as unprincipled and weak, as arguments).

[4] Apud Bindley, T. Herbert, ed. (1899). The Oecumenical Documents of the Faith. London: Methuen (available at  https://archive.org/details/MN41552ucmf_1/page/n241/mode/2up, accessed on 3.04.2020).

[5] See Saint John Damascene, An exact exposition of the Orthodox faith, Book III, Chapter III, Concerning Christ’s two natures, in apposition to those who hold that He has only one (available at: https://www.orthodox.net/fathers/exactiii.html#BOOK_III_CHAPTER_III, accessed on 3.04.2020).

[6] Patriarch of Romania on coronavirus : The holy Eucharist can never be a source of sickness and death (available at https://basilica.ro/en/patriarch-daniel-sends-pastoral-message-to-strengthen-faith-and-eucharistic-communion/, accessed on 3.04.2020); Bulgarian Church Leader Insists Sacraments Cannot Transmit Coronavirus (available at https://balkaninsight.com/2020/03/11/sofias-metropolitan-prays-away-coronavirus-worries/, accessed on 3.04.2020).

[7] Quoted after KJV, available at https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/1-Corinthians-Chapter-11/, accessed on 3.04.2020.

[8] We hereby disagree with the position expressed by Jean-Claude Larchet in the interview from April 8th: L’origine, la nature et le sens de la pandémie actuelle, available at https://orthodoxie.com/lorigine-la-nature-et-les-sens-de-la-pandemie-actuelle-une-interview-de-jean-claude-larchet-par-orthodoxie-com/ (accessed on 20.04.2020, for the English version see: https://orthodoxie.com/en/the-spiritual-origin-nature-and-meaning-of-the-current-pandemic-an-interview-with-jean-claude-larchet-by-orthodoxie-com/). As a matter of fact, our above criticism preceded Larchet’s interview.