This commentary was a source of confusion for many, because recent magisterial teaching seems to support Cardinal Sarah's position.
The Congregation for Divine Worship issued its instruction on Holy Communion, which decreed the retention of Communion on the tongue despite some calls for distribution in the hand, five years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, and during the pontificate of Blessed Paul VI.
"It is a matter of great concern to the Church that the Eucharist be celebrated and shared with the greatest dignity and fruitfulness. It preserves intact the already developed tradition which has come down to us," Memoriale Domini stated. "The pages of history show that the celebration and the receptions of the Eucharist have taken various forms. In our own day the rites for the celebration of the Eucharist have been changed in many and important ways, bringing them more into line with modern man's spiritual and psychological needs."
It noted that "It is certainly true that ancient usage once allowed the faithful to take this divine food in their hands and to place it in their mouths themselves."
But "Later, with a deepening understanding of the truth of the eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in it, there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament and a deeper humility was felt to be demanded when receiving it. Thus the custom was established of the minister placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant."
"This method of distributing holy communion must be retained … not merely because it has many centuries of-tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist."
The congregation also wrote that this traditional practice "ensures, more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species" and "it ensures that diligent carefulness about the fragments of consecrated bread which the Church has always recommended."
They noted that "A change in a matter of such moment … does not merely affect discipline."
"It carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering holy communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine."
When some bishops asked for permission for Communion in the hand, Bl. Paul VI sought the opinion of all the Church's Roman rite bishops. Of those responding, 57 percent said that attention should not be paid to the desire for the reception of Communion on the hand. Of those bishops who were open to considering the practice, just over one-third had reservations about it.
And 60 percent of bishops did not even wish that Communion in the hand be experimented with in small communities. More than half did not believe the faithful would receive such a change gladly.
So, in 1969, in full consideration of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Bl. Paul VI " decided not to change the existing way of administering holy communion to the faithful," considering the remarks and advice of his fellow bishops, the gravity of the matter, and the force of the arguments against it.
The Pope who oversaw much of the Second Vatican Council, and who implemented its liturgical reform, was clearly concerned about the risks of disrespect and false opinions about the Eucharist which could arise from Communion in the hand. The Church's norms have not shed that concern. Nor did Sarah's pastoral reflections.
Benedict XVI was well-known for advocating something he called a "hermeneutic of reform" in theological conversation. He meant that historical memory should inform contemporary theological reflection. The alternative, he said, was something he called the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture."
If Cardinal Sarah, who is responsible for the regulation and promotion of the sacred liturgy, is impugned for raising the very objections against Communion in the hand which were raised by Paul VI fewer than 50 years ago, it's worth considering whether the idea of the "hermeneutic of reform" has been rejected among Catholic intelligentia.
If nothing else, the affair reveals a very short historical memory among some members of the Catholic press.
It's also worth noting the strength of the reaction to what Cardinal Sarah in fact wrote was largely a function of media distortion. Sarah is far from removing permissions for Communion in the hand. His stated desire is to foster the "rediscovery and promotion of the beauty and pastoral value" of Communion on the tongue.
The matter also demonstrates the degree to which reactionary Catholic media voices can enflame the kind of sensationalism they might otherwise criticize.
Cardinal Sarah won't really be removed from his office for suggesting the value and beauty of, to borrow the words of Benedict XVI, "what earlier generations held as sacred." But in this moment of ecclesial polarization, he will likely continue to be criticized.
Carl Bunderson is managing editor of Catholic News Agency. He holds a BA in economics from the University of Colorado Boulder and a BPhil from the Pontifical Lateran University.