- From Altar-Throne to Table: The Campaign for Frequent Holy Communion in the Catholic Church
One Sunday morning in spring 1899, a Boston priest noted in his diary that, of the more than 700 Irish and German immigrant parishioners attending his 7:45 a.m. Mass, exactly forty of them came forward for Communion. He did not do the calculation, but that is a little more than 5 percent, and he was encouraged that it was as high as that. Today, most parishes report reception rates of 90 percent or above at every Mass. How Catholics, especially those in the United States, got from Point A to Point B is the subject of Joseph Dougherty's study. The completeness and relative speed with which lay Catholics changed longstanding habits regarding Communion richly merits study. This book is far from exhaustive, and other scholars will want to refine and expand it; but as an introduction to the subject, it is a welcome addition to recent historiography.
In the first several chapters, Dougherty surveys reception of the Eucharist from ancient times to the end of the nineteenth century. This is obviously a huge subject and the evidence is highly fragmentary, but a disposition against frequent Communion settled on the Church early and lasted a long time. Bishops and priests consistently denounced laypeople who were too presumptuous in approaching the sacrament often—why, even married men were doing it, one seventeenth-century hierarch exclaimed in horror—and elaboration of the doctrine of Real Presence encouraged a lay piety that [End Page 750] emphasized looking at the Eucharist, usually from a distance, rather than consuming it. This began to change in the nineteenth century, and Dougherty is helpful in identifying some early sources of change. He reconstructs the theological arguments and overstates the impact of the newly created Eucharistic Congresses: Were they not effect rather than cause? Nevertheless, there is more to this story than we might have expected. The fight over frequency was really a fight over the proper dispositions a Catholic should have when receiving, and the theological ground was well prepared for new attitudes by the time the decrees of Pius X—"the Pope of Holy Communion," (p. 81)—validated changing practice at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The second half of the book shifts away from theology and attempts a social history of the question, particularly in America. Theologians argued and popes decreed, but what did laypeople do? Dougherty tries to get at this question by looking at two periodicals that "orchestrated" (p. 111) a campaign for greater frequency—one the organ of the Priests' Eucharistic League, the other of the People's Eucharistic League. Unfortunately, there are inherent shortcomings in this method. Both magazines were official in nature, produced under clerical auspices, and the lay role, even in the "people's" league, is hard to discern. Eliza O'Brien Lummis founded the People's Eucharistic League, but she merits only two sentences here. As a first approach to the subject, all this may be forgivable, but the book only underscores the need for more focused studies, including local cases, if real laypeople are to be discussed. Among other things, we will want to know more about why resistance to frequent Communion lasted as long as it did (until after the Second Vatican Council), a topic about which Dougherty's conclusions seem tentative and not fully persuasive.
In all, the book is clearly written, although the absence of a summary conclusion brings it to a very abrupt end. The bibliography is helpfully extensive, as can be expected of a revised dissertation. The absence of an index is surely a failing, the more so in a volume published under the auspices of a library association. But any future studies of this important topic will have to begin here.