Communion chalice and health risks

Q. I've been wondering about this for a long time. Why, at holy Communion, do we have to drink from the same chalice that everyone else has used? It seems to me to be a very unsanitary practice, with all the germs and diseases that are around.

So my family and I do not partake of the precious blood of Jesus at Mass. Why can't Catholics offer Communion in individual disposable cups, as some of the Protestant churches do? (Sherwood, Arkansas)

A. Over the years, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has several times answered inquiries regarding the risk of disease transmission from a common cup.

As the American Journal of Infection Control has explained (October 1998), within the CDC there is a consensus that a "theoretic" risk might exist, but that "the risk is so small that it is undetectable." And further, "no documented transmission of any infectious disease has ever been traced" to this practice.

Anne LaGrange Loving, a New Jersey microbiologist who has conducted a study on the subject, stated in a Los Angeles Times article Jan. 1, 2005, that "people who sip from the Communion cup don't get sick more often than anyone else" and that "it isn't any riskier than standing in line at the movies."

Nevertheless, common caution should be observed: Ministers should clean their hands thoroughly before distributing the Eucharist, and the Communion chalice should be washed with soap and hot water after every service. Those currently suffering from an active respiratory disease should have the good sense to receive the host only, not the chalice, and a number of Catholic dioceses have actually suspended the use of the Communion cup during outbreaks of influenza.

As to the manner of reception, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans typically use a common Communion cup, while Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and evangelical congregations tend to pass out individual and disposable cups.

It seems to me that the common cup more closely carries on the tradition of the Last Supper and highlights our joint sharing in the eucharistic sacrifice. In Matthew's Gospel (26:27), for example, Jesus "took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.'"

As one Lutheran parish in New Mexico explains it, Jesus "could have easily blessed all the wine that was already poured in the various cups that were already on the table on the night he was betrayed. But he didn't. Instead he blessed the one cup to be given to many. The common cup fulfills this symbolism beautifully."

Q. A neighbor of ours, age 66, just completed the RCIA program to become a Catholic. She has been told that she cannot receive Communion or be confirmed until she secures an annulment.

She was not married in a Catholic church and has been divorced for over a decade. She states that she has "no intention of getting married again." Does she really need an annulment? (Columbus, Ohio)

A. No. If she has no intention of marrying again, there is no need for her to have an annulment before she is received into the Catholic Church and able to share in the sacraments. If the time ever came, however, when she wanted to enter into a new marriage, she would first have to have that earlier marriage examined by the Church.

Some Catholics think -- mistakenly -- that when two non-Catholics marry, that marriage doesn't "count" with the Catholic Church. That is untrue. So whether the first marriage of the woman in question was to a Catholic or to a non-Catholic, that marriage would still have to be declared null for her to enter a new marriage with the Church's blessing.

- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service