Common cup, meet common cold

At Mass this Sunday I had a bit of a cough, though nothing bad compared with the seriously congested woman who sat down behind me. I thought she was going to hack up a lung as she settled into the pew. She made half throat-clearing, half choking noises throughout the service.

When the priest instructed us to make the sign of peace, the guy next to her -- probably a relative -- explained that she "has a bad cold" and thus wouldn't be shaking hands, and he didn't have to work hard to convince any of the surrounding coreligionists. After all, we'd had a good loud demonstration of why we wouldn't want what she had.

An article in the same day's issue of the New York Times captured well one of the downsides to the communal aspect of religion: flu season.

According to the Times report, only one diocese in the American arm of the Catholic Church (in Vermont) has flat out ordered priests not to administer the common cup and formally asked parishioners not to shake hands. Other diocese are taking less severe measures like "encouraging hand-washing, requesting that sick people refrain from taking communion and encouraging those uncomfortable with shaking hands not to do so."

For what it is, this story is competently told. But it could have done without the back-and-forth over whether modern germ theory applies to the blood of Christ. It does and the church doesn't claim otherwise, but it turns out that your odds of infection don't go up dramatically if you're shaking people's hands and drinking out of a common cup vs. if you're just sitting in the room with the same people, breathing the same sneezeified air.

The account quotes one renegade Vermont priest who continues to offer the common cup, in addition to individual wafers. He says his parishioners are "grown-ups, and they're also people of great faith" who can make up their own minds about such things.

The father says that, even with flu season as a factor, he hasn't observed much of a drop in the number of people who make use of the chalice. And so far, he adds, the diocese hasn't brought the hammer down for keeping the option open.

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