NEW YORK – More than ten years ago, when the world was plagued with another virus, the infamous H1N1, Dr. John S. Collis wrote an exclusive op-ed for The National Herald. In that op-ed, Dr. Collis discussed how the Orthodox traditions and modern science do not necessarily need to clash. Its relevance to the existing pandemic still resonates. Due to the mirroring circumstances we find it appropriate to reprint this op-ed which was written more than a decade ago in its entirety:
Traditions of Orthodoxy and Science Need not Clash: A Discussion on the H1N1
By Dr. John Collis, M.D.
Special to The National Herald
Some members of the Orthodox Church never take communion because of the use of a common spoon. Other members periodically avoid communion for the same basic reason. They all believe that the use of a common spoon is unhygienic, and therefore the use of the common spoon is found to be of deep concern.
Roman Catholics, many Protestants, and now Lutherans are receiving communion without the use of a common spoon.
The United States has approximately 300 million citizens. Presently 50 million Americans have been infected with a new type of influenza called H1N1 virus. Along with the 50 million infected, an additional 10,000 Americans have died from this newer, sometimes deadly virus.
Perhaps our church, i.e. our bishops, could arrange for us Orthodox Christians to have the option of receiving communion without a common spoon.
The issue of the common spoon has come up in the past, but many church members are reluctant to even discuss the obvious unhygienic aspect of the common spoon. They are reluctant out of fear of disrespect to the sacrament. However, the deep concern we are discussing here is directed toward the common spoon, not toward the sacrament itself.
Similar concerns arose when Tuberculosis was endemic and again with the outbreaks of SARS and AIDS.
A “pandemic” is a disease occurring over a wide geographic area, and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of people. This is what is now happening in the United States. Details of this problem can be found on the Web site of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) at CDC.com
The essence of this recent information is that the United States is experiencing a pandemic with a new type of influenza, the H1N1 virus. It is sometimes referred to as ‘swine flu’. This virus started with an outbreak in Mexico and then spread to the United States. Case reports started from California, then Texas, then New York and then many other states by mid-April 2009.
At the end of May 2009, the virus had infected citizens in all 50 states. This pattern continued with the CDC stating that 2,717 confirmed cases had been reported. At the beginning of June the cases in the United States exceeded those in Mexico.
Toward the end of June, the number of deaths related to the H1N1 virus in the United States surpassed those of all other countries put together.
The CDC released information in July indicating that more than one million cases of the infection had been reported in the United States. On October 24 President Barack Obama declared that swine flu had become a national emergency.
By November 12 an estimated 22 million Americans had been infected by the H1N1 virus and 4,000 had died.
On December 10, the CDC issued another alarming report that approximately 50 million Americans have become infected with the H1N1 virus and that 10,000 Americans have died as a result of this virus.
So, of 300 million Americans, 50 million have become infected with the H1N1 virus, that is 1 out of 6 Americans. This was confirmed by the Director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden. There is also concern that there will be a new wave of illnesses caused by H1N1. No one can predict the severity of a new outbreak, but we can only hope and pray that the virus does not mutate and become more severe.
Every year ‘seasonal flu’ kills approximately 36,000 Americans. This has been observed for a number of years by the CDC. These cases usually affect elderly people, that is, those who are chronically ill from heart attacks, strokes, lung disease, etc. This new virus, the H1N1 virus, affects a different group of people. The H1N1 virus affects people who are much younger and are relatively healthy. And as stated above, it is postulated that a third outbreak of the disease may start this coming Spring.
Our bishops, through SCOBA, have thoroughly studied the issue as to who is permitted, and who is not permitted to receive communion at an Orthodox Church from the perspective of what denomination they belong to. Their position has been made clear, and is now doctrine. Perhaps this issue of the common spoon should be similarly studied by SCOBA and their decisions forwarded to the Orthodox faithful. One church leader, a member of SCOBA, stated that the use of individual wooden spoons might be permissible; the wooden spoons could be burned after they are used.
As a surgeon, I have spent much of my professional life studying infectious disease, more specifically, trying to prevent infections before they begin. Presently many parishioners are avoiding communion because of the use of a common spoon.
These observations will hopefully serve for discussion that will lead to a solution. My goal is for more parishioners to take communion, and for more parishioners to take communion more frequently.
Frankly, it is unproven that replacing the common spoon with individual spoons would actually reduce the frequencies of infections in the faithful. Apparently our priests do not suffer from contagious disease any more than our parishioners do. Remember: our priests always consume the remaining portions from the chalice at the end of every liturgy, and our priests appear as healthy as our laity.
Nevertheless, if the common spoon is replaced by a more hygienic practice, such as the use of individual spoons, more parishioners will take communion, and more parishioners will take communion more frequently.
The author is a neurosurgeon based in Cleveland. He is a lifelong member of the Greek Orthodox Church and has served on the Archdiocesan Council for the past 35 years.