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Online Edition - Vol. X, No. 6: September 2004

Communion Bread and Celiac Disease

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Reports about people with celiac disease receiving Communion inspired a flurry of news stories in the United States and Australia this summer.

A few months ago, a Trenton priest administered a rice wafer to an 8-year-old girl who has celiac disease for her first Communion. The Communion was not valid because defective matter was used. The girl's mother reportedly wrote to the pope seeking to change this doctrine. A similar case in Massachusetts had created a sensation a few years ago.

The Australian controversy was spurred by a priest's resistance to Church authorities calling a halt to the unauthorized use of rice wafers for Communion for people with celiac disease. (This was also being done in Ireland.)

The press accounts elicited uncommon interest -- and not only among Catholics. The impression the stories conveyed is that the Catholic Church is simply insensitive and arbitrary in insisting that only bread -- not other substances that do not contain gluten -- could be used for Mass.

The news accounts this summer did not mention the significant doctrinal factors involved, nor the Church's response to health considerations a decade ago.

Instead, they implied that unfeeling Catholic hierarchs (i.e., Bishop John Smith of Trenton, New Jersey; Cardinal George Pell of Sydney) callously rejected the needs of young children who desire Holy Communion but cannot receive ordinary hosts because of their intolerance of gluten -- and the hard-hearted bishops refuse to change the rigid Church rules that provide no alternatives.

Callous bishops? No alternatives? Untrue.

Doctrine Matters
The Catholic Church holds that Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In the Gospel accounts, bread and wine are essential to the Paschal meal. References to Jesus as the Bread of Life, etc., occur elsewhere in Scripture. This is a matter of divine revelation; the Church is not free to alter Jesus' words of institution: "This is my body... This is my blood...", nor any other essential element of this Paschal meal. The bread Jesus consecrated was made of wheat. The wine Jesus consecrated was grape wine.

Canon 925 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law presents the requirements for validity of the matter (bread and wine) to be consecrated. It states that the bread for Mass must be made of wheat alone, and the wine must be grape wine. Redemptionis Sacramentum, the liturgical instruction issued this year, states that attempting to consecrate substitutes, such as rice-cakes or pasteurized or blended grape juice, is a grave abuse that invalidates the Sacrament.

Some people cannot physically tolerate the gluten in wheat; some are alcoholics who cannot drink wine without risk. How can they receive Communion?

First, a communicant who is sensitive to gluten in the Host may receive the Precious Blood; and an alcoholic may receive the Host alone. Furthermore, it is a matter of Church dogma that Christ exists "whole and entire" -- Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity -- in each and every particle of each of the consecrated elements, in each crumb and each drop. Therefore: 1) a person who receives a mouthful or a gulp does not receive "more Christ" than one who receives the merest particle or drop; and 2) one receives the "whole Christ" in either species or form (many, perhaps a majority, of Catholics generally receive the Host alone).

Those who claim that the Catholic Church is "insensitive" to Catholics with these health conditions is manifestly false.

Ten years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent letter to all bishops, responded to concerns about people with celiac disease and alcoholism and proposals to change the Church laws that require wheat bread and grape wine to be used for Mass.

This letter to bishops from the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated August 22, 1994, provides norms for the use of low-gluten bread (made of wheat flour and wheat starch), and mustum (natural unfermented grape juice). The letter appears on the Adoremus web site: www.adoremus.org/CDF_ Lowgluten-mustum94.html).

Health Matters
The news stories on the celiac disease and Communion issue not only did not help clarify Church teaching for Catholics affected with celiac disease, they ignored the Church's efforts to accommodate people who are afflicted with this relatively uncommon disease by permitting low-gluten bread to be used for Mass.

Gluten is the substance in wheat that provides the elasticity essential to make flour into bread dough. Other grains do not contain enough gluten to make real bread. Only within the last couple of decades has it been discovered that gluten can cause damage to the small intestine, a relatively uncommon condition known as "celiac disease". The technical possibility of removing gluten from wheat flour is also a recent development, and producing Communion bread with sufficiently reduced gluten content to be tolerated by most celiac disease sufferers has been a challenge, met successfully only within the past year.

It is also worth noting that people who are intolerant of gluten (or alcohol) have different levels of intolerance. Apparently there is a high degree of variability in the degree of gluten sensitivity from patient to patient. For example, a biochemist who specializes in research on celiac disease recently observed, "The issue of minimum threshold for gluten is the most difficult clinical question asked in celiac support meetings. That is, what to do in the face of inadequate data". He noted that "Those with immediate hypersensitivity [to gluten] are difficult to convince that all celiac patients don't respond to small amounts of wheat gluten the way they do. There is a tendency to think that even those patients who don't have an immediate response are doing themselves irreparable harm." (www.enabling.org/ ia/celiac/mxgluten.html) broken link 6/24/2005

The Politics of Liturgy
Two factors that have nothing whatever to do with either doctrine or health issues greatly contributed to the heat the news stories generated this summer. Both involve Communion in the Catholic Church.

One is the political intensity of the US presidential election year, where one of the candidates is a Catholic and an outspoken opponent of Church teaching on abortion. The controversy over whether Catholics who publicly reject Catholic doctrine should be denied Communion has fueled further hostility in the United States toward the Catholic Church, which is still reeling from the sex-abuse scandals of the past two years.

Another contributing factor is less obvious. It reflects a liturgical split within the Catholic Church based on a fundamental disagreement over what the Church claims to be, and the basic theology of the sacraments - in particular the Eucharist.

The recent Instruction aimed at correcting liturgical abuses (Redemptionis Sacramentum) was not welcomed by those who believe the Church radically changed these essential teachings at the Second Vatican Council. These opinions have prevailed in professional liturgical circles for more than thirty years -- despite consistent Vatican reaffirmations that Church doctrine on the Eucharist is unchanged and unchangeable.

According to the view of many influential liturgists, the Liturgy is socially constructed, not divinely ordained, and should conform to the culture; "inculturation" of the Liturgy means that Catholic liturgical practices should absorb and reflect the attitudes and practices specific to the surrounding culture (whether indigenous or the mainstream secular culture), and Catholic Liturgy must never impose Western-European Christian culture on other cultures, or "outmoded" Catholic dogma on anyone.

Thus it is argued that the bread used for Mass should come from the particular culture -- common table bread, or whatever substitutes for bread (in Asian countries rice cakes, for example). Those who hold these views regard the Church's insistence on maintaining the integrity of her doctrine concerning Holy Communion -- including the symbolic significance of the wheat bread and grape wine that Jesus used when He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper -- as a manifestation of cultural imperialism of the West and an exercise of unjust hierarchical authority by the Church.

The opportunity use the celiac disease issue to portray the Catholic Church as unfair, arbitrary and rigidly rule-bound was apparently irresistible.

The Matter of the Most Holy Eucharist

The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition. It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament. It is a grave abuse to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist. Hosts should obviously be made by those who are not only distinguished by their integrity, but also skilled in making them and furnished with suitable tools.

Redemptionis Sacramentum 48

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