It’s the beginning of July and the Catholic Church has released a statement. True gluten-free Catholic Communion wafers are not valid for Holy Communion. Before I unload my research, thoughts and feelings on the issue, I will fully confess I am not Catholic. I attend a Protestant church that believes in open Communion. Amid the headlines of the Pope Francis’ declaration, I want to state some facts that might settle some fury. I also want to share some theological thoughts and concerns on their stance.
As I stated previously, I am not Catholic. I do however hold much respect for the Pope Francis. One, because he is a fellow Christian, living out the spiritual call on his life. Also, Pope Francis has of late done much to remind all believers that we are to take care of the poor, the hurting, and to show love and compassion above all else. Therefore I am surprised about his stance on not allowing a true gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer. Pope Francis has been excellent about breaking down walls and barriers between people and Christ. This stance does not seem to follow his recent actions. It makes me sad.
First, some background on the Catholic Church’s belief on communion. They believe once the wafer and wine are blessed, they transubstantiate into the body and blood of Jesus. Transubstantiate is simply a big word for “change into.” So yes, those of the Catholic faith believe they are LITERALLY consuming the body and blood of Christ. Like the sacrifices in the old testament, the host should be without defect or blemish. This is why the wafer must be made of pure ingredients. Christ is pure, and therefore can only inhabit those things which are pure. Furthermore, this is why a true gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer is not possible in their belief. The Catholic Church believes a wafer made from grains other than wheat are not “pure” and will degrade easily.
How the Catholic Church is Taking Steps to Accommodate Those with Celiac Disease
Don’t run out with pitchforks and torches just yet. There are “low gluten” Communion wafers that are considered valid by the Catholic Church. These low-gluten hosts are made by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration specifically as a response to those from the Catholic faith who have Celiac Disease. While they are made with wheat starch and water, Tricia Thompson of Gluten Free Watchdog has tested these wafers. By her testing, “The amount of gluten in one host is approximately 0.0019 milligrams. In other words the amount of gluten in any one wafer is negligible. For context, a one ounce slice of gluten-free bread containing just under 20 parts per million of gluten contains 0.57 milligrams of gluten.”
All that to say, that those wanting a gluten-free Catholic Communion experience, there are options. If you choose to partake of these low-gluten hosts, it’s best advised to keep a small box of them of your own. All parishes may not have them available. This also helps to prevent cross-contact from other gluten grains on the communion plate. Also, those with Celiac Disease can partake of wine only, from a separate chalice. In these ways, the Catholic Church is trying to accommodate the needs of those with Celiac Disease and wheat allergies.
So far I’ve tried to explain the stance against a true gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer. I understand that although my Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ serve the same risen Savior, we have different practices. However, as a Christian there are issues I have with this stance. I have heard too many comments from Catholics and non-Catholics on this issue to simply remain silent. Bare with me as I explain some of my concerns on the denial of a gluten-free Catholic Communion host.
My Concerns with the Pope’s Stance
As previously stated, the Catholic church states that the Communion wafer must contain gluten. This is because they believe that the communion host LITERALLY becomes the body of Christ after it has been consecrated. While that’s hard to wrap my mind around sometimes, I’ll be at peace with the idea. But stating that the wafer (or host) must contain wheat for transubstantiation seems to hinder the power of the Mighty God whom we serve. Is He not the God who spoke the world into being? Is he not the God who parted the Red Sea, restored the dead to life, and healed the blind? Surely, a God of this magnitude can transubstantiate into any form of matter He chooses. If it is a matter of having “pure” ingredients, should we not be more concerned about the purity of our “host”? It is in our hearts that the Holy Spirit dwells. Purification of our own hearts and minds should deserve greater concern than the grains of a cracker.
Second, this policy alienates so many. There are 75 MILLION people in this world with Celiac Disease. Many more with gluten-sensitivity. When we, the church, makes rules that make it harder to come to Christ, don’t we become like Pharisees? I have a friend who left the Catholic church for very personal reasons. She stated “if this is literally the body of Christ, why would we do anything to prevent others coming to Him?” I think of the men in the New Testament who broke a roof to get their sick friend to Christ. What about the bleeding woman who pushed through the crowds simply to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe? He did not rebuke those men for not entering through the door. He did not rebuke the woman for being “unclean.” He welcomed them because their hearts realized that He was their Messiah.
Third, I and my fellow brothers and sisters living with Celiac Disease are not lepers. Even if we were, Christ still would still have compassion on us. However, this rule of not allowing gluten-free Catholic Communion may make those with our genetic disorder feel like outsiders. I remember the story of a woman newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease in our support group. She relayed her heartache as she realized that her new diagnosis would hinder her participation in community. She spoke candidly of how she sat in her pew and wept deeply. I’d like to think that Jesus wept with her. Just like he did Martha and Mary at the loss of their brother. When the Curtain of the Temple was torn in two during Christ’s crucifixion, it was done to restore relationship. Restore relationship not just with God, but with each other. It breaks my heart when any church – Protestant, Catholic or otherwise- sets up rules like the Pharisees that make relationship harder. I’ve written about this issue in our own church, here.
Partaking in Holy Communion is so central to the Catholic faith that remnants cannot simply be discarded. It is the literal body and blood of Christ, broken for us, and therefore must be consumed. Because of this, the Catholic Church has actually dissuaded men with Celiac Disease from becoming priests. As published in a Vatican document, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “4. Given the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of a priest, one must proceed with great caution before admitting to Holy Orders [priestly ordination] those candidates unable to ingest gluten or alcohol without serious harm.” Why would one dismiss God’s servant because of a food intolerance? Men willing to take a vow of celibacy, deny the blessing of marriage, who take the personal commitment to being a man of the cloth should be honored. One willing to make that sacrifice for Christ should not be dissuaded.
Lastly, I’m concerned about what precedent this stance may set. Will priests still be compassionate to those who need the low-gluten hosts? Will they be willing to order the low-gluten hosts for those that need them? Is it possible that one’s request for a separate chalice will be seen as a “bother”? My heart broke as I read a comment on the GlutenAway Facebook thread from a Catholic parishoner. “My priest told me that if I had faith, I wouldn’t get sick. That it is NOT bread but the body of Christ.” The “if you had enough faith” comment has been used in multiple denominations, and it’s simply WRONG. I think of the story of the young man born blind. The disciples ask “Who sinned, he or his parents?” Jesus answers “Neither, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed through him.” Again and again, Christ shows that we are to be people of compassion, and not judge the faith or sin of another.
So thanks for bearing with me on my long article about this issue. My goal here is not to destroy and disrespect the Catholic Church. My goal isn’t even so much to make the Pope rethink his denial of a true gluten-free Catholic Communion host. (Although that would be FANTASTIC!) More than anything, I want people to see the heart and compassion of Christ. So many times I believe traditions established by churches are out of fear, and not an understanding of who God is. I feel this stance by the Catholic Church is no different. While it is true that we should come to Christ in reverence for what He has done for us, God does not stand ready to smite us if we get something wrong. He is our Abba, Father. We are His children. He defines us by our relationship with him, not our body’s relationship to wheat protein particles.
What’s your take on this issue? Please share your thoughts, keeping in mind that this is a sensitive issue and I will not tolerate demeaning comments from either side of the argument. How has your congregation or parish accommodated your Celiac Disease or food allergies? You can read my post on how I’d like to educate priests and pastors on that issue here.