Gluten-Free, Catholic Communion & Christ’s Love

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“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith ia a very personal thing, and involves traditions that deepen our faith. But what happens for the person with Celiac Disease, when communion becomes unavailable? I’m sharing my thoughts on gluten-free Catholic communion, and faith in general.

The Pope has claimed that true gluten-free Catholic Communion wafers are not allowable for mass

Let Me Be Transparent: I’m not Catholic

It’s the beginning of July 2017, and the Catholic Church has released a statement. 100% wheat-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 gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer, void of wheat.

Where the Catholic Church Stands on Wheat in Communion

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 Accommodates Those with Celiac Disease

Some Catholic parishes accommodate the need for a gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer with "low gluten" hosts

Low Gluten Communion Wafers

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.”

Those with Celiac Disease Have Other Options

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 wheat -free, gluten-free Catholic Communion host

My Concerns with the Pope’s Stance

Our God parted the Red Sea. I believe he's okay with a gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer.

What a Mighty God We Serve

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.

Making Jesus Accessible to All

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.

I believe that Christ weeps over the Pope's stance on denying a truyl gluten-free Catholic Communion wafer

Our Infirmities Should Not Keep Us from Christ

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. 

Should Those with Celiac Disease Become Priests?

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.

How accommodating will priests be now that the Pope has denied gluten-free Catholic Communion wafers?

“If You Had Enough Faith…”

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.

Some Final Thoughts

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 of God, and not an understanding of God. 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.

For more on this topic, listen to my Celiac Project Podcast interview with Mike and Cam. (Audio starts at 30 seconds.)

13 Comments

  1. Well written and beautifully thought out piece! The way you have treated this subject with mutual respect and love is so admirable. I am also not Catholic, but I appreciate your explaination and thoughts on this issue. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and for all the advocacy you do every day for the celiac community!

  2. As a Catholic celiac, I cannot thank you enough for this post Margaret! You highlighted all of the things I’ve struggled with on this issue. I appreciate you!

  3. This piece was very comforting. As an Episcopalian whose faith shares the same beliefs regarding communion as Roman Catholic, I have been struggling with this. Thank you.

  4. I pray that the pope will consider what you have said. It is very sad that the church would deny the use of gluten free bread, thus denying receiving Holy Communion to Catholics with celiac disease.

  5. Excellent article, you skillfully laid out the issues with the RC church on communion. I had been Catholic most of my life. I am now alienated from the Catholic Church as a celiac and allergic to alcohol (wine) and so I am unable to participate in communion which is central to the catholic mass. I left, was lost and now attend an Anglican Church where gluten free hosts are available, and communion is given the same reverence and celebrated weekly. I wept the first time I was able to receive communion in years.

    1. Thank you for reading and your kind comments. It’s defintely a sensitive topic. So glad to hear you’ve found a church that accepts you as you are and makes communion accessible to you again. I too have a new church, and am so glad at their willingness to do gluten free communion. I’ve even gone to making homemade bread for our church, for communion purposes. (We only have communion once a month.)

  6. I am Catholic and I certainly appreciate the effort on your part to shed understanding on the postion of the Church on gluten and Holy Communion and the difficulties this presents to those who are highly sensitive to gluten. To help solve this issue, could it not be possible to have the tiniest morcel of Communion (from a low gluten wafer or wheat wafer) given to a recipient. This morcel could be a very small crumb. So small that the amount of gluten would be next to negligent.
    Or maybe have a single drop of th Precious Blood in lieu of the Bread. It would still be Christ that the individual would be recieving completely since God cannot be divided. How much gluten is toxic?

  7. I am a Roman Catholic who is fortunate enough to have several parishes nearby that offer low gluten hosts during Communion. There are many smaller parishes that do not offer these, however. A priest at a parish that I often attend with my son, although not my home parish, offered to give me a small supply of low gluten hosts, unconsecrated, that I can bring with me to Mass at those parishes that do not have them available. I confer with the priest before Mass and ascertain how I can receive Communion with the consecrated low gluten host, which has been placed in a separate pyx. If there aren’t any low gluten hosts readily available from a nearby parish, it may be possible to order some from one of the approved companies that churches get them from. I have not contacted any of these companies so I cannot confirm this.

  8. I’m Celiac and Catholic. A gluten-free host will never be valid matter unfortunately. There has to be wheat for the consecration to be valid (to become the body of Christ). As Catholics, the Eucharist really is the body of Christ. So, it’s not the pope’s decision to make. No amount of petitioning will do any good. Those at our church who receive the Low Gluten hosts are satisfied and have not had trouble with the low gluten hosts. The problem is that at the time of Christ, wheat was not hybridized to contain more gluten like it is today. There was no problem then. The solution is for Low Gluten host manufacturers to start using unhybridized, low gluten wheat flour such as Einkorn.

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