Wednesday, September 12, 2012

(From a Gluten Free Priest) Feed Them Bread They Can Eat!

Last week the diocese of Calgary responded to demand for clarity around gluten free communion bread.  The bishop’s office thus forwarded a September 2006 release from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Liturgy Office.[i]   There is found a “Pastoral Response” to an increasingly prevalent issue for Canadian Catholics, and its subsequent impact on Eucharistic Celebration.   For those who are not aware, the Canadian bishops remind all that Celiac Disease is an absolute intolerance to gluten (a by-product of wheat, barley, rye and oats) that causes discomfort and indigestion within the intestines – a bodily reaction similar to food-poisoning.  The bishops cite estimates that one in two-thousand Canadians suffer an inability to digest wheat gluten.

In response to a faithful who long to participate, and their pastors, the CCCB rightfully acknowledges the complex problem that the disease is and encourages priests to be sympathetic.  While the NLO admits that persons with Celiac Disease cannot consume any gluten at all, they, bound to precedence, fail to clear-up theological confusion around Eucharist or comfort those afflicted.   

Since the peak of Christendom, when the influence of Greco-pagan and Islamic ideologies pushed liturgical practice away from Hebrew roots, the Church has scrupled over sacramental matter.  Although Vatican II addressed the problem (providing a well developed Judeo-Christian theology of Symbol in Sacrament), tradition yet underrates the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit in Catholic Liturgy.  Can Christ be present to/in Gluten Free bread?  I believe so.  Does the law concur?  Not yet.  Dualistic categories (substance and accidents) consistently muddle the "statements" on Liturgy and Eucharist in particular.  The unintended result portrays a God inhibited, restricted to specific ingredients, rather than free and effective.    

Canada’s bishops reference the only response to Celiac Disease ever published by the Vatican.   A Letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, as Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003,[ii] references the theological doctrine of “concomitance” – that under either kind, bread or wine, the whole of Christ is received.[iii]  He explains that communion under one kind is as valid as communion under both kinds.  The notion comes from the Middle-Ages when the Ecclessial Hierarchy first denied Christ’s faithful the precious blood of Jesus and had to explain how the laity nevertheless received the fullness of God’s fleshly presence in Eucharistic bread alone.  And thus the Church had to state that what applies to bread alone applies to wine alone.   

Oddly enough, many parishes continue to hold-back the cup despite the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which encourages communion under both species:
The sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since the
 sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly. The intention of Christ that the
new and eternal covenant be ratified in his blood is better expressed, as is the
relation of the Eucharistic banquet  to the heavenly banquet.[iv]   

Ratzinger’s document however, like the Canadian bishops', explains why one need not eat the bread (can consume merely the wine) and validly (fully, consciously, and actively) participate in the Celebration of Eucharist.  Cardinal Ratzinger stopped short of permitting the use of gluten-free hosts or even encouraging the use of low gluten hosts; the Canadian bishops, while admitting the harm that even the slightest amount of gluten can do to a Celiac, do permit the latter.   

As a Celiac, and Catholic Priest, I can personally speak to the experience of a marginal group in the Church.  In a Communion that solicits the “full, conscious, and active participation[v] of all in Liturgy, a non-gluten dieter can feel as though she/he does not fit in.  As frequent reception of the Eucharist is pushed and the significance of bread in Scripture is honoured, Celiacs are less likely to get passionate about "the Symbol".   

So what is a Celiac to do?  Show up early?  Ask Father if the parish has gluten-free hosts?  
A Celiac can and should do such, but must be prepared for a range of reactions.  Some pastors are mercifully sensitive to the issue and provide the hosts.  Others will provide low-gluten hosts.  A pastor might invite inquirers to submit their personal pix and instruct to see him at communion time.  Other Presiders are less hospitable.  
The Canadian Bishops Conference, strictly reiterating the 2003 CDF document, suggests that those who cannot consume gluten receive from the cup, possibly even a special cup, exclusively.  Lay Catholics have the right to do this even in situations where the cup is not offered to the entire congregation, they say.  

Being Celiac and Catholic is awkward.  
Eucharist is the “source and summit[vi] of our lives, which makes Christ the center.   A good Catholic is neither accustomed to nor comfortable with being singled out at Liturgy.  Jesus said, when you enter a place and are welcomed, simply “eat what is put in front of you” (Luke 10:8).   He did not say “warn the host of your dietary needs” or “just drink!”  

Legalists fuss about ingredients, liturgists muse about appearance (the joke is that more faith goes into believing white wafers are made from wheat than honouring the presence of God).   Few among the former complain about the obvious non-bread-like (rice-cracker-like appearance) look of standard communion bread.   Yet ingredients, for philosophical reasons, continue to distress.  

People of God need sacramental standards, but the Spirit cannot be caged.  I firmly believe that God is where God chooses to be - creatures do not determine their makers' actions.  Faith suggests that a crucified and risen Lord exists, is more real, beyond the senses.   When the Church celebrates she in faith professes that Christ is in the elements of bread and wine, the Word Proclaimed, the Liturgical Presider and no less the people gathered for worship; she also insists that God is infinitely more.  Even though Christ is in Eucharist, God is not (nor restricted to) the material.  Liturgy is but a foretaste of heaven, not heaven itself.   

Nothing the Church says can change the effects of wheat on my body.  Liturgy, at which I preside, demands the full, conscious and active participation of me and all gathered.   Sure, I can receive the fullness of Eucharist in liquid alone, but see no harm in adding edible food (a gluten-free product) to “the meal”.  Does serving bacon with eggs detract from the substance of eggs?  I think not.  Does the use of gluten free bread detract from Christ’s presence in Eucharistic wine?  I hope not.  

All baptised are called to “sacramental participation” by receiving communion under both kinds whenever possible.  Ideally, they are provided every means and opportunity to do so.  Personally, I am not offended by those who maintain that my bread is less Jesus than theirs.  I trust in the holy work of the Spirit, and thanks to a little creativity I too partake in my Lord’s Eucharistic feast.  

May hosts of Liturgy be guided by faith and hospitality, and serve what guests can eat.      

[i] (
[ii] (
[iii] (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no.282; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1390; Council of Trent, session 21, Doctrina de communione sub utraque specie et parvulorum, 16 July 1562, chapters 1-3: Denzinger –Schonmetzer, 1725-1729)
[iv] (GIRM, 281, 282)
[v] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14
[vi] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324


  1. Thanks for this very succinctly written article. I have recently been diagnosed with celiac disease and stumbled upon your blog. It does feel like the Church doesnt really take this disease seriously. especially since a small piece of the Host is put into the wine during consecration, essentially rendering both species unable to be consumed by a celiac.

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