|ROME, 14 SEPT. 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: I've been recently told of a girl who could not receive her first
Communion because she was allergic to wheat gluten. The Catholic Church
doctrine says that is the composition the host needs to be made of. I
don't know how to answer this question from a "fallen away" Catholic.
A: The problem is twofold. One is theological and concerns the proper
matter for the Eucharist and the broader question of the Churches power
over the sacraments.
Another question is practical and concerns how to address special
situation such as celiac disease.
From the theological perspective the Church's power over some elements of
the sacraments is not absolute and must respect those elements which it
understands as having been determined by the Lord himself.
Among these elements is the use of water and the Trinitarian formula for
baptism and the exclusive use of wheat bread and grape wine for the
In a certain way the submission to these limitations is also a recognition
and an affirmation of the reality of the Incarnation in which the second
person of the Blessed Trinity submitted himself to the limits of space and
time by becoming man.
By continuing to use only those elements used by Christ, the Church in a
way joins herself to his act of self-limitation and to the concrete
historical reality of the Incarnation.
If it were possible for the Church to change the essential elements of the
sacraments with every historical epoch and every cultural context, then
this connection with the Incarnation, and indeed the reality of the
sacraments as prolongation of the Incarnation, would become rather
In the end, as has happened at times with other Christian groups that
weakened the sacraments, the faith in the very reality of God become man
is often undermined in favor of a creeping Docetism or a nebulous
manifestation of the Divinity.
Thus one can understand why the Church pays such very great attention to
the elements of the sacraments in spite of at times appearing excessively
attentive to details such as alcohol and gluten levels.
The Holy See has declared that some gluten is necessary for the substance
to be considered as true bread. And thus a gluten-free wafer, in spite of
its external resemblance, is no longer bread and thus is incapable of
becoming the Body of Christ.
The sacraments are far too important to risk performing them invalidly.
On the practical level, sufferers from celiac disease, about one in every
130 people, face a real difficulty as they are incapable of consuming
At the same time the Church has too much respect for the faithful with
this condition to allow them to fall into error regarding whether they
receive a genuinely consecrated host or not.
It would be a manifest act of negligence on the Church's part to look the
other way while some members of the faithful were being innocently induced
into an act of idolatry by attributing adoration to what is in fact a lump
This might seem harsh on the sentiments of some, especially in the case of
children who reach the age of first Communion and don't want to stand out
from the rest by receiving differently. But, until recently, as we shall
see below, there was no viable alternative.
One fairly easy solution is to receive only under the species of wine.
This usually requires the use of a second, smaller chalice as even the
particle of host that the priest places in the chalice can have adverse
effects on sufferers.
This is the solution I adopted for a sufferer in my own parish, with no
great difficulty. It is even easier to apply in those countries where
Communion is habitually offered under both species and the host fragment
is placed only in the principal chalice.
Recently, however, another solution has been found thanks to the patience
and perseverance of two nuns, Sisters Jane Heschmeyer and Lynn Marie
D'Souza, of the Benedictine convent in Clyde, Missouri. Over two years of
experiments they have developed a Communion wafer that has been approved
as valid material for the Eucharist by the Holy See.
With a level of gluten content of 0.01% it is safe enough for consumption
by almost all celiac suffers, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano of the
University of Maryland and other medical experts.
The U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has deemed the sisters' bread
"the only true, low-gluten altar bread approved for use at Mass in the
Fasano called the sisters' accomplishment "very wonderful news," but added
that celiac sufferers should still consult with their doctors before
consuming the new hosts. "In rare cases even 0.01% is still too much,"
See the Catholic Key story posted on the Web.
Although the sisters' work seems to be the most promising to date, others
were also working on the problem and the Church has also recently approved
other low-gluten breads in Italy and Australia. ZE04091422
* * *
Follow-up: Gluten-free Hosts [from 09-28-2004]
I received several comments regarding the use of low-gluten hosts (see
Sept. 14). One reader wrote that the problem he sees with the "low-gluten
solution is that one could eventually reach 0.00000001% gluten content,
and then would the Church still recognize it as valid? It seems that this
is chasing a chimera."
All I can say is that I have no idea how low a level would be acceptable
to the Church. But I am sure it is a question that only the Church can
What is clear is that with no gluten the substance is simply no longer
bread and is incapable of becoming Christ's Body.
Reciting the words of consecration over such a substance would be at best
a farce and at worst blasphemy and idolatry.
This brings me to another correspondent from Ohio who directly addressed
the original case of the young girl whose first Communion was declared
invalid because her host did not contain gluten.
He wrote: "I see this as yet another attempt by mere mortals to presume to
place restrictions on the power of Almighty God. Even you said in your
response of Sept. 14, 2004, 'The Church's power over some elements of the
sacraments is not absolute.' When Christ directed his disciples to prepare
for his final Passover meal, I don't recall him saying, '... and by the
way, make sure there is gluten in that bread or the deal's off!'
"You can preach 'gluten' to me until the day I draw my last breath and I
will never believe that Christ was not present for that little girl on the
joyful day of her first Communion! And then, to tell her after the fact
that Jesus did not come to her after all is unconscionable. Still bearing
the pain and embarrassment of the sexual abuse of children, must we
Catholics now witness, and attempt to defend, the spiritual abuse of a
"How does an ordinary person like myself get the message to the powers
that be that in this, the 21st century, we do not single out or exclude
individuals who face physical challenges every day of their lives? Perhaps
our bishops could begin by revisiting Mark 10:13-15, 'Let the little
children come unto me ...'"
I think that our correspondent has some valid points, especially regarding
the difficulty that the Church has in explaining the importance of what
seems to many people to be obtuse hairsplitting.
I would first observe that the Communion was not declared invalid because
the bread had no gluten, but rather, as we have seen above, because it was
it saddens me to say so
there has been an act of spiritual abuse to this child, it was done by the
priest who performed an invalid consecration when he should have known
better or should at least have consulted with the bishop before proceeding
in a doubtful situation.
No amount of concern for the sentiments or feelings of a person, nor the
legitimate desire not to single out people who suffer physical challenges,
can justify performing an invalid sacrament.
Just think of the consequences if priests and bishops were to apply the
same criteria to baptisms, confessions, confirmations, anointings,
weddings and ordinations.
If the Church cannot be sure of the validity of her sacraments, her whole
structure would be fatally weakened.
The bishop who declared the first Communion invalid certainly had no
desire to hurt this little girl. But he did his duty because he understood
that something larger was at stake than hurt feelings.
I also fear that our reader misunderstood the argument regarding the
Church's power over the sacraments.
The argument was that the Church is limited by Christ's will in
instituting the sacraments. So, just as Christ accepted the limits of
space and time by becoming man, the external aspects of some sacraments
are similarly limited through a direct connection with the time when
Christ walked upon this earth. Thus they serve as a constant reminder of
the concrete historical reality of the Incarnation itself.
Over these elements, and the requirement of bread for the Eucharist is one
of them, the Church has no power to change.
Our reader is actually talking about something else: God's power to act
outside of the sacramental system as such.
Whether Christ became in some way present to that little girl when she
received what she believed to be her first Communion, nobody has any way
Almost certainly she would have received some special grace.
However, she certainly did not receive sacramental Communion. ZE04092822