A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
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. — M.G., Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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 Eucharist.
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 tenuous.
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 gluten.
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 of matter.
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 United States."
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," Fasano said.
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 decide.
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 child?
"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 not bread.
Second — it saddens me to say so — if 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 of knowing.
Almost certainly she would have received some special grace.
However, she certainly did not receive sacramental Communion. ZE04092822
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