Catholic World News News Feature
Invalid Communion in New Jersey: Analysis August 23, 2004
During the past week, scores of secular news outlets have produced stories about a young Catholic girl in New Jersey, who was allegedly refused Holy Communion because she suffers from a rare digestive disorder.
Those stories are inaccurate. Here are the facts:
- Haley Waldman suffers from celiac disease, a rare but very serious malady that makes it impossible for her to digest anything made with wheat.
- In order to celebrate a valid Mass, the priest must use bread made from wheat, and wine made from grapes. This is not an arbitrary rule concocted by the Vatican, but the Church's response to a divine imperative. "Do this in memory of me," Jesus said at the Last Supper. And so the priest does as Jesus did, consecrating simple bread and wine. The priest could perform the same ritual with rice cakes and apple juice, but then he would not be doing what Jesus did; the ceremony would not be the Sacrifice of Calvary.
- Haley's mother has asked the Diocese of Trenton to change Church rules in order to accommodate her daughter. No doubt diocesan officials would have been happy to oblige, if they had been dealing with a local regulation or a question of ordinary ecclesial discipline. But it is not. The question of what constitutes the Eucharist-- of how the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ become present on the altar-- involves the most essential elements of Catholic doctrine. As Trenton's Bishop John Smith told the media, "This is not an issue to be determined at the diocesan or parish level, but has already been decided for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world by Vatican authority,"
- Because she could not consume a consecrated host made from wheat, Haley Waldman was given another host, made of rice. Unfortunately, that was not valid matter for the sacrament. She did not really receive the Eucharist. Some secular stories have reported that the Trenton diocese "invalidated" the sacrament. That's not accurate, either. It wasn't the action of the diocese that made the sacrament invalid; it was the use of improper matter for the host. The diocese merely took note of that fact.
- The Eucharist is consecrated in two forms: the bread that becomes the Body of Christ, and the wine that becomes his Blood. Ordinarily, at Sunday Mass, lay people receive only the Body (the consecrated host) and not the Blood (from the chalice). But each is complete in itself; anyone who receives Communion under either form receives Jesus fully-- "body and blood, soul and divinity," as the catechism formula accurately puts it.
- Neither the Trenton diocese nor the universal Church wants to deprive Haley Waldman of the Eucharist. And in fact many people who suffer from celiac disorder do receive Communion on a regular basis. If their condition is so acute that they cannot digest a wheat-based host, then they receive the Blood of Christ from the chalice. In doing so, they receive Communion as fully as someone who consumes the Body of Christ in the form of wheat-based bread.
- It's true that in order to receive Communion from the chalice alone, the individual may have to make prior arrangements with the parish priest. But anyone who suffers from celiac disorder is quite accustomed to making such arrangements-- at restaurants, in friends' homes, at school-- in order to avoid wheat products.
The controversy surrounding Haley Waldman is doubly unfortunate. It is sad that she suffers from a medical condition that will make her life very complicated, and she cannot escape those complications even in her parish church. It is also sad that she has become embroiled in a controversy that could readily have been avoided entirely, through a full and accurate teaching of Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist.