Gluten-Free and Holy Communion
“Gluten-free” is a popular buzzword right now, found in the news, food packaging, recipes, menus and diets. And it seems like the Catholic Church is responding to the current trend. On July 8, the Congregation for Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a Circular Letter to Bishops on the bread and wine for the Eucharist. Catholic World News reported the letter, emphasizing that the Vatican is issuing a reminder to “watch over the quality of the bread and wine to be used at the Eucharist and also those who prepare these materials.”
The letter is not changing anything; it is merely a restatement of what is allowed for the species of the Eucharist, and explanation of gluten-reduced hosts. However, the secular media is spinning this letter as news that the Vatican rejects helping celiacs and won’t allow gluten-free hosts.
This Letter strikes close to home. A few years ago I wrote about the hardships of my son receiving communion at different parishes. He is allergic to wheat, and so cannot receive the Eucharist under the accidents of bread. There is so much misinformation regarding gluten and gluten-free, it might be useful to step back and really understand the facts about gluten, gluten-free and the prescriptions regarding the Eucharist.
Sticky Facts about Gluten
Gluten is the protein substance found in certain grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is the “glue” and elasticity in foods containing these grains, such as bread, crackers, cookies, cakes, etc. Baking without gluten or some substitute makes the food just crumbly and not stick together.
There has been more awareness of how gluten affects some people negatively, usually identified in three specific ways: celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and wheat allergy. Each of these have different manifestations and also different protocols or treatment.
Celiac disease is not a new disease. It was first described in the 2nd century and over time other names were used to identify manifestations, but it really wasn’t until the 20th century that it was truly defined and understood. It is autoimmune digestive disease. When a celiac eats something that contains gluten, the body has an autoimmune response within the small intestine. The finger-like villi that line the small intestine can get damaged, preventing nutrients from absorbing properly. If not treated, the disease can develop into other serious health problems.
This is mainly a hereditary disease. It has been identified often in people of North European descent, but it is not isolated there. Because there is no cure except to avoid gluten, it’s not a “popular” disease with labs and drug companies. So North America has been behind on identifying and treating those with celiac, but there has been a recent surge in awareness of celiac disease.
Gluten sensitivities or intolerance is the popular malaise-du-jour. It has been found by some that gluten seems to cause inflammation or other negative effects, so removing gluten from one’s diet has been helpful to many. There is nothing that can clinically diagnose this, but more of an personal observation or following a prescribed diet or doctor’s orders.
Having a wheat allergy is different than celiac disease or gluten-intolerance. It is an immediate immune reaction to wheat protein. Gluten is only one of the many proteins found in wheat. A person with food allergies exposed to wheat can manifest reactions whether life-threatening (anaphylactic) or other responses, such as hives, sneezing, eczema, asthma, vomiting, etc. Avoidance of all wheat is required, not just foods that have gluten removed.
What can be confusing is how each of these is personally manifested in an individual. Celiac disease reactions and symptoms can vary per person. If there is severe damage to the villi, some people can’t tolerate even being around a bit of gluten. Still others may test positive for the disease but aren’t as sensitive to a small amount of gluten in their diet. A gluten-intolerant person is usually not as super-sensitive, so “reduced gluten” might be tolerated at times.
For a wheat allergic person, like my son, total avoidance is also the protocol. My son seems to be outgrowing his sensitivity (and we hope to do an oral challenge next month). He has not had violent reactions to trace amounts of wheat. “Gluten-free” foods have been helpful for him except if it is a food that contains wheat and only the gluten is removed, because it still contains other wheat proteins.
What Is “Gluten-Free”?
If we lived in the Garden of Eden, it would be easy to have a gluten-free lifestyle. All fruits and vegetables and meat are completely gluten free. The only plants to avoid would be certain grains, such as rye, wheat and barley.
Modern living with commercially or kitchen prepared foods can mean there are hidden ingredients or cross-contamination. Even strict label reading identifying the absence of all the possible gluten containing ingredients (including MSG, food starch, caramel color, artificial or natural flavoring, vegetable protein or gum, and soy sauce) doesn’t ensure the safety of the food. There is also the preparation of the food either in the factory or in the kitchen where there might be some cross-contamination or shared equipment that can leave traces of gluten or wheat.
Keeping a factory completely free of all gluten traces is difficult. For a food product to have a gluten-free label, the FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) makes a small allowance of gluten, allowing 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. If someone is very sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, the gluten-free label is not a guarantee of no reactions.
At times it seems ridiculous to have labels on foods such as ketchup to state it is gluten-free, but with the hidden factors involved, it is necessary for those who need that reassurance. But each person who suffers from any of these problems, they have to know their level of tolerance. Some people can’t eat anything outside of their own home because their reactions are so severe.
Requirements for the Eucharist
Where does all this gluten talk fit into a Catholic’s life? I have observed that the first question that comes to mind when someone has been put on a wheat or gluten restriction is “How will I receive Communion?” And the answer is the Church, like a mother, provides several solutions.
The Church has definite prescriptions regarding the Liturgy, especially regarding the Mass and the Eucharist. Blessed Pope Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei emphasized how “the Eucharist is a very great mystery—in fact, properly speaking and in the words of the Sacred Liturgy, the mystery of faith.” And after safeguarding our faith, it is important to express the proper way of expressing it.
And so the rule of language which the Church has established through the long labor of centuries, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and which she has confirmed with the authority of the Councils, and which has more than once been the watchword and banner of orthodox faith, is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge.... These formulas—like the others that the Church used to propose the dogmas of faith—express concepts that are not tied to a certain specific form of human culture, or to a certain level of scientific progress, or to one or another theological school. Instead they set forth what the human mind grasps of reality through necessary and universal experience and what it expresses in apt and exact words, whether it be in ordinary or more refined language.
Just as the rubrics are to be adhered, there are also very particular prescriptions regarding the matter for the Eucharist. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:
Can. 924 §1. The most holy eucharistic sacrifice must be offered with bread and with wine in which a little water must be mixed.
§2. The bread must be only wheat and recently made so that there is no danger of spoiling.
§3. The wine must be natural from the fruit of the vine and not spoiled.
Can. 925 Holy communion is to be given under the form of bread alone, or under both species according to the norm of the liturgical laws, or even under the form of wine alone in a case of necessity.
This is just a restatement of the previous Code of Canon Law from 1917 (Canons 657 and 658).
The latest edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, Third Edition from 2011 spells out in more detail this prescription:
319. Following the example of Christ, the Church has always used bread and wine with water to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
320. The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently made, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.
321. By reason of the sign, it is required that the material for the Eucharistic Celebration truly have the appearance of food. Therefore, it is desirable that the Eucharistic Bread, even though unleavened and made in the traditional form, be fashioned in such a way that the Priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful. However, small hosts are not at all excluded when the large number of those receiving Holy Communion or other pastoral reasons call for them. Moreover, the gesture of the fraction or breaking of bread, which was quite simply the term by which the Eucharist was known in apostolic times, will bring out more clearly the force and importance of the sign of the unity of all in the one bread, and of the sign of charity by the fact that the one bread is distributed among the brothers and sisters.
322. The wine for the celebration of the Eucharist must be from the fruit of the vine (cf. Lk 22:18), natural, and unadulterated, that is, without admixture of extraneous substances.
323. Diligent care should be taken to ensure that the bread and wine intended for the Eucharist are kept in a perfect state of conservation: that is, that the wine does not turn to vinegar nor the bread spoil or become too hard to be broken easily.
Further details can be found in the Instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum (On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist) from April 23, 2004:
The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition. It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament. It is a grave abuse to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist. Hosts should obviously be made by those who are not only distinguished by their integrity, but also skilled in making them and furnished with suitable tools” (n. 48).
The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. […] Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter (n. 50).
This quote is probably most pertinent because it specifies that adding extra ingredients (and gives a few examples) is a grave matter, and can make the Eucharist invalid.
Special Needs for Reception of the Eucharist
Without changing the essential requirements of matter of the Eucharist (wheat and grapes), the pastoral care of the Church realized that there needed to be certain ways that people with gluten or alcohol intolerances could receive the Eucharist. Norms for Use of Low-Gluten Bread and “Mustum” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994 addressed that lower gluten could be used, and non-fermented mustum instead of wine. This was reiterated in 2003, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Circular Letter to all Presidents of the Episcopal Conference Concerning the Use of Low-Gluten Altar Breads and Mustum as Matter for the Celebration of the Eucharist.
Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist. Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials and without the use of procedures that would alter the nature of bread (A. 1-2).
Mustum, which is grape juice that is either fresh or preserved by methods that suspend its fermentation without altering its nature (for example, freezing), is valid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist (A. 3).
The Ordinary is competent to give permission for an individual priest or layperson to use low-gluten hosts or mustum for the celebration of the Eucharist. Permission can be granted habitually, for as long as the situation continues which occasioned the granting of permission (C. 1).
It has been over ten years since that permission was granted, but misunderstandings arise, hence the recent Circular Letter from the Congregation of Divine Worship.
First, an understanding that there is no such thing as “gluten-free” hosts that can be used by the Catholic Church. Although there are such type of hosts that can purchased (and very easily on the Internet), the only kind allowed is the low-gluten or reduced-gluten hosts. It is a misnomer to call them “gluten-free.” To be truly gluten-free and still containing wheat, the hosts could never stay together, but just be a crumbly mess. Other ingredients would have to be added to make it stick together, thereby making the host an illicit or even invalid matter for consecrating the Eucharist.
Certain Benedictine sisters make a low-gluten host made from a low-wheat starch and water. Each host that has a gluten content of 0.01 percent or 100 parts per million. The FDA approves gluten-free labeling at 20 parts per million, so these hosts do not contain much more gluten. For most celiacs, it would take eating half a pound of this ration of 100 ppm to really do physical harm, so this is an option for those with gluten restrictions. For my son with wheat allergies, the host still contains the accidents of wheat, so he can only receive from a separate chalice that does not have any particles of the priest’s Host.
The new Circular Letter also mentions that GMO sources of wheat are approved.
Probably the biggest emphasis of the Letter is ensuring that the sources used for the matter of Eucharist are places that show reverence and care in preparation for the hosts and wine. In this day when the profane runs over into all arenas and there is such ease in buying gluten-free hosts even through the Internet, the Letter is urging to choose sources wisely.
What’s the Conflict?
So what’s the hubbub? The secular world wants to portray the Church as inflexible and not bending to special needs of members of the Church. In reality, the Church upholds Her doctrine and Liturgy and still extends ways to help almost all who have restrictions in receiving the Eucharist. There are abuses arising and so this is a pastoral reminder to understand the proper matter for Communion.
There might be a few people who need absolutely no gluten whatsoever and so cannot even receive in this fashion. And maybe they aren’t comfortable with receiving from separate chalice containing the Precious Blood, but for the majority of those who have gluten restrictions, this is a welcome blessing.
But don’t mislabel and call them “gluten-free” hosts. They still contain wheat and a small amount of gluten.
For Further Reading on the Eucharist and Prescriptions by the Church (in order of most recent to oldest):
- Circular Letter to Bishops on the Bread and Wine for the Eucharist At the request of Pope Francis, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments wrote this letter to Diocesan Bishops to remind them that it falls to them above all to duly provide for all that is required for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The letter is dated July 8, 2017.
- Excerpt from the 2011 General Instruction on the Roman Missal, What Kind of Bread and Wine can be Used at the Mass? For a complete instructions, see General Instruction on the Roman Missal, Third Edition.
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Circular Letter to all Presidents of the Episcopal Conference Concerning the Use of Low-Gluten Altar Breads and Mustum as Matter for the Celebration of the Eucharist, July 2003.
- Instruction from Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments Redemptionis Sacramentum (On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist), April 23, 2004.
- From the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Doctrinal Formation and Communion Under Both Kinds
- The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers produced by the Committee on Doctrine of the USCCB on June 2001.
- Norms for Use of Low-Gluten Bread and “Mustum” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger, released August 22, 1994
- Apostolic Letter of John Paul II Dominicae Cenae (On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist) on February 24, 1980
- Instruction by the Sacred Congregation of Rites Eucharisticum Mysterium (Instruction on Eucharistic Worship) on May 25, 1967
- Encyclical of Pope Paul VI Mysterium Fidei (On The Holy Eucharist) promulgated on September 3, 1965
- Proper Matter for Bread and Wine Used in Consecration by Catholics United for the Faith
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