For sure when Adam did not know
To sin, or sin to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.
Thou hast restored to us this ease
By this thy heav’nly blood;
Which I can go to, when I please,
And leave th’earth to their food.
-George Herbert, excerpt from “Holy Communion”, 1633
Gluten intolerance is currently a much-discussed, but widely misunderstood affliction. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, which can cause an unpleasant host of physical symptoms and inhibit the absorption of nutrients from food. Although gluten avoidance has unfortunately caught on with the ill-informed fad-diet crowd, the recent surge in awareness has made the lives of affected people much easier. With new options for alternative bread products abounding, it stands to reason that Protestant and Catholic churches alike would seek to make communion hosts which are free of – or low-in – gluten available to parishioners.
While Protestant churches have mostly acquired completely gluten-free wafers made from rice, the issue is more complicated for Catholics. In order for a host to be appropriate for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, there must be some gluten in its makeup – but the exact amount necessary is not easily quantifiable. In 2003, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Pastors and the faithful are reminded that for bread to be valid matter for the Eucharist, it must be made solely of wheat; contain enough gluten to effect the confection of bread; be free of foreign materials and unaffected by any preparation or baking methods which would alter its nature. The amount of gluten necessary for validity in such bread is not determined by minimum percentage or weight, though hosts which have no gluten are considered invalid matter for Mass. In the Roman Rite, the bread prepared for the Eucharist must also be unleavened.” 1 Basically, there must be enough for the bread to be in some way classifiable as wheaten, but no more than the minimum necessary for that evaluation. The US Food and Drug Administration’s guideline for what items may be labeled “gluten-free” is that it must contain no more than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten.2 This, fortunately, means that low-gluten hosts (gluten-free by FDA standards) are available which meet both the ritual requirements of the Church, and the dietary restrictions of most people who have been diagnosed with celiac sprue. Of course, some parishoners may be so sensitive to wheat products that even the 0.002% found in low-gluten bread may cause them adverse side affects; for those few people, the USCCB recommends partaking in the Precious Blood alone, and reminds us all that the totality of Christ, “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” is contained within the smallest particle of either species of Eucharistic matter.
So why does it matter whether or not there is wheat in the Eucharistic offering? Speaking generally, it is important to accept that there are boundaries on what can be considered liturgically valid. The Church has always acknowledged both material and spiritual realities, and proclaims that both are essential elements of existence. Gnosticism, which exalts the human consciousness and spirit while rejecting the reality of and disdaining the physical world, is as errant an extreme as its opposite, materialism, which claims that nothing exists apart from tangible matter. In the Sacraments, it is the physical symbols which in fact (by the grace of God) cause the spiritual effects they symbolize to occur. Thus water is necessary for Baptism, oil is necessary for Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick, and wheat bread and grape wine are necessary for the Eucharist.3 The continuity of the liturgy anchors the Church to the concrete historical reality of Christ’s Incarnation and gift of Himself in the Eucharist.4 Just as the bread used for consecration must contain a reasonable trace of wheat, so should mustum wine (which is used for recovering alcoholics who either are priests or wish to receive the precious blood) begin the process of fermentation, even though that process is then suspended so that the alcohol content is almost negligible. Again, to some this may seem a trivial difference – very-low-gluten bread versus rice bread, almost-non-alcoholic wine versus grape juice – but it is essential to realize the stakes at hand: it is idolatry to adore what has not transubstantiated, and is therefore mere created matter.
As for the specific issue of wheat, Thomas Aquinas states categorically: “Wheat is the appropriate matter for the bread of the host. John 12,24: “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, it remains alone.” Therefore, Christ has compared Himself to the grain of wheat. The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon the Divine authority.” (Summa Theologica, Part III). Throughout the Scriptures, there are constant allusions to wheat as a metaphor for Christ’s bodily death and resurrection, as well as several indications that the bread used on the first Holy Thursday at the institution of the Eucharist was unleavened wheat bread.5 The Church does not claim the authority to substantially differ its liturgical practices with those indicated by Christ Himself, and therefore maintains that the sacrificial gifts must conform to those offered continuously throughout our 2,000-year history.
Ultimately, it should be perfectly possible to reconcile the emotional needs of Catholics with celiac disease with their spiritual need to receive the true Body of Christ. It is important to structure the reception of Communion so that those who require special hosts don’t feel singled out or excluded from the communal atmosphere, while still presenting the richness of the Sacrament. Kaufer’s Religious Supplies offers a variety of products to fit the needs of many denominations – there are both low-gluten and entirely gluten-free hosts available, as well as a new ciborium which can help parishes more elegantly accommodate their needs. The GIFT (a backronym for Gluten Independent Faithful Thanksgiving) by Alviti Creations is a small pyx-like ciborium which clips onto the larger one, separating the gluten-free hosts from the rest. The priest or Eucharistic minister can use one hand to distribute most of the Precious Body, and switch hands for those who signal their dietary needs (in order to avoid cross-contamination). There is also a small pendant available with a symbol that churchgoers can use to subtly indicate which hosts they need to receive, without having to speak or disrupt their reverent concentration. The GIFT helps prevent confusion among pyxides, which could lead to accidental ingestion of the wrong host. Finally, this also helps ensure that everyone can make the same path up to receive communion, obviating the need for a separate side table. Even such a gentle concession to the needs and wishes of those with gluten intolerance can make a great difference in how welcomed they feel in the Mass. That way, all parishoners can concentrate on the Sacrament, and not on the method of receiving it.
“What wonderful majesty! What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation.”
-St Francis of Assisi.”
The GIFT ciborium can be found here: GIFT – Kaufer’s
The Gluten-Free Symbol Pendant can be found here: Gluten-Free Amulet – Kaufer’s
Low-Gluten hosts can be found here: Low-Gluten Hosts- Kaufer’s
Gluten-free hosts can be found here: Gluten Free Hosts- Kaufer’s
More information about the GIFT can be found in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kgtA5hFqF8