Why you should care about the gluten-free Communion fight—even if you eat wheat

Maybe you have heard enough about gluten in eucharistic hosts. Well, hang onto your mustum, because you are about to hear a little bit more. It applies to you, I promise.

As a lucky family with no food sensitivities or allergies, we do not have a dog in the gluten fight. Receiving Communion is easy for us—physically, anyway. We accept the church's strange teaching about transubstantiation because, of all the things we believe as Catholics, transubstantiation is not the strangest. The Incarnation is stranger. Salvation is stranger. Creation itself is stranger.

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Of all the things we believe as Catholics, transubstantiation is not the strangest.

It is not, however, always as easy spiritually to receive Communion as it is physically. I struggle; my husband struggles; and my kids will almost certainly struggle with some teaching of the church some day. They may go through storms of conscience that drive them away from full communion.

But the teaching about gluten in hosts? Not our particular struggle. And so it has been a positive and enlightening experience for us to review the rules surrounding valid matter of the hosts. Joanne McPortland does yeoman’s work providing context for the church’s teaching on this issue, and America's explainer gives a good summary, debunking the secular media’s “smackdown on celiacs” narrative and clarifying what recourse is open to communicants with gluten sensitivities.

It is not always as easy spiritually to receive Communion as it is physically.

After watching many secular media outlets butcher these very ready facts, though, and after seeing educated Catholics retreat huffily into their corners, I began to wonder if I have a dog in this fight, after all. Maybe we all do. Because maybe this is not the first time we’ve seen some version of this fight. A few aspects of it seemed awfully familiar:

  • The way many media outlets did none of the research and all the flaming, and many Catholics went along for the outrage ride;
  • the way many Catholics think of receiving Communion only in terms of what we are entitled to, thinking the rules should be abrogated to suit us, never considering “what we truly deserve”;
  • the cavalier attitude of many Catholics without sensitivities, who never wonder how it might feel to be told that receiving the Eucharist is the closest we’ll get to heaven this side of death, but too bad, you can't have any; and
  • the way some parishes are careless about the genuine needs of their parishioners, making them feel like needy prima donnas for requesting accommodations that most people don’t need just by sheer luck of genetics.

There are many Catholics who find it physically easy to receive Communion—but spiritually? Not so much. Take L.G.B.T. Catholics, for instance. They sprung readily to mind. But the gluten kerfuffle analogy (minus the medical questions) could apply to just about any issue that causes misunderstanding, strife and bad feeling about and among Catholics.

The gluten kerfuffle analogy could apply to just about any issue that causes bad feeling about and among Catholics.

It is not enough to be educated. Even after we learn the facts, it is still horribly easy for us to take that information, stuff it in our back pockets and retreat to our corners, muttering: The church teaches this, but I do not like it, so the church should change. Or: The church teaches this, and it is what I do anyway, so nothing needs to change.

Information is not enough. The rules are there not for their own sake but to transform our hearts—not only the hearts of those who must change their behavior but the hearts of those who are already following the rules and who are tempted to look down on those who struggle.

If we do not have a dog in some particular doctrinal fight, then we have a serious obligation to be gracious—or if we cannot be gracious, then to be quiet. Do not minimize the suffering of people who just want what comes so easily to the majority. Do not make them feel like they are asking too much when they are asking for what none of us truly deserve anyway.

If what the church teaches is easy for us, then we should rejoice! We lucked out.

If what the church teaches is easy for us, then we should rejoice! We lucked out. Let’s not use that luck as an opportunity to lord it over others. If we feel like we cannot talk about an issue charitably, it is probably best to let other Catholics do that work.

But if we do have a dog in the fight—if what the church teaches is dreadfully hard for us, then.... We should rejoice.

Even Jesus asked the Father if he might be let off the hook because the cup he was being asked to drink was just so bitter and terrible. But after Jesus acknowledged that he did not want to die on the cross, he did it anyway. He assented to God’s will. And that was how salvation came about. It is how our salvation will come about. What else can any of us do, other than to do what Christ did?

This cup does not pass from any of us, this obligation to obey and this obligation to love each other.

Of all the strange things we believe as Catholics, transubstantiation is not the strangest. The church’s teaching on human sexuality is not the strangest. The Incarnation is stranger. Salvation is stranger. Love is stranger.

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Burke Ingraffia
4 months ago

I wonder if the host needs to be non-GMO. GMO wheat is completely different than real wheat. Not only that, the way wheat is harvested these days (after the late 1800's) is not the healthiest choice for the human body to ingest.

Christina Treadwell
4 months ago

Thank you Burke Ingraffia for your suggestion. However, non-GMO wheat is still wheat and thus contains gluten. For gluten free Catholics, it comes down to thresholds or what amount of gluten can safely be consumed without any side effects. The Benedictine Sisters’ low-gluten altar breads (tested at less than .001 percent in 2016 and which they started making in 2004) is Vatican approved and well below the gluten threshold.

Christina Treadwell
4 months ago

Thank you Simcha Fisher for your article. I had abstained from Communion since my diagnosis. It was a relief from that spiritual vs physical struggle when I found a Vatican approved altar bread. At the time I belonged to parish which the priest "allowed me" to bring and place my "special bread" on the alter prior to Mass. When I changed parishes, I spoke with the pastor and was surprised to learn that several members were also gluten free. At every Mass, he provides the same Vatican approved gluten free altar breads.

Christopher Lochner
4 months ago

I don't believe that transubstantiation is the strangest concept. That our Lord cannot come to be in the Eucharist because of the physical makeup is. Beware of theologians who over time tend to overthink many issues to create and maintain their own wordly power. See Mark 7: 9-13. The words of Christ are always applicable to everyone, even to Church leaders. Tradition is important but not sacrosanct.

Frank Bergen
4 months ago

Who made sure the bread and wine used at the Last Supper were 'valid matter'? Before their canonization by a later church the participants/organizers of the supper were ordinary folks who used what was in Jerusalem at that time ordinary bread and ordinary wine. If the Catholic Church could today through its hierarchy and its canon law simply accept that reality I think bread that meets the needs of the people could be made available with no fuss and no muss. I recall my days in the Jesuit community in Baghdad in the 1960s when that community made its own altar wine -- it tasted awful -- because of uncertainty of the 'validity' of the wines available locally. Sorry, but I don't think that's what Jesus would have done, what he wants us to do and what the Eucharist is all about.

Bill McHale
4 months ago

The question isn't that Jesus didn't know what were valid matters, the question is what did Jesus choose to use for the Eucharist. The Church has long believed and long insisted that the bread used at the last supper was made with wheat. St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the issue in the Summa. The Church feels that it is not free to alter the matter that it uses in the Eucharist. However, between low gluten hosts and allowing communicants to receive via the cup only, the vast majority of celiacs and gluten insensitivity can receive. And for the record, my family is impacted by this since my Mom has celiacs. She refuses to even request a low gluten host and simply receives the same as everyone else. Thankfully, her threshold seems to be somewhat higher than most celiacs.

Thomas Severin
4 months ago

Only those Catholics who believe that religion is primarily about following rules rather than about establishing loving relationships would find this article an important aspect of becoming a true follower of Christ. Jesus was critical of the Pharisees who prided themselves on knowing all 613 precepts of the Mosaic law and who considered themselves religiously superior to those who lacked knowledge of these precepts and failed to adhere to them as closely as they did.
I would suggest that this article is a modern example of Christian Pharisaism. Whenever Jesus ran into a situation in which religious precepts or rules stood in the way of extending God's mercy and healing to someone, e.g. prohibition of work on the Sabbath, He simply violated the rule. I can't imagine that Jesus would care much about gluten free vs. partially gluten. Uniting with His followers in the sacrament would take precedence over such trivialities.

Thomas Severin
4 months ago

This article gave me pause about the future of our Catholic faith. We are living in a time that is addressing the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II regarding the displacement of people from their homes due to war and climate change. On the home front, some 22 to 33 million people could lose their health care if Obama care is repealed and replaced. Our infrastructure is collapsing and our political system is divided upon partisan lines to a point where almost nothing constructive can be accomplished. While all this is happening, we Catholics debate about how much gluten should be used in the hosts used at Mass. Sounds like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic to me.

MICHAEL PAINTER
4 months ago

"Sounds like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic to me."
-------
Sounds also like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin to me.

Mike Evans
4 months ago

Well stated! Let's not start a new schism over such minutia. Let God sort it all out based on our good intentions as communicants.

Ray Temmerman
4 months ago

I'm wondering if there is another possibility. I notice a lot of people who receive the host, but bypass the cup. When I've asked them about that, they (rightly) say Christ is as fully present in the host as in the cup. So, perhaps we can work that both ways. We could receive through the cup alone, bypassing the host. If we truly believe that Christ is fully present in both species, then bypassing the host and receiving from the cup should mean that we receive Christ as fully from the cup as in the host.

Tom Poelker
4 months ago

First, anyone who believes "The rules are there not for their own sake but to transform our hearts" has no understanding of the operation of bureaucracies or the history of Canon Law.
Second, to say, "If we do not have a dog in some particular doctrinal fight" is to confuse doctrine and discipline which are clearly distinguished among theologians and Canon Lawyer, except Cardinal Burke..
This rule about the proper matter for the Eucharist is just that, a human rule with no basis in Scripture but in a narrow set of human assumptions and deductions and a reaction to what some considered aberrations. As with so many thing which are disciplines and not dogmas, they could be changed by a simple papal announcement.

Lisa Weber
4 months ago

The gluten-free host issue is much ado about nothing. Some other church teachings are also much ado about nothing. Catholics pick and choose according to what makes sense to them. I feel certain that it has always been that way and will continue to be that way in the future.

When I went back to church after 40 years away, I felt I had to reassure my family and friends that I didn't take my brain out and stomp it flat in an attempt to be a perfect Catholic. I can accept transubstantiation and the Incarnation and the counterintuitive aspects of a spiritual journey, but I am not going to spend time worrying about rules that are clearly intended to meet the church hierarchy's desire for power.

Jim Lein
4 months ago

Although not away for a solid 40 years, I was away on and off for over 30 years, including time when I attended both the Catholic and Lutheran (ELCA) Church, before returning to the fold, as we say. I agree that the church seems unnecessarily dictatorial on this issue. Wheat is not sacred. Neither is wine. The physical substance is not the issue. Wheat-free hosts and grape juice should be fine.
When going to both churches every week, I sort of kept in mind transubstantiation and consubstantiation, keeping them straight; I didn't see one as the real deal and the other not. The big difference was the Lutherans inviting all who believed in Jesus as our savior to come up and receive. And there was grape juice for those who preferred it. (There was no gluten issue back then.) Who knows if the bread in Jesus day was always wheat--or what the alcohol content was of their drink? Wheat and alcohol are not the point of communion. IMHO.

MICHAEL PAINTER
4 months ago

Wouldn't it be ironic if some archaeologist discovered that Jesus used barley loaves as were present at the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes! (And yes, I know it was Passover and the bread was unleavened.) If the faith is supposed to be universally applicable, the Church shouldn't be forcing custom (local agriculture & food) onto cultures where wheat has never been used, and where they use other flours to make bread?

This controversy strikes me as being Pharisaical.

Mike Evans
4 months ago

Nice try. But the angels dancing arguments to support this attempt at liturgical doctrine fails the smell test. Somebody is making up theology and defending it as if it were some kind of infallible teaching. Jesus probably used whatever was at hand and did not do a forensic analysis. I imagine the wine and bread at the last supper were ordinary, coarse and cheap. Does it make a difference to God if a gluten free host is consecrated? How could anyone know?

Beth Cioffoletti
3 months 3 weeks ago

The mystery of Incarnation, of God among us, within us, is plenty enough for me to chew on for the rest of my life. I'm pretty sure that God is present in the "other", just as God is present in me, and participating in this mutual recognition (and energy and dynamism and dance) both boggles my mind and stirs something in me that I might call "faith". Isn't that what Holy Communion is? The laying bare of this truth of who we are, together, before and with God?

I don't get what the fuss is about gluten.

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