By Fr. Tirso Villaverde


Why the Church cannot go gluten-free

I recently caught eye of an article on the internet stating that the pope recently came out with a statement indicating that the Catholic Church cannot go gluten-free with its hosts—that is, the wafers that are used at Mass and given out as Communion. This caught my eye since a few months ago I myself had to do some investigating on the matter since one of my parishioners mentioned to me that she was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. This prevented her from receiving the consecrated host that Catholics believe is the Real Body of Christ. Since Communion for Catholics is a real intimate moment with Jesus, I began to investigate the possibility with gluten free hosts out of concern for this one parishioner as well as realizing that she may not be the only parishioner with that same condition.

The one thing I discovered was that gluten free hosts—and even low gluten hosts—are more expensive. A bag of about 25-30 gluten free hosts cost the same amount as the large quantity of regular hosts that virtually every parish including my own has been purchasing. Even if it were allowed, it would not be cost effective for a parish to go completely gluten free or low gluten with the hosts.

At the same time, when I was researching the cost of gluten free hosts, I was surprised to notice that on the packages were written the words, “Not valid matter for Catholic Mass.” For those who are not familiar with Catholic jargon, these words meant that gluten free hosts are not permitted to be used at Mass because it would affect the validity of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In other words, the Real Presence of Christ—aka transubstantiation—would not take effect on a gluten free host. I was curious about this so, as I mentioned already, I did some investigating as to the reason why. At this time, a little caveat is necessary. The only way I can explain the reason is to use some terminology that is specific to Catholic theology regarding the sacraments.

Unleavened bread

The reason why gluten free hosts cannot be permitted at a Catholic Mass is connected to what is considered to be “valid matter” for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Catholic Mass, unleavened bread and grape wine are valid matter for the Eucharist. In other words, the wine used at Mass must come from grapes and contain a certain amount of alcohol. Grape juice is not permitted to be used at a Catholic Mass because it has no alcohol in it.

Likewise, for a host to be considered a valid sacrament it must have some semblance of unleavened bread which includes a certain amount of gluten. In the same vein, bread that contains anything else in it besides wheat flour and water is not valid matter for the Eucharist. Why the insistence on these details? Basically, unleavened bread is what Jesus himself used when he instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. At the celebration of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church sees herself as celebrating the very same sacrifice as Jesus himself celebrated on the night before he died. This is just part of the reason why the Eucharist is such a unique experience in the Catholic faith since it is not only a communion with believers in a common faith but it is also a union with the very actions of Jesus even as they were performed over 2,000 years ago. Since Jesus used unleavened bread and wine from grapes at the very first Eucharist, the Catholic Church is bound to keep doing the same until the end of time.

Consecrated wine

Does this mean that the Catholic Church is being insensitive or unpastoral to those with such sensitivities as allergies or other diseases? The media may perhaps want to portray it that way but the reality is not the case. For example, in the case of wine, it is accepted that there are some people who have an allergy to alcohol or another condition that might prevent them from taking alcohol. Take for example the use of grape juice. Grape juice is only allowed for a priest who may be a recovering alcoholic or has a severe life threatening reaction to alcohol.

As for the rest of the people, Communion with the Real Presence of Christ can be achieved by receiving either the consecrated host or the consecrated wine. In other words, the Real Presence of Christ is equally real in both the consecrated host and the consecrated wine. For a layperson that has allergies to alcohol or a recovering alcoholic him/herself, receiving the consecrated host on its own is already considered having received Communion in its fullness.

Likewise, in regards to the host that must have a minimal amount of gluten in it to be considered actual bread, there are three options for a lay person who may have celiac or similar disease. The first is to request to be given a small piece of the host which the minister breaks off from a larger host. This is completely permissible and is by no means being “cheated” out of the fullness of Christ’s Real Presence.

The second option is to request that a low gluten host be consecrated for that person or persons who may need it. This option would take some coordinating to ensure that a low gluten consecrated host is always available only for those who need it. If a person is physically incapable of taking any amount of gluten in his/her system, the third option is to receive Communion with the Precious Blood—the consecrated wine. Again, the Real Presence of Christ is just as much in the consecrated wine as it is in the consecrated host. As before, receiving only from the Precious Blood does not mean that a person has been “cheated” out of Communion with Christ.

Intimate moment

Communion at a Catholic Eucharist is an intimate moment. It is always the Church’s concern that the faithful are able to receive Communion. The only thing that would prevent a Catholic from ever receiving the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist is if one was in a state of mortal sin without having celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Physical conditions such as celiac disease are never a hindrance for having the opportunity to commune with the Real Presence of Christ.





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