“Vatican Refuses to Go Gluten Free at Communion” blared the headline on a New York Times story about a recent directive by the Congregation for Divine Worship. The instruction to the world’s Roman Catholic bishops sets out rules for the types of bread and wine that may be used in the sacrament in which, according to Catholic belief, they become the body and blood of Christ.
The passage that has attracted media attention — and a bit of snark — says: “Hosts [Communion wafers] that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.”
Does this mean that Catholics who suffer from celiac disease – a condition experienced by about 1% of the general population – are barred from receiving the “Bread of Heaven”? Is this an example of ecclesiastical legalism triumphing over Christian charity? (The satirical website the AV Club titled its story “Pope Francis Doesn’t Care About your Celiac Disease.”)
First of all, as the directive makes clear, the church is willing to accept as valid bread with minute amounts of gluten – sufficient, as the directive puts it, “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.”
That would appear to permit the use even of some wafers that carry a “gluten-free” label. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows that designation for bread that contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten.
More to the point, even if wafers that meet the Vatican’s standards are unavailable at a particular parish, the church says that worshipers with celiac disease may still receive all the spiritual benefits of Communion by consuming only the consecrated wine.
Thereby hangs a theological tale.
Since the Vatican Council of the 1960s it has become common, though not universal, for Roman Catholics to receive both the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine at Communion. But from the Middle Ages until Vatican II, typically only the priest received Communion under both “species” – a source of controversy between Catholics and Protestants during and after the Reformation.
At the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church justified the practice of having the laity receive only the consecrated bread at Communion. Although in the New Testament Jesus is described as saying, “This is my…