Question: What is “Celiac sprue” and how does it affect the reception of Holy Communion?
Answer: A rather complete explanation of the disease and its treatment can be found on the Internet at the Celiac Sprue Association website, which can be found at www.csaceliacs.org. There is also the Celiac Disease and Gluten-free Diet Support Center at www.Celiac.com. Thanks and a tip of the hat to Mrs. Morales, who read this article in 2016 and sent me another link https://www.orbera.com/o_orbera_article3 discovered by her daughter Gabbie. Medical consultation is indicated if you think you have the disease. The sites explain that a substantial number of people—1 out of 133—develop an autoimmune response to the storage proteins generally found in “wheat, barley, rye, and to a lesser extent, oats (WBRO)” as well as in a host of lesser known grains or in these same grains as known by other names. Only about 3% of the sufferers are diagnosed. Generally, the treatment strategy is to completely avoid the offending grains, although there is some research to suggest that the body does not react to very tiny quantities.[i]
If not already obvious, the connection to Holy Communion is that the only matter valid for the Sacrament is bread made from wheat and wine made from grapes. This makes the newspapers occasionally when a celiac wants to receive a Communion Host made from some other grain. Most often the story concerns a celiac child whose parents have laudably gone through great difficulties to keep their child on a completely gluten free diet. A recent story led us to following recipe employed by a gluten free baking company for its “communion wafers”:
As pictured, the wafers look about like Communion hosts, but the recipe is not even remotely close to being bread made from wheat. The newspapers generally dismiss the need for wheaten bread as some bureaucratic cruelty of the pastor, the bishop or the Pope (It helps not that some Novus Ordo priests have been willing to “consecrate” invalid matter).[iii] The papers take the Protestant position that Holy Communion is merely symbolic, and that any round cracker is an adequate symbol. The Church insists that the Presence of our Lord is Real, and that the matter of the Sacrament must be the matter which He instituted in specie at the Last Supper.
The Vatican has tried to meet the problem half way, insisting that wheaten hosts must be used, but that they can be made with a very low gluten flour:[iv]
This has not always satisfied understandably nervous parents, but it is possible that they are reacting beyond what the scientific data require. In Italy hosts have been approved by the scientific committee of the Italian Celiac Association and are made using Codex Alimentarius quality wheat starch that contains 0.0374 milligrams of gluten. Additionally, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has also approved the hosts for use in the Eucharist.[v] The American Benedictine nuns at Clyde Missouri have a product with even less gluten than the one used in Italy.[vi]
One might take this a step farther, for if the Host is validly consecrated, there is no requirement that the recipient receive all of It. Our Lord is present in each and every tiny fragment perceptible to the senses. This is why the priest holds his fingers together after the Consecration, and carefully “scrapes” the corporal with the paten after Communion. Rigid “traditionalists” may wince, but one could receive Holy Communion validly and entirely by picking up a tiny fragment of the Host on the end of a moistened finger and putting It into one’s mouth. It would seem that in this manner one could get down to that 0.0374 milligram amount even with particles from a normal Host. We are not Protestants receiving a symbol which must look like everyone else’s symbol.
This author is uncomfortable with the various articles, all of which speak of making low gluten bread from “starch.” Starch is not the same as flour, but suggests a slurry made of the carbohydrate amylose extracted from the flour. If indeed a starch is being used, it would seem not to conform to Cardinal Ratzinger’s instruction “that the procedure for making such hosts is not such as to alter the nature of the substance of the bread.” To insure the validity of the Sacrament, a safer procedure seems in order.
The most obvious answer to the celiac problem is much less complicated, makes perfect theological sense, and has been approved by the Vatican: receive Holy Communion under the appearance of wine. Our Lord is equally present under the species of bread or wine, His Body and Blood being received in Their entirety under either or both forms. The Church has proposed this alternative, even going as far as to recommend that the wine consecrated for the celiac patient be in a separate vessel so that there is no chance of receiving even a tiny particle of the Host that is broken above and mingled in the chalice. And the wine may be relatively low in alcohol content, as long as it is naturally fermented juice of grapes. And, of course, the tiniest sip suffices, just as the does the tiniest fragment of the Host.
For a story about Celiac problems with Holy Communion to make the newspapers, it is almost always the case that the communicant’s parents have some moral objection to wine. Many American Protestants have a sort of Manichean idea that alcohol is intrinsically evil, going so far as to use unfermentable grape juice in their Communion services, and to claim that Jesus did likewise at the Last Supper. In some cases this error has contaminated the Catholic culture as well. It may well be that—at least for the Celiac child and his parents—some instruction about the virtue of temperance as being moderation (as opposed to abstinence) is in order. And while some folks may consider even moderate drinking of wine out of order, no such attitude ought to be permitted among Catholics about receiving what is no longer wine, but the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ.
A Celiac child who is expected to completely abstain from gluten for the rest of his life will always appear to be a little “different” to the people with whom he eats. The occasion of First Holy Communion might serve as a teaching opportunity to help other children his age to understand that even though some people must do things “differently,” that does not make them bad, or odd, or any less God’s children.
The theologian would answer that using material that “might possibly be valid” would be to irreverently expose the Sacrament to invalidity, and would deprive the recipient of confidence that he had received the Sacrament. Since Christ instituted the Sacrament-Sacrifice using wheaten bread and wine made from grapes, the Church is not free to make substitutions. When we ask “how do we know what Christ did?” the case becomes more impressive.
Our Lord instituted the Sacrament at the Last Supper, in the context of the Passover Sacrifice. His use of wheaten bread was not an arbitrary choice, but something commanded by God in the sacrificial regulations given to the Jews at the time of the Exodus. Fine flour could be made only from wheat. The other grain in use, barley, produced a course flour and a brittle bread; it was the grain of the poor and the feed of animals. The Jews also raised millet which could be mixed with barley to make coarse bread or beer, or used as animal feed. (Corn was unknown—it is native to the Americas. The word “corn” in the bible is a British usage, meaning “grain” in general; whatever grows in the region.)
In addition to the animal sacrifices demanded by God—oxen, sheep, goats, lambs, doves, etc.—God commanded the offering of wheat and wheat products as “cereal offerings.” In almost every case, when the grain to be offered was named, it was “wheat” or the “fine flour” made from wheat. (The Vulgate uses the word “similia,” which is translated “the finest wheaten flour.” “Fine refers to quality, and not to the degree of milling—the Tanakah, a Jewish translation, says “choice flour”—as opposed to the flour of the poor or the grain fed to animals.[vii]) Only in one case was an offering made of barley—in the “sacrifice of jealousy” offered by a man who believed his wife to be committing adultery with another man—the barley played part in a trial by ordeal to prove the woman’s guilt or innocence.[viii] After the Passover Sacrifice, the barley harvest began, and a sheaf of barley was waved before the sanctuary, but not offered in sacrifice. Otherwise, only wheat made up the cereal offerings. Wheat was the choice of the wealthy and even of the poor at festival times—it alone was fit to offer to God in sacrifice—and it was what He commanded.
[iii] The problem of the validity of the Novus Ordo is beyond the scope of this article, which addresses only the problem of valid matter for the Sacrament, and not the issues of form, intention, and minister. We are addressing the problem as it would apply in any otherwise valid celebration of Mass.
[vi] The Catholic Key, March 31, 2001. http://catholickey.org/index.php3?gif=news.gif&mode=view&issue=20040409&article_id=2858
[vii] The Tanakah, (NY: Jewish Publ. Society, 1985) Numbers 7-8
[viii] Numbers v: 11-31.