catholics celiac disease and communion

Are Catholics With Celiac Refused Communion? (To Be Glutened or Not To Be)

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Growing up I was a sickly child. I constantly got mysterious stomach aches after consuming just about anything. My mom took me to various doctors and even got my insides ultrasounded as a little kid, but no clear cause of the stomach pains ever surfaced. 

Finally, when I was 19, a doctor recommended I try a gluten-free diet. I was aghast. I just knew that my beloved bread would never hurt my gut in such a way. Wheat and I went way back, after all. 🥐🥖

But I was tired of the constant pains and interruptions to my daily life. So, I went gluten-free. After a couple of months figuring out what contains wheat, malt, barley, and what’s been cross-contaminated by them, my daily stomach pains vanished.

It felt like a miracle! What wasn’t miraculous, however, was the discovery that communion wafers must contain gluten to be considered bread. 

Following a gluten-free diet is super hard. GLUTEN IS EVERYWHERE (see this Sound of Music meme that I relate to a lot).

Following the gluten-free diet as a Catholic is just a bit more difficult than other people (whether you’re gluten-intolerant or have full on Celiac disease) because of the question of how to receive communion.

And it’s only gotten more difficult in these ‘trying’ Covid-19 times! 

First things first. Let’s answer the question I ask myself just about every week at Mass: 

Why Must There Be Gluten in Catholic Communion Wafers? 

Good question, law-abiding Catholic.

Short answer: Bread = wheat. Wheat = glutenous. “Gluten is the general term for a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. All forms of wheat contain gluten, including durum, spelt, and farro” [1]. 

Long answer: Once upon a time, there were parishioners who thought it would be nice to bake special bread for communion. They added raisins and honey and spices to bread and non-GMO rice crackers and whatever they thought would be more delicious than unleavened wheat bread. 

Those people committed heresy (oops) because they had not read the Catechism of the Council of Trent’s clear definition of what Sacramental Bread is: 

[…] the words of the Saviour show that the bread should be wheaten; for, according to common usage, when we simply say bread, we are sufficiently understood to mean wheaten bread (142). [2]

And that it should be unleavened:

The peculiar suitableness of the consecration of unleavened bread to express that integrity and purity of mind which the faithful should bring to this Sacrament we learn from these words of the Apostle: Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened. For Christ our Passover is sacrificed. Therefore, let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (143). 

And that it can’t contain or be anything else except wheat bread:

[…] it is unlawful to offer anything but bread and wine (143).

No honey bread, no tortilla chips and margaritas, just wheat bread and wine. 

Unfortunately, even in the modern day, the Vatican realized that festive folks were still trying to jazz up the Eucharist. So they released a statement reiterating what the Council of Trent declared:

The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat […] It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament. It is a grave abuse to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist (48). [3]

Thanks for clearing that question up, Magisterial documents! So what are gluten-intolerant folks such as myself supposed to do if bread must contain wheat?

What Communion Options Are There for Gluten-Intolerant Catholics?

Catholics with Celiac disease in good standing with the Church can receive communion from the Chalice alone, a low-gluten host, a small crumb of a regular gluten host, or simply make an act of spiritual communion.

Until the recent germaphobia caused by the Covid-19 panic, a faithful Catholic with Celiac disease could often receive communion in one species, wine.

Receiving from the Chalice for Celiac-suffering Catholics

Every crumb of the wafer and drop of wine contain the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Hence it also follows that Christ is so contained, whole and entire, under either species, that, as under the species of bread are contained not only the body, but also the blood and Christ entire; so in like manner, under the species of wine are truly contained not only the blood, but also the body and Christ entire (151). [2]

Though the Council of Trent encourages the reception of the Eucharist solely under the species of bread (due to the risk of spilling the Blood of the Lord on the ground, wine spoilage, scarcity of wine, and addiction-related complications), it states that “the authority of the Church itself” is sufficient to allow some Catholics to receive the Precious Blood. 

In Redemptionis Sacramentum, the Congregation for Divine Worship agrees with the Council of Trent that “The chalice should not be ministered to lay members of Christ’s faithful where there is such a large number of communicants that it is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that ‘more than a reasonable quantity of the Blood of Christ remain to be consumed at the end of the celebration’” (102). 

They state that there are cases in which communicants can receive Precious Blood reverently and judiciously. I’ll take that as the authority of the Church saying it’s okay to do so.

Personally, I think receiving from the Chalice is the most reverent, safest way for gluten-intolerant Catholics to receive the Eucharist (if low-gluten hosts are not an option).

The priest or deacon can administer the chalice without the layman even touching it (greatly reducing the risk of spilling).

A parish I attended in Virginia allowed 4-6 folks who could not receive the host to reverently receive from the Chalice. There was no risk of cross-contamination as nobody had received the host just before the wine. There was no spilling, no fuss. Just Catholics allowed to participate in the incomparable Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist. 

Another (Bad) Option for Gluten-Free Catholics: Risk Eating Gluten 

At this point, if I want to meet my Catholic duty of receiving once per year, I’ll have to drive from Florida to New Orleans for Mass or try to convince a priest to allow me to receive from the Chalice or receive a tiny piece of the host and risk getting glutened. 

**The Sunday after writing this post, Caleb and I sought a new parish. We are now attending a traditional Latin parish with a pious and amazing priest. He is willing to consecrate low-gluten hosts for me!

Risking it should never be a Catholic’s only option for receiving the Eucharist. In these modernist dioceses the military keeps planting me in, it’s hard to find a parish that will both allow reception from the Chalice / low-gluten hosts AND that isn’t horribly irreverent in their liturgical practice. 

A Newer Option: Low Gluten Hosts 

Not a perfect option (as mentioned above, hosts have to contain wheat!) but it’s way better than receiving an entire glutenous wafer. The Vatican-approved, low-gluten wafers baked by the Benedictine Sisters are pretty amazing. 

These breads have been tested by independent laboratories and deemed safe for use by many people with Celiac Sprue Disease […] The amount of gluten contained in one of the Benedictine Sisters’ low-gluten altar breads (tested at < .01 percent) was so minute that someone diagnosed with Celiac Sprue Disease would have to consume 270 wafers daily in order to reach the danger point. A test done in 2016 indicated the gluten content was even more minimal – less than .001 percent. [4] 

I adore this beautiful sister baking hosts. Thanks be to God for nuns!

These wafers seem like a miracle! And they really are–if your priest is willing to consecrate them. For some priests, the entire process of remembering to grab a low-gluten host, keeping it in a separate pyx, and administering it to you is simply too much. 

(Sorry for the salt, but it’s hard not to be frustrated when a priest refuses to do this. I’ve actually offered to buy a parish low-gluten hosts myself and had a priest still refuse! “We don’t do that here.” Yikes.

These Benedictine Sisters didn’t work hard baking all of those low-gluten hosts so that priests could refuse to consecrate them!!)

Making an Act of Spiritual Communion

As someone who used to receive every Sunday, it’s incredibly difficult to give up the graces of the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. (Many people are experiencing this yearning for the Sacrament due to the worldwide, fear-driven Church shutdowns.) 

At the end of the day, why do I and so many others have to abstain from communion week after week? Because many bishops and priests are unwilling to listen to their parishioners’ needs. I’m not trying to make raisin encrusted, honey-flavored wafers here, people. 

Just trying to find good ‘ole gluten-friendly options so my gut won’t hate me every Sunday.

Currently, instead of receiving every week, I make an Act of Spiritual Communion. It’s not a sacrament, but it is the closest thing I have. 

Here’s a spiritual communion text from EWTN that makes me feel closer to Jesus in the Sacrament as well as the Body of Christ receiving it! [5]

My Jesus, 

I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things,  and I desire to receive You into my soul. 

Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,  come at least spiritually into my heart.  I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. 

Never permit me to be separated from You.

Amen. 

I hope this post was interesting for those gluten-eaters out there and informative for those with gluten-intolerances like me! At the very least, you’ve learned a bit more than you ever wanted to know about the gluten content of communion wafers.

Godspeed!

Grace

Sources

[1] Everything you need to know about gluten; Medical News Today

[2] The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566)

[3] Redemptionis Sacramentum; Communion under both kinds

[4] Statement regarding BSPA Vatican-approved, low-gluten breads; Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration

[5] Act of Spiritual Communion; EWTN

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