Catholics with celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerances face a conundrum when it comes to eating communion wafers, the unleavened bread that is consumed during the celebration of Mass. Some worshippers may have been tempted to seek out a gluten-free option, but a new directive from the Vatican has made it clear that communion wafers must contain some gluten, Sewell Chan reports for the New York Times.
The Vatican’s letter was issued on June 15 at the behest of Pope Francis, but it only began to attract widespread media attention after it was reported by Vatican Radio on July 8. The letter does not issue any new guidelines on gluten—proteins that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, and barley—but instead reminds bishops of earlier rules laid out by the Church. Cardinal Robert Sarah, the author of the letter, writes that the reminder was needed because communion wafers are now widely available in stores “and even over the internet,” making quality control difficult.
Communion wafers, also known as “hosts,” must be “unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition,” according to the letter. Wafers made from other substances—like rice, tapioca, or potato flour—are not permitted.
The directive is of particular importance to Catholics with celiac disease, who may become severely ill after eating even small amounts of gluten. People without celiac may also experience gluten sensitivity. In the United States, gluten-free diets are on the rise among those who do not have any intolerances to the protein, though researchers have cast doubt on the benefits of cutting out gluten “just because.”
Things get complicated for worshippers are unable or unwilling to eat gluten, because bread forms an important part of Catholic religious practice. The Church holds that Jesus instituted the Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist, during the Last Supper, when he described bread and wine as his body and blood. Catholics do not see the bread and wine consumed during communion as symbolic—they believe they are consuming the literal flesh and blood of Christ.
“Christ did not institute the Eucharist as rice and sake, or sweet potatoes and stout,” Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at Catholic University, tells Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Washington Post.
Fortunately, there are some options available to Catholics with food sensitivities. The Vatican’s recent letter points to a 2003 policy implemented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which allows low-gluten wafers, “provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten 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.”
In Clyde, Missouri, an order known as the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration makes an altar bread containing “such low gluten that someone with celiac disease would have to consume 270 wafers daily to reach a danger point,” according to Pulliam Bailey.
The 2003 policy also allows people who cannot consume wine to opt for mustum, a type of fermented grape juice, during the sacred ritual.