Last winter I wrote several posts about celiac disease and the Eucharist. I thought I’d share the letter I sent to Pope Francis and which, now, I am in the process of sending to the U.S. bishops. (Incidentally, this is not an easy task. You can’t email blast it, and you can’t get a list of addresses easy to toss into printable labels, either. I am handwriting every envelope.)
Dear Pope Francis and the bishops of the Catholic Church of the United States,
I am writing to you as a lifelong Catholic, formed and active in liturgical music ministry and committed to living and deepening my faith. I am writing to ask during this Synod on Synodality, that you and the bishops of the world reconsider the prohibition on gluten-free Communion hosts.
Last November, my teenage daughter, who has Down syndrome, was diagnosed with celiac disease.
As we began transitioning her to a gluten-free diet, I was astonished, and then angry, to discover that although gluten-free hosts are readily available, they have been specifically disallowed by canon law.
Online resources and priests I have talked to have told me that the reason gluten is “required” is because our sacraments must follow the form in which Jesus gave them to us.
However, the Gospels say nothing about wheat or gluten. Scripture says only that Jesus took bread and wine and said “do this in memory of me.”
There are many forms of bread, including those without gluten. In fact, as I searched online for Passover regulations, I found that, at least in modern times, Passover bread may be any one of five grains: wheat, spelt, rye, barley, or oats. Oats are gluten free.
Even if we accept the assumption that Jesus’ last supper bread was wheat, the wheat used today is not what he used. Modern varieties are vastly different. If we have to use what Jesus used, why aren’t we limited to a variety that at least existed at the time of the Last Supper?
The answer, of course, is that it is impractical. It would be an undue burden to insist upon using varieties that are no longer grown. Whatever kind of bread Jesus used, he used because it was what was practical in the place and time where he was.
The Church has already made this and other adaptations to what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Individual hosts, reduced to two ingredients only, have been declared the norm for Catholic liturgies. Substantial or “real” bread, such as Jesus would have shared with his disciples, is also impractical for use in large assemblies.
But if these adaptations to Jesus’ practice have already been made without jeopardizing the validity of the sacrament, the Church should be able to accommodate celiacs as well.
I appreciate the allowances made in the letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger for extremely low-gluten hosts. I am aware that regulations also allow for a separate cup to be offered to those with celiac disease.
But when many places (especially post-pandemic) only offer the host, a cup-only solution serves to separate a person with celiac disease from all his or her fellow worshipers. It serves to divide, rather than unite, the Body of Christ.
If we truly believe that the Eucharist is the source and summit, and our spiritual food for the work of discipleship, then we should not be putting obstacles in the way of people receiving it.
This is why I am reaching out during this time of preparation for the National Eucharistic Congress in the U.S.—to ask the leaders of our Church to go back to the base assumption upon which the law concerning gluten is based. I beg you to consider: Is this really a necessary burden to impose?
God bless you in your ministry.