Should Gluten-Free Communion Be the Norm?

Pope Francis caused a controversy by issuing a letter reminding cardinals about church policies about the notion of gluten-free communion.

Should churches be required to have gluten-free communion? Should the bread served during the process of communion be tailored to remove glutens for people with Celiac Disease?

A letter sent to cardinals by the Vatican didn’t change the church’s policy on the issue: it merely reminded cardinals the long-standing policy is that bread used for the Eucharist should contain gluten.

Let me rewind for a moment: The Celiac Disease Foundation defines glutens as the generic name for proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). The protein helps food maintain its shape, “acting as a glue that holds food together.”

But people with Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune disorder, have to worry about glutens because ingesting them can lead to small intestine damage. The catch is, this is true only for people who actually have Celiac Disease, an amount estimated to be 1 in 100 people worldwide. (These days, because it’s one of the latest fad diet tricks, probably 40 in 100 go for gluten-free diets and get bent out of shape of “gluten-free” options aren’t easily found on the menu.)

Given the fascination in the general population with no-gluten options, the letter raised eyebrows, but the church was quick to point out that nothing had actually changed: guidelines indicate bread and wafers must have at least some gluten in them, the Washington Post reported.

The reason for the letter, it appears, is because of the ease these days of finding suppliers of communion materials online; apparently, the Vatican wanted to remind churches of the expectations before they started shopping online.

While people with Celiac Disease have suggested alternatives that might be better for their diet, the church’s teachings are that “the practice of the Eucharist should be in continuity with Jesus, who ate wheat bread and drank grape wine, describing them as his body and blood,” the Post reported.

It went on to quote a theology professor at Catholic University, who said, “Christ did not institute the Eucharist as rice and sake, or sweet potatoes and stout.”

While some churches consider bread and wine served at communion to be symbols, the Catholic church isn’t one of them.

But you have to decide for yourself whether you believe that when you bite into the bread or wafer, it transforms into the flesh of Christ; and whether the wine (or, more likely, grape juice) you sip during the process transforms into Christ’s actual blood.

I don’t believe it does; I think it’s a simple way to remind believers of the sacrifice. To my way of thinking, whether such a transformation takes place is immaterial; the action of partaking in communion serves as a reminder of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us out of his love for us.

The letter leads to health questions.

But the question becomes whether churches should acquiesce to health concerns for people who have the condition.

I’ve written recently about churches having an obligation to turn down loud worship music because it can do damage to people’s hearing and, at the very least, make for a terrible worship experience that actually removes people from worship.

If we follow that same logic, if there’s a genuine health issue involved in serving communion wafers with glutens, shouldn’t the church offer, at the very least, an alternative?

The church does allow “low-gluten wafers,” and that might be as good as it gets: suggests it’s virtually impossible to have a diet that is completely gluten-free, even when people eat a “gluten-free diet.”

But let’s assume for a moment that someone has a severe case of Celiac Disease, and even a small amount of gluten might cause some harm.

What’s the harm, exactly, in a gluten-free communion?

While I get the conservative view that it has to be the way it’s always been done just for the sake of tradition, and even if I accept the notion that it’s critically important to do it exactly the way Christ did, I’m still left with what should be an obvious question:

Is the absence of gluten enough to stop Christ from performing a miracle?

If gluten is so critically important to the process that the transformation of bread and wine to flesh and blood can’t actually even happen, doesn’t that suggest that “gluten free” is a kind of Kryptonite to God?

Does it make sense that if gluten-free wafers were made available — even if only for those with a legitimate case of Celiac Disease — that God would somehow be unable to perform this miracle?

I can’t imagine that God could be so easily limited by the ingredient of a piece of bread used in a religious ritual.

If God knows our hearts, he surely knows our health. With all the problems in the world, it seems like this is such a trivial issue: I would think we’d be looking to get more believers involved in the rituals of faith, not potentially being so rigid in interpretation that we run the risk of shutting them out because we’re jeopardizing, even in a small way, their health.

Do you think churches should offer gluten-free communion for people with genuine health concerns?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.