In recent years, people inconvenienced by celiac disease have increasingly turned to gluten-free food alternatives as part of an effort to lead a normal life while avoiding the protein composite that triggers symptoms of the disorder.
But just when many thought they have seen the height of the diet’s popularity, it has reached a new frontier: the Catholic Church. Observers of the Catholic faith can now adhere to doctor’s orders without worry when they take low-gluten wafers with their wine during the Holy Communion.
“Our consciousness of this is definitely being raised,” said Father Michael Flynn, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently told Reuters. “The question that’s always kind of a balancing act is how much can you tweak bread and still have it be bread.”
Celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder, causes pain in the digestive tract, chronic constipation, and diarrhea in those whose body cannot break down gluten, a protein often found in wheat, barley, and rye. Other effects include fatigue, muscle cramping, and weight loss. The disease has grown more common in recent decades, affecting as many as 1 in 133 people, many of whom don’t know they have it.
While no medication for celiac disease exists, people with the ailment have been able to maintain a clean bill of health by avoiding foods with gluten. The food industry that has grown out of this need has amassed $10 billion in 2014 with sales predicted to reach $16 billion by 2016. Supermarkets have created entire sections for gluten-free produce and popular restaurants offer alternatives of their own.
But Catholics with celiac disease often find difficulty in “receiving the bread” at communion because doing so would prove detrimental. While European church officials have integrated low-gluten communion wafers into their activities, American clergymen have taken relatively longer to give their congregants the potentially life-saving alternative. Part of the issue lies in reconciling health concerns and the Code of Canon Law which requires the taking of the Holy Communion using wheat bread.
In 1995, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, penned a letter to the Episcopal Conferences in which he expanded the Code of Canon Law, so that Catholics with celiac disease wouldn’t feel marginalized. From that point on, low-gluten bread would be considered “valid matter” as long as no additional substances “alter[ed] the nature of the substance of the bread.”
Church bodies have followed suit by producing communion wafers that gluten content that falls below the threshold of what would be considered detrimental to people with celiac disease. Since the 2000s, these types of wafers have been manufactured in the United States, particularly in parts of Missouri and New York.
The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, based in Missouri, spent 10 years concocting its highly successful recipe for low-gluten communion wafers. Since entering the market in the early 2000s, the group has seen annual profits increase by 500 percent within the last five years. Their products often contain less than 0.001 percent of gluten, which has been found to be a safe amount for consumption. “We continue to get new customers every week, if not every day,” Sister Lynn D’Souza told Reuters.
Although the sale of low-gluten communion wafers shows promise of spreading across churches in the United States, issues still remain in preparing churches to alter its rituals and raising awareness among those afflicted by celiac disease. For example, few people know that traditional wafers could contaminate the wine that all congregants share during the Holy Communion, putting gluten sensitive people at risk of getting sick.
That’s why Monsignor Mark J. Merdian, the vicar for health care for the Diocese of Peoria, a board member of the Illinois Catholic Health Association, wrote in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review last year church leaders have a responsibility to lead conversations about low-gluten communion options and changing the way that churches conduct sacred activities so that all people could participate.
“Imagine how painful and spiritually challenging it is for faithful Catholics, who desire to receive Holy Communion weekly or even daily, but who are unable to ingest wheat bread because of the grave physical harm it can cause them,” Merdian wrote.
Merdian continued: “The Church, in her loving wisdom and concern for the welfare of her faithful, has provided spiritual remedies for those who find themselves in situations of this kind. For example, the bishop, or a local ordinary, is able to grant a priest affected by alcoholism permission to use mustum, a type of grape juice, for the celebration of the Eucharist. Similarly, the Church has issued several documents that offer the clergy and laity uniform and clear direction concerning digestive diseases, and wheat allergies, and the reception of Holy Communion.”