Why has the Catholic Church banned gluten-free wafers for Communion?

The Catholic Church has banned gluten-free wafers for use in the sacrament of the Eucharist, it said in a letter at the weekend.Reuters

The Catholic Church has ruled that congregants must not be allowed gluten-free wafers as part of the holy sacrament of the Eucharist. The news came in a letter to Catholic bishops worldwide, published on Saturday, according to Vatican Radio.

The letter, coming 'at the request of the Holy Father, Pope Francis', writes that the wafers (known as hosts) used in Mass 'must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition...Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist'.

The letter adds: 'Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, 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'.

The news provokes questions about congregants who would rely on gluten-free wafers, such as those suffering from Celiac disease, a digestive condition which renders sufferers intolerant of any gluten.

The liturgy office of the Catholic Church in England and Wales (CCEW) states that 'Attention should be paid to medical advances in the area of celiac disease and alcoholism and encouragement given to the production of hosts with a minimal amount of gluten and of unaltered mustum.'

In many Protestant churches, non-alcoholic grape juice is used for Communion.Reuters

However, 'partially gluten-free' provisions may not be enough for those completely intolerant.

The Church has been historically divided on debates about the sacrament of Communion, rooted in Christ giving bread and wine to his followers at the Last Supper before his death.

For Catholics, the process of Transubstantiation transforms the elements of bread and wine into the literal presence of Christ in the sacrament. Protestants tend to take a far more symbolic interpretation, wherein the elements merely represent, with some mysterious sense of presence notwithstanding, Christ's body and blood.

The other divide is that the Eastern Orthodox Church has historically opted for risen, leavened bread, while the Western (Catholic) tradition has always used unleavened bread, following the Passover tradition that Christ participated in.

Christian Today asked Dr William Hyland, a Catholic and lecturer in Church History at the University of St Andrews, about the specifics of the problem.

When it comes to sacraments, 'what's the matter?' really is the appropriate question. 'Matter' and 'form' are essential to every sacrament, Hyland says. In the Eucharist, the matter is the bread and wine, while the form is the Eucharistic prayers said over them. The emphasis on gluten is because, as far as the Church is concerned, it needs to be wheat for the matter of the sacrament to remain intact.

Hyland says it's 'interesting' that the letter highlights its use of mustum. Parallel to those who are gluten-intolerant, alcoholics would naturally be committed to avoiding the alcohol in Communion wine. To answer this, the Church permitted mustum, in which natural grape juices are stopped before they reach the process of fermentation and becoming alcoholic. With the host however, there is apparently something 'unnatural about [it being] gluten-free'.

Pope Francis kisses the main altar as he leads a special mass for the opening of the 20th Caritas Internationalis general assembly at the Vatican.Reuters

But there may be hope. Hyland noted that until the 1970s, laypersons in the Church only received the host, and not the cup of wine in the sacrament. The theology behind this was that Christ was fully present in both elements, and so only one was actually necessary.

This could be an answer to those who are entirely gluten-intolerant. Dr Hyland explained: 'In a sense there's no reason you couldn't do it in the opposite way. You could receive Communion but not the host. If [just] the cup was provided for people, one could make argument that people weren't being denied the sacrament.'

Indeed, the liturgy office of the CCEW states that celiac sufferers 'may receive Communion under the species of wine only'.

The focus on specific conditions obviously raises questions about the limits to the sacrament. Hyland asks: 'If a culture doesn't have any bread, say the Inuit community, can they not have Communion?' In many Protestant churches, combinations of leavened and entirely gluten-free options are available, and many churches actively opt for non-alcoholic wine and grape juice.

Hyland said that 'it seems to me rather sad, pastorally' to deny the host to those entirely gluten-intolerant. On the other hand, some traditionalists would see the admission of even partially gluten-free options as a major accommodation.

Hyland says: 'It's this odd realm of canon law: it pushes things, but not as far as people might want them to.'