The Eucharist and Sacramental Validity, Part I

Q:  One of my fellow-parishioners has a violent allergy to wheat, so he can’t receive the Eucharist under the form of bread. He has to receive from the chalice instead. Why can’t priests get permission to use some other type of unleavened bread at Mass since some people have this problem?  –Helene

A: Back in the January 11, 2008 column, we saw that liturgical laws are, as a rule, not addressed by the Code of Canon Law. Instead, they are contained in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM). One might, therefore, presume that the answer to Helene’s question can only be found outside of the code altogether.

But while the GIRM addresses this question (as we’ll see below), the code does likewise. This is not some accidental redundancy; the code must stipulate the correct matter to be used for the Eucharist, because canon law is directly concerned with anything that pertains directly to the validity of a sacrament. For if a priest is to celebrate a valid Mass, in which he truly consecrates the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, he must be using the proper types of bread and wine necessary for a valid consecration. Consequently, while it is of course true that Helene’s question refers to a liturgical issue, the code must address this particular matter all the same.

Canon 924.2 tells us exactly what the Eucharistic bread has to be made of: it must be wheat, and only wheat. The GIRM echoes the canon, adding that the bread must be unleavened (320). It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that! Using bread made of corn or rice, or any combination of grains, would be a clear violation of the law. This of course stems from the traditional understanding that at the Last Supper, Christ consecrated the unleavened wheat bread used at the Jewish Passover meal. The Church is thus striving to ensure that the matter used at Mass today is essentially the same matter that was used at the very first Mass, nearly 2000 years ago.

But as our questioner notes, there are a sizeable number of people who are unable to eat anything made from wheat. Persons who suffer from celiac disease are incapable of eating foods containing gluten, which is a protein found in flour made from wheat.

We Catholics of course know that a consecrated Host is, in reality, no longer just a piece of wheat bread, but has been changed into the Body of Christ. Catholic theologians will all point out, however, that it still retains the accidents (i.e., the external appearance and physical characteristics) of a piece of wheat bread, and thus a Catholic who cannot ingest gluten will be unable to receive the Host.

So what is a Catholic with this medical problem to do? Or perhaps it is more correct to ask, what should the Church do for a Catholic suffering from this health condition?

For starters, telling a Catholic with celiac disease that he simply can’t receive Holy Communion is not an option. As was discussed in detail back in the May 24, 2007 column, Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments (c. 843.1). As if this general rule weren’t enough, canon 912 specifies that anyone who is not prohibited by law (such as tiny children, or excommunicated persons) must be admitted to Holy Communion. This right cannot be dismissed lightly, and definitely not because of a health problem which is obviously nobody’s fault! The Church must provide a way for these Catholics to receive the Eucharist. At the same time, however, the Church has to safeguard the validity of the sacrament, by ensuring that the matter that is used—bread, in this case—is not so substantially different that its consecration would be invalid.

And the Church has done precisely that. In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under its then-Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger, issued guidelines providing (among other things) for those Catholics who cannot receive the Host because of an inability to ingest gluten.

First of all, the guidelines state unequivocally that the use of bread which is completely gluten-free may not be used, because it constitutes invalid matter for the Eucharist (A.1.). This means that using bread made from corn or other grains that do not contain gluten is not allowed —period. It also means, however, that using wheat bread which is completely devoid of gluten is likewise not permissible. The rationale is this: for the bread used at Mass to be valid matter, it must be true wheat bread, and this implies that it must contain gluten, which is a significant element in the composition of real wheat bread. In other words, take away the gluten completely, and what is left is not true bread. Thus while use of such gluten-free matter would obviously remove the problem for celiac-disease sufferers, it simply cannot be done.

What is possible, however, according to the CDF, is the use of wheat bread which contains only a very tiny amount of gluten (A.2.). There are in fact a couple of places in the world today which produce such bread, and bishops have been able to ascertain that the manner in which it is made is not so radically different from ordinary bread-making that it could be considered something other than wheat bread. If priests use this low-gluten bread at Mass, then those Catholics with celiac disease who can still tolerate a minute bit of gluten can still receive the Eucharistic Host.

But for those whose illness is so severe that ingesting even this miniscule amount of gluten is impossible, or for those in parishes where for whatever reason this low-gluten bread cannot be obtained, the document states that Holy Communion may be received under the species of wine only (B.1.). This is apparently what is happening in Helene’s parish, and as we can see from the CDF document, it is a totally legitimate solution to the problem.

For the record, if in theory a diocesan bishop wanted to take issue with the CDF and use a type of bread that is prohibited by this document, he could not dispense from this law. (The notion of dispensation was discussed in detail back in the August 9, 2007 column.) Canon 841 explicitly states that only the supreme authority in the Church can approve or define what is needed for the validity of the sacraments. Thus any bishop who ignored or overruled the CDF’s guidelines would be sanctioning an invalid Mass. Helene’s suggestion that priests might somehow “get permission” to use different bread for Mass may sound reasonable on the surface, but it cannot be followed.

What happens when a priest himself is diagnosed with celiac disease? This presents a particular problem, because when a priest celebrates Mass, he must consume the Eucharist under both species—both the Host and the chalice. If it is possible to obtain low-gluten bread, and he is able to tolerate it, there will be no difficulty; but if it is not available to him, or he cannot ingest even the tiny bit of gluten it contains, it would seem that there is no way for him to offer Mass!

Fortunately, there is a way out of this dilemma: a priest who suffers from an intolerance to gluten can concelebrate Mass with another priest. (Concelebration was discussed back in the February 22, 2008 column.) For during a concelebration, when two or more priests offer Mass together, only the principal celebrant need consume the Eucharist under both species. Another priest can concelebrate with him and only receive the Eucharist from the chalice, if necessary—and his Mass is completely valid.

So we can see that the Church has found ways for people with this particular health problem to receive Holy Communion, and for priests suffering from the same problem to celebrate Mass. The faithful are able to receive the Blessed Sacrament as is their right, without compromising the validity of the Eucharist—and thus these two critical needs can both be met.

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