by Marion Nestle
Jul 18 2017

Vatican says bread for Eucharist cannot be gluten-free

Food politics generally doesn’t usually get into matters of religion, but sometimes has to.   Today’s issue is whether bread for the Catholic Eucharist can be gluten-free.

No, it can’t.

As the New York Times explains,

The unleavened bread that Roman Catholics use in the celebration of Mass must contain some gluten, even if only a trace amount, according to a new Vatican directive.

The directive…affirms an existing policy. But it may help to relieve some of the confusion surrounding church doctrine on gluten…The issue is especially urgent for people with celiac disease…or for those with other digestive conditions that make them vulnerable even to small amounts of gluten… “The confusion can be great when these ‘breads’ are advertised as gluten-free alongside what are described as gluten-free but are in fact low-gluten altar breads,” according to the Catholic Church in England and Wales. “The confusion can also be the cause of great upset both to those Catholics who are allergic to gluten and to those who minister to them.”

People with celiac disease cannot eat wheat, rye, or barley, which contain gluten proteins.  If they do,  the gluten leads to a toxic product that causes severe damage to the intestinal tract and other serious symptoms.

About 1 out of every 133 people has this condition.  This prevalence has remained constant over time.  But the number of people consuming gluten-free diets has greatly increased.  This could be because people just feel better not eating bread and pasta, or maybe because their celiac disease has just not been diagnosed.

The Hartman group has a useful Infographic about gluten-free trends.

Fortunately, lots of gluten-free products are now available, even if some Catholic jurisdictions forbid them.

NPR talks about one option option for gluten-avoiding Catholics:

That is where the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of Clyde, Mo., come in. After a decade of work, they came up with a Vatican-approved wafer, using wheat starch and water. It contains just .001 percent gluten, an amount low enough for most celiac sufferers…They sell about 15,000 breads per week…”We believe Communion is the actual body of Christ and that’s the center point of our liturgy as Catholics — being able to receive Jesus.

What about other religions?  My inside source at the Episcopal Grace Cathedral in San Francisco tells me that its services use

bread rather than wafers for communion, and almost always have a gluten-free alternative on hand (the bread is baked fresh for this purpose by the Bread Ministry!).

The purpose of doing this is “to make everyone feel welcome and included.”

Amen to that.