Of Gluten and the Appearances of Bread

I take for granted the prescription about unleavened wheat in the recipes for Eucharistic bread. In my parishes over the years, others are more guarded about their health. The best parish practice I experienced was to put the people of gluten-sensitivity or intolerance in charge of the procedure before and during Mass. Over time I was informed of concerns I had not considered, contamination for example, for those extremely sensitive.

Kathleen Basi’s letter to bishops and Pope Francis is making the public rounds, as in here. While I feel disinclined to direct disobedience, I find myself far more sympathetic to her request than I might have been a decade or two ago. It’s a good time to listen carefully to the questions about gluten and bread and appearances and discern carefully.

There are many forms of bread, including those without gluten. In fact, as I searched online for Passover regulations, I found that, at least in modern times, Passover bread may be any one of five grains: wheat, spelt, rye, barley, or oats. Oats are gluten free.

Oats, I’ve been informed, are not always safe for celiac-sensitive persons.

Ms Basi comments in her letter that the exact strains of wheat used by Jesus in his bread have long since faded into agricultural history.

If we have to use what Jesus used, why aren’t we limited to a variety that at least existed at the time of the Last Supper?

The answer, of course, is that it is impractical. It would be an undue burden to insist upon using varieties that are no longer grown.

Mainstream practice in the West long ago moved to individual pieces of flatbread. Visually, that is a significant evolution from what was the practice for the Lord and his disciples. Our Eastern brothers and sisters have no problem with leaven, and Roman Catholics certainly accept their sacramental practices, though in variance from ours, as wholly valid.

But if these adaptations to Jesus’ practice have already been made without jeopardizing the validity of the sacrament, the Church should be able to accommodate celiacs as well.

Yes, I’d say the institution has more work to do on this front.

Canon law has been changed by the Pope in recent history. I have no doubt that was done in consultation with the bishops of the world. I am asking the leaders of our Church to go back to the base assumption upon which the law concerning gluten is based. I beg you to consider: Is this really a necessary burden to impose?

For most Catholics, the answer is a clear negative. Our eucharistic bread doesn’t really look like bread. Truly, it has far more in common with manufactured circles stripped of gluten than any Middle Eastern unleavened loaf.

Or maybe there’s nothing really wrong with teff or millet or buckwheat or even rice. As long as it looks like bread.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Of Gluten and the Appearances of Bread

  1. Liam says:

    “Oats, I’ve been informed, are not always safe for celiac-sensitive persons.”

    Not only because of cross-contamination in grain-processing facilities, but avenins, which are in oats and may trigger sensitivities.

    (then there’s the world of FODMAP sensitivities, which may get quickly misdiagnosed as celiac sensitivity, but normally would not be an issue in the small amount of food in a Eucharistic host)

    I doubt Rome would move on this issue beyond where it has because of ecumenical concerns. Other than the odd Finnish Orthodox Church, the rest of the Eastern/Oriental* Orthodox world would probably be repelled by Rome acting unilaterally on this score.

    * Btw, the Armenian Church has historically used unleavened bread. The question of leaven has not so much to do with ancient breadmaking but more with whether the Eucharistic bread should re-present the Last Supper vs a post-Pesach celebration. Even if the Last Supper had been held an evening before the first evening of Pesach, leavening would have been omitted from bread baking by Nisan 10, with a ritual inspection (as it were) for chametz on Nisan 14 – eggs were/are allowed to be used in the unleavened breads in that interim period for compliance with the ritual requirements.

    • Liam says:

      The Byzantine approach to baking leavened prosphora is a rather particular process to keep the crust soft so that cutting and immersing in the chalice nd administration intinction by spoon results in no stray crumbs (dry leavened bread leaves more crumbs than dry Roman-style hosts); the issue of crumbs is not a concern peculiar to Roman canonists – far from it.

  2. Todd says:

    Ecumenical concerns, well…

    Unfortunately, the institutions of many churches, west and east, seem less willing to engage in ecumenism, possibly to the point where gluten-sensitive people might see that as more of an excuse than a real reason. Especially given the hand-wringing over intercommunion which continues to this day. But sure; I wouldn’t disagree the matter as ecumenical import.

    If I were an author, one sf what-if I’d ponder: a virus wipes out the world’s grains and Christians are faced with quinoa or amaranth, or no Eucharist. I suppose the prelates of planet Earth would be making ecumenical inroads quite quick.

    • Liam says:

      I too have frequently engaged in that what-if (but churches don’t engage in such exercises, probably related to the reason that US courts (other than the supreme courts of MA and ME for reasons going back a couple of centuries) don’t issue advisory opinions on hypothetical facts – because they too abstract.) Unfortunately, I am not at all sure the Russian Orthodox Church – the 800 lb gorilla of Eastern Orthodoxy – would do as you or I would like to imagine in that situation.

    • Liam says:

      PS: “serving size”, as it were, matters in practical terms. The gluten in very-low-gluten wafers ~ 100 parts per million (ppm) gluten; Gluten Free Living magazine explained that a typical wafer would contain only 37 micrograms of gluten, which is a small fraction of the 10 milligrams of gluten that is considered safe for people with celiac disease to consume on a daily basis. So, though the wafer contains more gluten measured in ppm than is usually considered safe to eat on a daily basis, the “serving size” is so small that if one only consumed one, that would be well within the suggested maximum amount of gluten consumed per day. One would have to consume about 270 wafers daily to hit the ceiling, as it were.

      Given that and current facts, it’s hard to imagine the churches with firm canonical requirements on this topic moving to being looser any time soon.

      • Todd says:

        I don’t have a reason to disagree with any of those analyses, or the others I’ve seen. The same kinds of studies also show a placebo effect for all kinds of ingesting.

        That said, loosening requirements would have the effect of offering symbolic leadership. And you are right: firm churches will preserve the institution before providing relief, real or placebo, to ordinary people. Another reason why the Church isn’t going to be having any Acts 2 moments anytime soon.

      • Liam says:

        But would it in fact be offering symbolic leadership? That’s more of an assumption than a conclusion.

  3. Todd says:

    “I am not at all sure the Russian Orthodox Church – the 800 lb gorilla of Eastern Orthodoxy – would do as you or I would like to imagine in that situation.”

    I caught this aside, and given my view to their affirmation of aggression and violence, in my book, their leadership have forfeited their orthodoxy, if not their Christianity. Russian Orthodoxy? Irrelevant in Christendom, alas.

    • Liam says:

      Of course, you and I don’t get a vote. There’s a lot of people who’d same the same thing about the church of which we are members, and that our views on the sacraments are likewise irrelevant/forfeit.

  4. Todd says:

    That “lot of people” are, of course, free to do so. In the long run, the fruits will be in evidence. Rome and Constantinople gained their initial regard in Christendom from good fruit. That regard can erode and vanish with any negative witness to the Gospel.

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