“Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.” – Celiac Disease Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds and executes national initiatives in medical research, patient and health-care provider education, and public policy advocacy to bring an end to the suffering caused by celiac disease.
For those with celiac disease or other serious allergies or reactions to wheat products, receiving the consecrated host in Holy Communion can lead to bloating, diarrhea, and other health complications.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their bodies mount an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.
“Celiac disease is relatively rare, and everyone is different in their amount of sensitivity, but if you have celiac disease and have been diagnosed, even one bite of something with wheat in it can cause problems,” says Natalie Buntzen, registered dietitian with the Center for Health Promotion, part of the St. Joseph Health Care System.
Still, the Church recognizes that it mustn’t exclude Catholics with celiac disease from receiving Communion, so there are accommodations for those who cannot consume bread.
So, even though completely gluten-free hosts are not valid for the celebration of the Eucharist (because wheat bread and wine of the grape are the matter of the sacrament of the Eucharist as Jesus instituted it), there are alternatives for celiac sufferers.
Low-gluten hosts are valid for consecration as long as they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to become bread without the addition of foreign materials and without procedures that would alter the nature of bread, according to a July 2003 circular letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Both priests and laity must receive express permission from their bishop in order to participate in receiving consecrated, low-gluten hosts at Holy Communion, the letter says.
Father William Goldin, who serves as parochial vicar at St. Irenaeus Parish in Cypress, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2013 when he was about to be ordained as a deacon. “I had been sort of sick for years and mysteriously sick, and it was getting worse.”
Fortunately, Father William notes, his condition has not affected his ministry at all. “It’s an easy disease to manage because all you need to do is avoid something.
“Some people have a small amount of wheat and they’re hospitalized,” says Father William. “I occasionally accidentally consume gluten, such as in a restaurant with soy sauce hidden in a sauce, and when that happens, I don’t feel well for several days. It’s not something my body gets over quickly.”
Father William orders his low-gluten hosts from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri. The sister’s website includes a page about proper storage and distribution of low-gluten hosts so as to avoid cross-contamination.
[The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s website is benedictinesisters.org; phone them at 800-223-2772.]