Gluten Sensitivity and Communion (Seriously)

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on March 23, 2011 · 0 comments

What does gluten have to do with church?

It is estimated that 1 out of every 133 people may be intolerant to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. For them, gluten can cause bloating, cramping, diarrhea and even damage to the small intestine. The only solution is to eliminate wheat- and gluten-containing foods from their diet.

For many with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, receiving the communion wafer on Sunday can cause problems. Some churches – Methodist, Christian Reform, and Lutheran – allow participants to use rice wafers as a substitute. Their position is that the wafer may be made from any grain. Others, especially the Catholic Church, believe that the communion wafer must be unleavened and made of wheat with gluten. By church tradition, this represents the bread eaten by Jesus at the last supper.

To allow gluten-sensitive Catholics to share communion, the church allows partaking of just the wine as adequate to receive the sacrament. For highly sensitive individuals this can still be problematic because the shared chalice may be contaminated by particles of host or lipstick residue that contains gluten. For some Catholics, not receiving the communion wafer is unsettling to their religious beliefs.

A group of Benedictine nuns have developed a very low gluten communion wafer which was approved for use by the Vatican in 2003. This wafer has 0.01% gluten which equals 100 PPMs (parts per million) or 37 micrograms. Except for the most highly sensitive people, this amount should be tolerated without experiencing problems. The US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy have approved the sister’s low gluten communion wafer as the only one to be used at Mass as a substitute for the traditional wafer.

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