Have the Vatican banned gluten free hosts?

Nothing much stirred when the Vatican issued this letter to its Bishops on June 15th about the bread that should be used for the Eucharist, but when it was reported by Vatican Radio on July 8th, things got more agitated.

Some extracts from the letter:

The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat … It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter …

And:

Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.  Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials and without the use of procedures that would alter the nature of bread

In a nutshell, the host must be wheaten, but contain trace gluten – although I’m not exactly sure how much is required to ‘obtain the confection of bread’. As pointed out in the letter, this decree was originally made in 2003, and is not a new one from Pope Francis.

The reporting of this in the media outlets, many of which have taken it as a new directive, and failed to do much research into the matter, has been poor.

Vatican outlaws gluten-free bread for Holy Communion, said the BBC. The Vatican ‘bans’ it in the Independent. Many framed it in terms suggesting this was terrible news for coeliacs, who would not be able to receive communion (understandably, some Catholic coeliacs panicked). Others, like the Sydney Morning Herald, facetiously seemed to interpret the letter as an attempt by the Vatican to crack down on the gluten free trend. This piece in The Debrief was ill-researched and clueless on several levels. Most distasteful was Humanists UK’s unnecessarily insulting tweet.

Ener-G Gluten Free hosts (US): made with rice, potato and other GF ingredients

Nothing has changed, people. Nothing has changed! The letter was merely a reminder.

Most of the attacks on the Vatican for this are wrong and inappropriate. They’re guilty of ignorance about gluten terminology and science, I suspect, but it’s nothing more than many others are guilty of, including some coeliacs.

I think the problem and confusion has at least partly stemmed from the fact that the Vatican and many media outlets do not appear to understand that ‘gluten free’ does not mean ‘zero gluten’: that ‘gluten free’ products can and almost certainly do contain the trace gluten deemed requisite.

What I think the Vatican mean – and should be saying – is that the Eucharistic host must not be ‘wheat free’ – i.e. made from rice or potato starch. Gluten needn’t – and shouldn’t – come into it. There is no such thing as ‘partially gluten free’ anyway, because the state of gluten-free-ness is binary – it either is or it isn’t. It cannot be in between.

Their ‘low gluten’ is what we understand as ‘gluten free’ – so there’s no problem.

In other words, eligible hosts made with Codex wheat starch are just fine, coeliacs – whether they’re gluten free (0-20ppm) or very low gluten (20-100ppm). Even with the latter, a tiny ‘serving’ of a Eucharistic host will contain hundreds of times less gluten than a slice of gluten-free bread made from the same wheat starch. See this post by the Gluten Free Watchdog to see just how minuscule that amount is.

Bringing gluten into this discussion and focusing on it has distracted us from the fact that those who I suspect need to be concerned about this issue are not coeliacs, but wheat allergy sufferers, for whom trace wheat protein remaining in a Eucharist made from Codex wheat starch could trigger an alarming reaction. Anyone writing about them?

Further Information

For further info, see Coeliac UK’s statement.
Ener-G Gluten Free hosts (US) are made with rice, potato and other GF ingredients, but are suitable for Protestant communion, but not for Catholics.
Benedictine Sisters Low-Gluten Communion bread is suitable for Catholics in the US.
In the UK, try Charles Farris or Grace Supplies, for wheat-based GF hosts.
General Dietary offer hosts made with rice and potato, not suitable for Catholics or Anglicans. 

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