The Price of Gluten

The Vatican has just warned that gluten-free communion wafers are invalid -- no more effective than an Oreo cookie. Of the casuistry behind that I have no doubt. From wherever wafer standards were derived,  I'm certain they remain on the books for modern seekers. But obeying the precise letter of that law may inadvertently hand other churches a competitive advantage.

Gluten has obviously become a red-flag cause on the nutrition front. Though it seems to be fading some recently, it caused a sensation a few years ago by linking the barely known protein to celiac disease, a serious malady was at first associate with a broad enough range of general symptoms that it seemed as if half the country had it overnight. Though that frenzy slowed, it did certify gluten as a significant public enemy.

The new directive from Rome attempts to clarify what that means to parish goers theses days. Pure wheat is the standard approved source of wafers. That has gluten in it.  "Low-gluten" alternatives can be tolerated, though obtaining such rarities can be a problem, and worshippers with celiac disease may fill their obligation by skipping the wafer and taking wine. Problem one, wafers without any gluten are outlawed. Problem number two, many parishes don't offer the cup during Sunday masses or during the week. So what's a celiac-victim to do?

Here's where the plot could thicken. Opportunist Protestants could promote "gluten free" wafers in the name of providing aid and comfort to perplexed Catholics.

This comes to mind as a response to Pope Benedict's highly publicized offer in 2009 to welcome married Anglican (Protestant) priests who opposed women's ordination as rebranded as Catholic clergy. There was an outcry from many Protestants that this constituted what was once known as "sheep stealing," luring people from one church to another.

Now the Catholic church has left itself potentially open to gains by rival churches. Trivial and irrelevant, you say? Probably, but the bigger point is that there has been a pattern of dwelling on secondary matters that annoy many in the laity and seem totally out of proportion to essential issues. Perhaps the reason for banning gluten goes to the heart ot Revelation and exists within that "deposit of faith" that use to get talked a lot about by a nervous hierarchy. Somehow I don't think the virgin wheat requirement rises to that level -- it sounds much in the mode of classical Greek understanding of "natures" -- and rather imagine it was something interpolated or created to fill in an explanatory gap. But I'll grant benefit of the doubt.

The Bible's caution against "straining at a gnat" while "swallowing a camel" underscores the weakness of taking small things so seriously that the larger picture is lost. Not all small issues are small in the larger context, but many nit-picky ones are, and many of them have their origins as human attempts to solve ineffable questions, good as speculation but bad as eternal truth.

The gluten declaration reasoning is never stated so it's foundations in an early Christian think tank isn't available there. It's intent must be sincere in a climate of single, abstract issues but its impact can be negative on those who see it as just another extraneous irritation. But it's practical effect on celiac sufferers can be real and alienating. And the Lutherans across the street may be gearing up to comfort their longings.

This is a relatively small matter but in a day when most all churches, including Catholicism, are losing members, even peripheral influences would seem to make a difference. Pope Benedict's grand welcome to Anglican's clergy who were appalled by women becoming priests caused some Anglican defection and Catholic increase, but from then on Catholicism has signified that it will open its arms to men who actively sought to excluse women from ordination. I think adding that strain of negativity counts too.

In considering this topic, I was reminded of a previous disturbance over allowing communion in the hand. In 1977, I watched the intense debate among the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting in Boston. The crux of the matter, it seemed to me, that some bishops strived to exclude this departure from standard "communion on the tongue" because it signified a special prerogative given to the ordained clergy whereas placing the wafer on the hand suggesting that the laity to some extent shared that privilege. That was a token of the ensuing struggle to redefine the clergy in terms of Vatican II, a process that is far from complete. But the spectacle of bishops becoming so vehement without obvious reference to those wider considerations was another equivalent of inability to see that legendary forest for the trees. 


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