The Challenges of Being Catholic with Celiac Disease
In the U.S. alone there are at least 3 million people living with celiac disease. The autoimmune disorder causes a negative reaction after consuming gluten - the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Symptoms range from gastrointestinal discomfort to malnutrition to weight loss to skin reactions and much more. If left undiagnosed or untreated, celiac disease can be life altering and can even lead to potentially fatal results.
At the moment, the only known treatment option for anyone who battles this disorder is to eliminate any contact they may have with gluten through food or products - yes, gluten is not only found in food but also in cosmetics, soaps and even some alcoholic beverages. Making this kind of lifestyle change requires commitment, dedication, and vigilance. As such, celiac patients tend to be hyper-aware of the food they are consuming and the products they are using to ensure that they are not inadvertently being exposed to gluten and triggering a flare-up.
For celiac patients who are also practicing Catholicism, the need to be aware of their surroundings grows even more as the simple act of participating in mass once a week can be a potential hot-spot for inflammation. The holy sacrament of communion requires eating a communion host, which is a small wafer or piece of bread that contains wheat that can trigger some of the very unpleasant symptoms that comes along with celiac disease.
So what happens to those who need to live a gluten-free lifestyle but want to maintain their beliefs and participation in the Catholic Church? What happens to priests who have celiac disease or are gluten intolerant? Catholics who are unable to consume gluten have had to deal with this very dilemma for years, as Catholic doctrine dictates that communion hosts or bread must contain some amount of gluten to be valid.
This very subject made worldwide headlines this past summer when a memo reiterating the rules around gluten-free or low gluten communion hosts was circulated through the church. Soon people were all “a twitter” about the news that the “Catholic Church Banning Celiacs from Communion!” People assumed that these were new protocols put in place and suddenly celiac patients had to find other means to receive the sacrament.
What’s important to note is that while a memo was indeed circulated to a faith-based organization regarding the rules and regulations around communion, the information was nothing new. In other words, the doctrine hasn’t changed for many years and this news - about communion hosts having to contain gluten - was not a new revelation. The Church wasn’t banning celiac patients from communion, rather it was reminding members of the church about protocol and that there are options available for the Catholic celiac patients out there.
This memo raised lots of questions about why gluten is an integral part of the Catholic Church and how celiac patients can manage their disorder while practicing. Celiac disease doesn’t discriminate and can attack anyone at any age - regardless of sex, religion or career. This means that in almost every church there are at least a few people who cannot tolerate gluten.