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Only wheat will do, church insists

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When it comes to powerful Biblical imagery, few words can match the status of wheat -- the grain that first must fall to the ground and die before being reborn as the Bread of Life.

The Bread of Life -- the Communion wafer in Catholic practice -- is not an option for 5-year-old Jennifer Richardson and other Catholics who suffer from celiac disease.

As a result, Jennifer’s parents, Janice and Douglas Richardson, are taking their faith elsewhere. The Richardsons have removed their three children from the Catholic church because the Boston archdiocese refused to substitute a rice wafer so that Jennifer could receive Communion. News of their ordeal has been reported in the Boston and U.S. press.

As members of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Natick, Mass., a Boston suburb, the Richardsons gave early warning to their pastor, Fr. Daniel F. Twomey, that Jennifer would need to substitute a rice wafer when she made her first Communion. Twomey informed the couple that rice substitutes were impermissible under rules of the Catholic church. He pointed out that Jennifer could drink from the Communion cup and receive the full presence of the Eucharist.

The Richardsons said Twomey’s solution was unacceptable because a celiac sufferer could accidentally be exposed to gluten through the chalice. They are now attending a Methodist church.

Celiac suffers can become seriously ill from gluten, a protein enzyme that activates when flour is kneaded. Most people with the disease use a rice-based substitute for wheat.

With the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, the wheat-only position for Communion wafers is strongly held. The Vatican office ruled in 1994 that men with celiac disease should not be ordained. A Vatican official told NCR that it’s a matter of fidelity to revelation. “If a candidate cannot celebrate the Mass under the forms instituted by Christ, that is an obvious problem,” the official said -- though another official noted that the norm is subject to the judgment of a local bishop.

Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston archbishop, explained the church’s rule in a letter to the Richardsons dated Oct. 29. “The law of the church is extremely explicit regarding bread and wine used for the eucharistic celebration. In keeping with the Last Supper narrative found in the gospels, the bread must be made of wheat alone. Anything else would be an invalid matter and thus would not be the Eucharist.” Law urged the couple to remain in dialogue with Twomey and “stay active members of the Catholic church.”

Fr. James A. Field of the Boston archdiocese’s office of worship distributed a memo to all priests Jan. 30. “Rice cakes are not valid matter for the Eucharist and are never to be used in liturgy, even in Japan where neither wheat nor grape wine are dietary staples,” he said. “The imagery of scripture, prayer and the witness of tradition is consistent in the centrality of bread formed by wheat and wine from the fruit of the vine. Blessed rice cakes are not substitutes for the body and blood of Christ, and are never to be used in worship.”

Field added, “Persons who approach the parish with concerns related to celiac disease should be received with understanding and compassion.”

Chicago liturgist Gabe Huck noted that the issue of using wheat for Communion bread has long been a point of contention among Asian Catholics who would rather use their staple food, rice, for Communion. The universal church should be sensitive to cultural nuances, Huck said. “Wheat is not their food. Rice is their food.”

The Richardsons and others said they knew of priests who make exceptions.

Janice Richardson told the Boston Herald she knew of “two churches in this archdiocese where the priests do make an accommodation. And I have a friend in New York whose priest said, ‘Of course we’ll give the child a rice wafer.’ “

“If they did do it, they are not supposed to do it,” said diocesan spokesman John A. Walsh. “It could be going on. I don’t know. That would not be valid matter. That would indeed not be a valid sacrament if it were rice flour. ... For valid matter you must have wheat flour.”

Walsh also said the Richardsons had been assured that an uncontaminated Communion cup could be used for Jennifer to receive the precious blood of Christ.

Annette Bentley, president of the American Celiac Society and a practicing Catholic, told the Associated Press that some priests quietly make a substitution to help parishioners. “To be Christian is to be more flexible,” Bentley said.

Gary Macy, theology professor at the University of San Diego, said allowing rice wafers as an exception for people with celiac disease is a reasonable option, despite a clear sacred tradition that elevates wheat and wine to important places of status in church ritual. The tradition is unlikely to be changed on an institutional level, he said. But making an exception “does not change the whole ritual,” Macy said. “All kinds of things have been dispensed within the history of the church.”

Macy said the important role of symbols in worship should not obscure the more important sacramental reality: “The Real Presence of the Lord is there for persons whether they receive Communion or not.” Modeling the life of Christ and living a holy life are at the crux of the gospel, Macy said. “The most important thing is not the symbolic act but what the symbolic act stands for.”

As for Twomey’s proposal that Jennifer receive Communion from the cup alone, Huck and Macy both said the church had been remiss by failing to convey to Catholics that Communion in either species constitutes the complete body of Christ. The cup, Huck said, has been regarded by many as a “secondary symbol.”

Servite Fr. John Huels, a professor of canon law at Ottawa’s St. Paul University, proposed a third possibility. “If for some medical, psychological, or other reason a communicant declines to drink from the chalice, the diocesan bishop could grant a dispensation to allow the person to [dip] the edge of a rice wafer -- unconsecrated, of course -- in the precious blood,” he told NCR. “The person would be receiving under one species, that of the wine, but would be receiving the whole Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity.”

The Richardsons, however, said they are dissatisfied with a church that insists on rigid rules. “On many occasions we have heard your teachings to value diversity and differences,” they wrote to Twomey. “However, after our conversation several days ago, we do not believe that our family’s differences have been adequately met.”

Diocese spokesman Walsh said he sees a silver lining in the midst of the controversy. “If any good comes out of this sad story it is that more people will become aware of celiac disease and be enlisted in the effort to find accommodations so that all are included and feel included.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001