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A ruling that would sicken a Pharisee


Recently, the number of American Catholics dropped from 62,391,484 to 62,391,479. That’s only five fewer Catholics, a loss that would normally attract little notice. But the loss of Jenny Richardson, a 5-year-old candidate for her first Eucharist, together with that of her two siblings and her parents, amounts to a spiritual abortion that leaves me sicker than Peter’s mother-in-law.

If I were not a Catholic, I don’t think I would even have a reason to write. I would have no reason to laugh because the church is the source of my humor. I would have no reason to feel guilty about not genuflecting. Being a Catholic colors my every thought. As the late Catholic novelist, J.F. Powers, wrote, being a Catholic “makes for stronger beer.”

Yet, there are moments when Unitarianism with its Ten Suggestions looks awfully good to me. There are times when our contradictory, pharisaical and hypocritical church is so pastorally insensitive that it would physic a goat. Jenny’s story is one of those moments.

Jenny lives in a Boston suburb of Natick, Mass. (NCR, Feb. 9). Her family worshiped at St. Patrick’s Church, where an earlier pastor, Joseph Greer, achieved a measure of fame because of his saintly death from cancer.

Jenny suffers from celiac disease, an illness that affects the lining of the small intestine, which causes it to react adversely to gluten, a protein that is present in wheat and other grains. When the small intestine comes in contact with gluten, the membrane that lines the intestine loses its fluffy texture and becomes smooth. As a result, the intestine is usually less able to absorb nutrients. The disease lowers resistance to other illnesses. It rarely shows up in adulthood but it can seriously affect a child. It can be treated by a gluten-free diet.

Ah, but the gluten gets in the way. In a 1995 circular letter to the episcopal conferences, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, expanded on Canon 924.2 and proclaimed, “Special hosts … in which gluten has been removed are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.” Ratzinger’s ruling pointed out that an essential ingredient of wheat is the active presence of gluten. As if to ensure air tightness, the ruling went on to hesitate to recommend even the use of low-gluten hosts.

Because Jenny’s young body cannot digest gluten, she has been denied permission to receive her first Eucharist.

As I read the story distributed by the Associated Press, I thought of those priests whom I know who celebrate the Eucharist with gluten-free hosts and mustum, the unfermented wine, which alcoholics must have to be free of their disease. I recall cases where whole ordination classes gather annually to celebrate their anniversary. Rather than exclude their classmates, the entire class consumes gluten-free bread and mustum -- a gesture that would give a chancery careerist the vapors.

I think of those priests who make prayerful pastoral decisions and who grant annulments in the privacy of the confessional rather than put the petitioner through a long, invasive and painful process that often leaves them diminished. And I’m constantly viewing Catholics in illicit marriages receiving the Eucharist. Scandalous beyond measure.

According to estimates by the Celiac Disease Foundation, as many as 1 in 250 people can be affected by this disease, which, while treatable, can also be fatal. The statistic suggests that there may be at least 250,000 U.S. Catholics with celiac disease. Thus, what amounts to a good-sized diocese is in danger of receiving the Real Absence and losing their soul in the process. But the ruling must stand. An abomination. A desecration. A sacrilege.

Good God, where do we get these rigid, insensitive authority figures with souls as cold as a witch’s bosom? The ruling on Jenny would sicken a Pharisee, but the culture of royal consciousness and control among the bishops appears to place precedence over charity.

One sign of an unhealthy institution is its obsession with detail and control. Now that episcopal credibility has been lost, their authority has been reduced to swatting flies. What should have been a minor pastoral decision is now in the hands of a prince of the church. It is bound to make him an object of ridicule.

There must be priests in Boston and elsewhere who are sitting on the edge of their beds and weeping, wondering if this is what they went on their bellies for on the day they were ordained.

I have never had trouble believing that the Eucharist was the Body of Christ. I simply wondered if it was bread. It tasted like shirt cardboard. Now, I will have to throttle the eucharistic minister and get the recipe, lest I soil my tongue with invalid, gluten-free Eucharist.

I am reminded of that great Septuagesima Sunday in 1965 when, after at least a thousand years, the altars in most U.S. churches were turned around and the priests stopped saying Mass with their behinds to the people. They also began praying at least part of the Mass in English. Changes could happen. Exceptions can be made. The church survived. I am wandering terribly now but I submit that all this has something to do with Jenny Richardson, who only wanted to receive Christ’s body with her family and her classmates. (Jenny’s pastor did tell her parents that she could receive Communion in the form of wine instead of bread. But they declined. Her mother told the Associated Press, “She feels different wherever she goes but should not be made to feel different in church.”)

The Richardson family now worships in a Methodist church where the rules governing Communion are different. Methodists believe that the bread and wine are symbolic, not the actual transubstantiated body and blood of Christ. (Boy, will they get theirs!)

It’s likely that the Associated Press story went to news offices all over the country. I don’t know how many other celiac patients -- or even Mary and Joe Catholic -- will say: “OK, that’s it. I’m out of here.” Will many shake the gluten from their feet and leave?

St. Therese used to say, “God is nothing but mercy and love.” I guess she didn’t know what a grain of gluten would do.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he wears a galero around the house. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001