Perhaps the most agonizing issues people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity face occur when their faith practice includes gluten. In some communities it is relatively easy to substitute gluten-free items, in others it can seem like an unsolvable problem.
A study by Annette Bentley reported that 88% of her subjects had made some change to their religious practice after their diagnosis of celiac disease. Many also indicated that religious practice was sometimes a trigger for violating their gluten-free diet and that they suffered symptoms as a result.
The Catholic Church has presented the biggest problem for people who need to eat gluten free. The church holds the position that hosts that entirely gluten free are invalid for the celebration of the Eucharist (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, circular letter to the Presidents of Conferences of Bishops, July 24, 2003 (Prot. 89/78-174/98) in BCL Newsletter, November 2003 (Vol. XXXIX), p. 45.)
There are two options for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance – to celebrate with only the consecrated wine or to use very low gluten-hosts available from several sources. These very low-gluten hosts are made with wheat starch that has been processed to remove as much gluten protein as possible and have been approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
There are several sources of very-low gluten host. The Congregation of Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Missouri produce a product that contains less than 0.01% gluten. The wafers are produced in a gluten-free environment. . Similar wafers are available in Canada from the St. Robert Bellarmine Society in Oakville, Ontario.
The percentage of gluten in these wafers translates to 100 ppm gluten, normally more than is considered safe for people with celiac disease, but as Ann Whelan from Gluten Free Living magazine pointed out, at that level, a wafer would contain only 37 micrograms of gluten, a small fraction of the 10 milligrams of gluten that is considered safe for people with celiac disease to consume on a daily basis.
In other words, although the wafer contains more gluten measures in parts per million than is usually considered safe, the “serving size” is so small that if you only consume one, you are well within the suggested maximum amount of gluten consumed per day. You would actually have to consume about 270 wafers in a day to meet that maximum level.
Many dioceses are willing to provide a separate paten to keep the low-gluten wafer separate from regular-gluten wafers. You may need to work out a process where you notify the presiding priest that you are present so that your wafer is prepared.
Protestant – using Wafers
Some Protestant traditions use wafers as part of their communion practice. The very low-gluten hosts described above can be used by people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Ener-G foods manufacturers a gluten-free wafer that is available from numerous sources in both Canada and the United States. This wafer is also free from casein, dairy, yeast, egg, soy, nuts and corn, for people with multiple allergies.
Again, you will have to make arrangements for your wafer to be presented separately from the regular wafers to avoid cross-contamination.
Protestant – using Bread
While virtually every congregation that uses bread as part of their communion ritual will accept the substitution of gluten-free bread, you may have to make some special arrangements to make sure that your gluten-bread remains uncontaminated by the wheat bread used by the rest of the congregation.
Some people simply bring their own bread and consume it with the rest of the congregation. Others feel that the sharing of communion bread from one person to another is an important component of the ritual. In that case, you need to find a way to separate your gluten-free bread from the rest of the bread on the plate. Your bread can be placed in a small container on the plate, it can be individually wrapped in plastic and placed with the rest of the bread or it can be placed on a separate plate. Some people have expressed concern about having to sit in the “celiac section” if a gluten-free bread is offered on a separate plate. You may have to be creative in working with the management of your church to work out exactly the right solution for you and your congregation.
The primary gluten-related issue for Jews seems to be sharing communal food during Passover. Ironically, a lot of food that is kosher for Passover is gluten free, because of the prohibition of using any gluten except for matzos or matzo flour. The problem is that matzo is by definition made from wheat, rye, barley, oats, or spelt. Some Jewish movements do not eat any grains during passover (non gebrochts) and that food would be naturally gluten free.
There are now several sources for oat matzo made from gluten-free oats. A matzo made from potato and tapioca starch is also available. Not every Jewish community will accept these variant matzo’s, but their availability offers a level of inclusion for everyone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.