Vatican ban on gluten-free hosts troubles members of Canadian celiac community

Shown are altar bread also known as communion wafers Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, at the Monastery of Saint Clare in Langhorne, Pa.
Shown are altar bread also known as communion wafers Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, at the Monastery of Saint Clare in Langhorne, Pa. Matt Rourke / The Canadian Press / AP

TORONTO – When Andrea Adam’s Catholic priest told her she was coming between her daughter and God, she knew it wasn’t because of her lack of faith.

It was because of gluten.

The Ontario woman’s daughter has celiac disease, which makes her extremely sensitive to gluten, a protein commonly found in wheat, rye, and other products that make bread.

The condition means consuming hosts – the bread and wafers used to symbolize the body of Christ – at communion in Catholic churches has been a major problem for Adam’s daughter, who can become violently ill with even the smallest amount of gluten.

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The Vatican, however, refuses to allow gluten-free hosts at communion and reaffirmed its stance in an announcement distributed last month. The notification said hosts used at communion had to contain at least a small amount of gluten to be valid.

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For Adam, the Vatican’s position is deeply troubling and has affected how often she goes to church.

“When the church is struggling, I don’t understand why they’re chasing more people away,” she said.

The family’s first brush with the church’s ban on gluten-free hosts came seven years ago when Adam tried to take her daughter, who was seven years old at the time, for her first communion at her Catholic church in Dublin, Ont.

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At the time, the priest at her church wouldn’t allow the use of a gluten-free host, even though a trace of gluten could make her daughter vomit over a dozen times.

When she tried to call another priest in the area to see if he would make an exception, he had already been warned about her case.

“He said it was ridiculous that I would do this to my daughter, and that I needed to just back off and let her do this,” said Adam.

In the end, Adam took her daughter to Ottawa, where she was able to receive communion with a gluten-free host.

Sue Newell, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Celiac Association, said the Vatican’s ban on gluten-free hosts has long been a contentious issue for her organization’s members.

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“It is probably the most difficult problem for people who are active Catholics when they get this diagnosis,” said Newell.

“We have priests and nuns who really struggle with what to do.”

For some with celiac disease, consuming gluten can cause a minor digestive upset, but for others, it can leave them ill for weeks, Newell said.

The Vatican has said extremely low-gluten hosts are valid at communion. Newell said those hosts have about 100 parts of gluten per million. Foods are generally defined as gluten-free when they have 20 parts per million or lower.

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“Most people with celiac can tolerate them, but not everyone’s willing to do that,” said Newell. “Some people say ‘absolutely no gluten is going to cross my mouth.”‘

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According to Newell, some members of the celiac community have left the Catholic church because of its refusal to use gluten-free hosts.

But Terry Fournier, director of the national liturgy office for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said claims of people abandoning the Catholic church over the issue is a “gross exaggeration.”

“I think some of that is that people don’t inquire into what the alternatives are, because there’s usually a pastoral solution to everything,” said Fournier.

People who can’t ingest even the smallest amount of gluten can choose to receive communion solely in the form of wine, which symbolizes the blood of Christ, Fournier said.

He added that the need for gluten in the host is significant because of historic references to bread in the Bible.

But in Adam’s case, having her daughter receive communion in the form of wine wasn’t an option.

Not only was she averse to a child drinking wine, but the chances of cross-contamination from others who had eaten the host and then drank from the cup were high. Adam said she could even see crumbs in the wine.

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Adam said the issue has been devastating for her and her daughter, who already had to be excluded from things like Halloween and in-class baking activities because of her condition.

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“(The church) was kind of our safe place, so to have so many struggles and then have this on top of it,” she said. “It really brought to light that it’s not just a dietary disease, it affects every aspect of life.”

These days, Adam said she still calls herself a Catholic, but said she rarely attends church now.

“We definitely miss that, you know, leaving the house, the church bells ringing and seeing everybody going to church, it was a great time … so it’s just tainted, it’s not something I enjoy anymore.”

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