VATICAN CITY — Not even the Pope can change the fact that only bread can serve as the host that is transformed into the body of Christ during Mass.

That's the reality that Bishop John Smith of Trenton, N.J., and senior Vatican officials stressed again last week in Rome. They were commenting about the controversy that erupted last month in Bishop Smith's diocese after Elizabeth Pelly-Waldman, whose 8-year-old daughter can't eat wheat products for health reasons, complained to reporters that the Church was heart-lessly denying her child Communion.

Pelly-Waldman, who lives in Brielle, N.J., has asked the Vatican to change Church teaching governing the validity of species used in the Eucharist.

Her disagreement began in May when her daughter's first Communion was deemed invalid because she received a rice-cake wafer instead of the traditional wafer made of wheat.

The child, Haley, suffers from celiac disease, which makes her unable to ingest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, but not rice or corn.

Other Options

Many media accounts of the controversy have suggested that the Church has denied Haley and other celiacs any safe way of receiving the Eucharist. But options are available.

One is to receive an approved, low-gluten host first produced by members of the Congregation of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in northwest Missouri. The host contains 0.1% gluten, a level that doctors say is low enough to be safe for celiac sufferers.

A second option is for Haley to abstain from receiving bread and instead receive low-alcohol wine, otherwise known as “mustum,” in which the alcohol level is said to be “infinitesimal” — but known definitely to be present.

Church teaching holds that receiving either species is equally valid because “Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1377).

However, Pelly-Waldman, a single mother of four, refuses both alternatives because she believes that any amount of gluten can put Haley at increased risk of health complications and that alcohol is inappropriate for a child.

Bishop Smith reiterated to the Register that he had no option but to inform Pelly-Waldman that only a host in the form of bread, or the other options available, can be administered at Communion. “The Holy See is very clear on this,” he said Sept. 8 while on an “ad limina” visit to Rome. “The Church is not free to substitute bread for rice cake because rice cake isn't bread — it's not valid even if the right words are used at the moment of consecration.”

Bishops make “ad limina” visits to Rome every five years to report on the status of their dioceses.

Pelly-Waldman has written to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking him to intervene. “This is a Church rule, not God's will,” she wrote in the letter. “It can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the people, while staying true to the traditions of our faith.”

But, according to theologians, the issue involves two millennia of consistent Church teaching about a matter that was settled at the Last Supper. Sacramental theology has, since the early Church, taught that “form and matter” —- the spiritual and physical elements of the Eucharist — must be present in order for a sacrament to be valid.

The specifications for the bread are very exact; therefore, to attempt to consecrate something other than what is prescribed invalidates the sacrament.

“The Church only knows that it can consecrate bread (for the host) and nothing else,” said Father Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “It's not a question of whether the Church can change a rule because it's what the Church has been authorized to do for over 2,000 years.”

Added Father DiNoia, “This is not a law — it is not the disposition of the Church to be able to alter the nature of the sacraments. “

What Jesus Did

Since the New Jersey case came to light, Bishop Smith has frequently faced the question, “What would Jesus do?”

“It's not a question of ‘What would Jesus do?’” he said. “It's a question of what he did. Jesus said, ‘This is my body, do this in memory of me,’ and he was referring only to bread when he gave it to the disciples at the Last Supper.”

Vatican sources expressed regret at the erroneous publicity the case has generated. “None of this is mumbo jumbo,” said one priest in Rome. “The Church has no way of changing its teaching on this, but unfortunately, humanity seems to have gone so far down the road of stupidity, and this is another triumph for therapeutic victimology.”

This is not the first time the celiac issue has generated adverse publicity in the United Sates. In 2001, the parents of a 5-year-old Boston girl left the Church because she was not allowed to receive a rice wafer at her first Communion.

Bishop Smith, who has been the diocesan bishop in Trenton for six years, has not encountered such a case before. He said he is aware that “others who suffer from this have found a way in which they are able to receive the Eucharist.”

Said the bishop, “The Church is very sensitive to celiac disease. It has developed these low-gluten materials. The use of low-alcohol wine is very common, as it's used for first Communion and is consumed by some priests who are alcoholic.”

Bishop Smith acknowledges that Pelly-Waldman “feels she's bringing a matter to public notice and for reconsideration by the Church, and she should be commended for that and for her sincerity.”

The matter is now being dealt with by her parish priests and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Said Bishop Smith, “The Holy See has jurisdiction on this, and that is where this matter ultimately rests.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.