Several years ago, my father underwent a very serious health scare.
For no apparent reason, he lost the ability to assimilate any food and started losing weight at an alarming rate. The doctors attending him advanced a number of hypotheses as to what the problem might be, and after numerous tests, diagnosed him with celiac sprue — celiac disease — a chronic digestive disorder that destroys the body's ability to metabolize gluten.
Since all wheat products contain gluten, my dad's illness affected his ability to receive Holy Communion at Mass. For a while, he tried having priests break off a very tiny portion of the consecrated host, but even that small quantity affected his digestive process. Eventually, he opted to simply receive Christ's precious blood, in lieu of the host, according to a Code of Canon Law provision for cases such as his (Canon 925). Since Catholics understand that the whole Christ — body, blood, soul and divinity — is present under either of the “species” (bread or wine), my dad doesn't miss out on anything by receiving only the chalice.
I was reminded of this experience several weeks ago on reading of the now celebrated case of 8-year-old Haley Waldman of Brielle, N.J., who also suffers from celiac sprue. On May 2, Haley received her first Communion, which, according to news reports, was later declared invalid since the priest had used a gluten-free host.
As might be expected, many commentators have latched onto the Waldman case as an excuse to whack the Church for its supposed intolerance and rigidity. A recent Chicago Tribune editorial by Julie Deardorff, entitled “Church Should Have Mercy on Celiac Sufferers,” frames the story as a David-and-Goliath battle between little Haley Waldman and “a formidable obstacle: the Catholic Church.” Deardorff takes issue with the Church's “pro-gluten stance,” as if Catholics had some inordinate attachment to gluten for gluten's sake, at the expense of defenseless celiac sufferers.
Similar cases have begun to spring up elsewhere. In Sydney, Australia, Father John Crothers upbraided his bishop, Cardinal George Pell, in a recent online article entitled “It's Time to Take a Stand.” Crothers narrates an emotional meeting with a parishioner named Anne, a depressive who suffers from celiac disease who “was devastated” on hearing of the Vatican decision reaffirming Catholic teaching that hosts must contain some gluten in order to be considered bread. Father Crothers uses the gluten issue as a springboard to launch an all-out attack on Cardinal Pell's inflexible “model of leadership” and his “ultra-conservative views.” Yet, on closer examination, Cardinal Pell's crime in the gluten case seems to consist solely in adhering to canon law provisions that stipulate the use of wheat bread for the celebration of the Eucharist (Canon 924).
Leaving aside whatever may motivate some of these criticisms, I see three fundamental problems with the underlying arguments.
The specific problem here concerns the importance of sacramental “matter.” Catholics understand that Christ consecrated bread and wine at the Last Supper and instructed his apostles to “Do this in memory of me.” In the sacraments, words are important, but they aren't everything. Priests cannot say the words of consecration over potato chips or Oreo cookies, as if they were some magic formula by which anything could be converted into the body and blood of Christ. Bread must be used, and the Church understands wheat to be essential to the nature of bread.
A second problem arises in the area of the Church's authority to change doctrine. Typical criticisms leveled against the magisterium for a failure to modify its moral or doctrinal teachings seem to presuppose an almost limitless authority to do so. The question “Why doesn't the Church just change that archaic ruling?” implies an understanding that the Church can freely change its teachings as it pleases. If doctrine poses problems, change the doctrine. Any failure to do so is attributed to willfulness and inflexibility. Hence, in her letter to the Vatican, Haley's mother, Elizabeth PellyWaldman, wrote: “This is a Church rule, not God's will, and it can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the people.”
This model of doctrinal adaptation reflects a Protestantized understanding of Church teaching. We have seen in recent years how some Protestant communions, “liberated” from both a magisterium and a belief in the sacred nature of Tradition, have democratically managed to keep their moral and doctrinal teaching pretty much in line with the social trends of the contemporary world. Catholics have a more modest understanding of authority and see the Church as custodian of a deposit of faith rooted in the Gospel and confirmed and tested over 2,000 years of lived tradition.
A final problem is that of misguided compassion. Many Church critics complain of the cruelty of “invalidating” Haley Waldman's first Holy Communion. How could Church officials tell a little girl that what she received wasn't really the Eucharist? If the Eucharist were merely a symbol, such reasoning would be convincing. Yet since Catholics believe that the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Christ, the Church needs to be able to distinguish when this takes place and when it doesn't. Lying to a little girl to make her feel good about her first Communion hardly qualifies as good pastoral practice. The real cruelty would seem to lie with the priest who consecrated something other than bread and then presented it to Haley as if it were really Christ's body.
Pope John Paul II has declared this coming year to be the Year of the Eucharist. Let's hope that it will be an occasion to grow in our appreciation and respect for this priceless gift we have received.
Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is dean of the theology school at Rome's Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.