Why Is the Vatican So Obsessed With Gluten?

If it’s really the body of Christ, what does it matter if it’s gluten free? The answer is, well, complicated.

The Catholic Church this week gave people who are gluten-free another chance to do their favorite thing—talk about being gluten-free.

That’s because news surfaced that the Roman Catholic Church does not allow gluten-free communion wafers to be used as part of the sacrament of communion. Roman Catholics are known for their belief that during the Eucharist the host (the communion wafers or bread) is transubstantiated into the body of Christ. For the more sarcastically minded, this easily could raise the snarky accusation: If it’s really the body of Christ, what does it matter if it’s gluten free? Or, as Homer Simpson put it: If that’s the blood of Jesus, that guy was really wasted. Is the Vatican admitting that transubstantiation doesn’t really work? (Spoiler alert: No)

In some ways this is not, in fact, a new development. The recent statement reinforces instructions given by the Joseph Ratzinger-headed Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2004. But we are still left with the question: Why is the Vatican so obsessed with gluten?

Bread has played a central role in Christianity from the beginning. At the Last Supper, as relayed by the Gospel writers, Jesus turns to his disciples and identifies the bread they are eating as his body and the wine as his blood. In John 6, he goes even further: He identifies his body as the bread of life and says, quite explicitly, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Even to ancient audiences this sounded a bit like cannibalism.

Among Christians there are some differences of opinion about what this means. Is the consumption of bread a symbolic act that gestures to the sacrifice of Jesus in a metaphorical way? Or does something happen to the bread and wine that mystically transforms them into the body and blood or Jesus? For Roman Catholics the answer is very much the latter, and they refer to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as the “Real Presence.”

Roman Catholics (and some other denominations like Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Orthodox Christians, who have slightly different views) believe that when the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest during the service they become different in substance but retain what are known as the accidents of the bread and wine (their taste, smell, texture, and appearance). This, by the way, is why the Church isn’t troubled by the fact that the bread and wine taste the same after consecration as they do before. How is this possible? It’s a mystery of the faith. To outsiders that might sound like a cop-out, but the distinction between substance and accidents comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It’s not something that the Catholic Church invented. Moreover, this is perfectly rational because you’re dealing with a supreme omnipotent deity who doesn’t want you to develop a taste for human blood.

(Complete side bar: In the Middle Ages, around the time that the Real Presence became a frequent topic of theological conversation, people began to report what are known as Eucharistic miracles – incidents in which the host would start bleeding, or (worse?) be transformed into congealed blood, or fly about in the air evading capture like a  snitch in quidditch. There are some stories from a medieval German book called the Dialogue on Miracles in which the host was transformed into raw flesh, an image of crucified Jesus, or an infant before reverting back into a host.)

Given the importance of the Eucharist in Catholicism, it’s easy to see why bread would be such a sticking point. After all, if it is only bread that becomes the body of Jesus, what elemental properties of bread need to be present in the communion wafer in order for transubstantiation to work and for Christ to become really present in it?

According to the most recent statement by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the bread has to be made of wheat that contains gluten. This turns on the assumption that the unleavened bread used by Jesus at the last supper (the original bread that he designated as his body) was actually wheat. Wheat was the preferred bread of ancient Israel, but, as Andrew McGowan, Dean of Berkely Divinity School and an expert on the Eucharist, has written, ancient Jews may have eaten bread made from grains like barley or rye. This is to say nothing of the fact that many early Christians included other substances like olive oil and cheese as part of their Eucharistic meals.

For ancient Jews who were preparing for Passover—as Jesus was at the Last Supper—the issue was one of fermentation: the bread had to be unleavened. Gluten is necessary for fermentation, but as the bread had to be unleavened one might wonder if that’s a moot point and whether gluten is that relevant at all.

The focus on gluten is, as McGowan has noted, really novel. Gluten is not an essential property of wheat because, as anyone who is gluten-free knows, plenty of other foodstuffs contain it as well. The impetus for the Vatican’s conversation about gluten is the recent uptick in celiac disease and gluten intolerance: were it not for these conditions, the church would not be identifying gluten as an essential property of bread.

If the goal is to rehearse Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, we have more serious problems to wrestle with. As McGowan writes, “The species of grain known in Jesus’ time however are not quite the same ones we have today; wheat in particular underwent repeated hybridization even in the pre-industrial world, let alone after the more aggressive changes of industrial agriculture and recent plant science, now including genetic modification. So it is not even possible to know exactly what Jesus used, let alone to use it.”

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In McGowan’s opinion as scholar and Anglican pastor, “Wheat bread that has all gluten removed is as least as strong a sign of connection with Jesus' Last Supper as any genetically modified material, which remarkably enough is allowed for.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Vatican’s stand on gluten, then, is not that it takes a position on the properties of bread, but that it hasn’t worried more about the effects of genetic modification of wheat. The reason seems to be the way culture and pastoral goals intersect: gluten is hot-topic that is both a serious medical concern and a cultural fad. The Church wants to be pastoral, but it does not want to compromise a religious mystery for a health-food trend. In the meantime, though, the equally important questions raised by genetically engineered foodstuffs fly somewhat under the radar. In this case, one might wonder if the Church is attending to cultural developments more than scientific ones.