Opinion » Maxed Out

A toast to doctrine...



Jesus, it turns out, is toast. OK, perhaps not toast but most certainly wheat. So sayeth the Vatican, or more particularly, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, a Vatican body for which there is no acronym.

Perhaps this is a good place to say I'm not making this up. Yeah, I know, it seems like I'm probably making this up. But I'm not; it's come from a divine power, if not the hand of God.

Having more or less abandoned the medieval, philosophical arguments over the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, the Vatican has laid down the final word for those of the One True Faith who have difficulties — ranging from life-threatening to simply stylistic — with gluten.

Gluten, as we've all come to understand, is a protein contained in wheat, rye, and other flours generally used to make bread. And, as it turns out, in the host, or wafers, communicants consume when taking the Eucharist.

Bear with me momentarily while I delve into the ceremonial elements of Christiandom. I grew up in a series of Catholic neighbourhoods and, though not of the faith myself, was fascinated with the attendant rituals.

Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is a sacrament of Christian faiths. It springs from the Last Supper when, it's reported, Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine and commanded all to consume both in memory of him. He told them the bread was his body and the wine was his blood. Christians, in one form or another, celebrate the Eucharist by consuming wafers of bread, hosts, and sipping a bit of wine, or grape juice in the holy roller Baptist church my parents forced me to attend as a wee youth.

Many Christian sects believe this is a symbolic act. They know, notwithstanding any acts of consecration, the wafers come from a bakery and the wine comes from some place where they're not very good at making wine. Catholics, however, believe in transubstantiation, which is to say they believe the host and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ once duly consecrated.

That's as far as I'm going with today's sermon. Let's segue into the present.

Most of us were unaware gluten existed until recently, when it became fashionable to be gluten-free. This movement was captured brilliantly in a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago. Two very chic women who lunch were, well, lunching, when one said to the other, "I've only been gluten-free for a week, but I'm already annoying." Which pretty much captures the essence of that particular diet fad.

Unfortunately, there are people who can't tolerate gluten and for the most part, they're much more annoyed at the fashionably gluten-free folks than the rest of us who save our real annoyance for vegan dinner guests. People with celiac disease can't tolerate gluten. Celiac is a gastrointestinal immune disorder and those who suffer from it experience stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms, as though those weren't bad enough, if exposed. In its most extreme form, gluten can be life threatening to those so afflicted.

Now, it's hard to imagine Jesus — all-loving, all-caring Jesus, bring-the-little-children-unto-me Jesus — would insist people with celiac consume some just to celebrate His resurrection. Not so the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In 2003, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, wrote, "... hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist." So there, you gluten-free folks: You want the body of Christ, suck it up.

To be fair, the Church isn't completely without a heart. They do allow low-gluten hosts to be taken. And, in what I'm sure they consider bending over backwards, it's even permissible to just drink the wine and not eat the hosts and still be four-square with them.

Further complicating matters is the efforts of governments to define the term gluten-free. You and I might consider those words pretty much self-defining. Gluten-free means no gluten, right? Wrong. In the EU and the U.S., products made with grain starch that contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten can be labelled gluten-free. To put that in perspective, if you were on a crowded elevator and someone silently passed a modest amount of gas, at 20ppm you probably wouldn't smell anything other than the overwhelming perfume worn by the woman standing in the back of the car.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also approve of the 20ppm standard. That's considered enough "valid matter" for the hosts so made to be considered Christ's body, once consecrated.

And just to flog a dead horse, the Celiac Support Association won't endorse anything that has more than five parts per million of gluten, which would make low-gluten hosts too high and anything they endorse invalid matter for the Eucharist... which means even if your very progressive, reform Catholic church allowed them, you'd officially be eating someone else's body. Caramba!

Now, this would all be funny and sad in the same way the Church's doctrine on women priests, women in general, birth control, divorce and homosexuality are funny and sad, except for its total indifference to the suffering of some of its suffering flock. It was, in fact, through a story in last week's Globe and Mail that I learned about this fascinating doctrine. Seems a mother in Ontario whose daughter is acutely celiac was told by her priest she was, "coming between her daughter and God," because of her insistent requests for gluten-free host.

She tried another church, another priest, but he'd been warned about her. No, seriously, warned about her.

When queried about the situation, the director of the national liturgy office for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested there was usually a "pastoral solution to everything."

After all, the daughter could just sip the wine. Except — and this may be where the girl's mother is a bit off the deep end — the mother was averse to a child, presumably any child, drinking wine. Perhaps 50,000 Frenchmen can be wrong. She also thought the chances of cross-contamination were high since there seemed to be more than a little backwash in the holy chalice and bits of host floating on top. Ugh.

I suppose this isn't a good time to mention the Austrian study where researchers found 86 per cent of holy water — taken from 21 holy springs in the country and 18 fonts in Viennese churches — contained "very high levels" of fecal matter. No, it wouldn't.

Praise be.