Whose Body? The Vatican’s Silly Decree on Gluten-Free

I attended my first funeral when I was five, and this produced a very memorable question: “Daddy, why is the prime minister handing out snacks?” I was referring to a priest administering the Eucharist, which involves a wafer of bread being blessed and then consumed. According to the ritual, if you’re Catholic, the bread turns into the literal body of Christ before you eat it; if you’re Protestant, it doesn’t; and if you’re five-year-old me, you just wonder why other people are getting food when you’re not.

The practice of Communion was in the news recently after the Vatican felt the need to remind bishops that if the wafer involved in the ceremony is gluten-free, then the ceremony is a sham.

This raises several questions. For starters: Does this mean Jesus can only inhabit fully wheat-based wafers? Wouldn’t gluten intolerance (celiac disease) then be a sign of demonic possession, or at least a life of sin? Is the body of Jesus gluten-free? Is there a second Great Schism coming between celiac and non-celiac Catholics?

Upon more serious reflection, the conclusion I came to was this: religion fails when it makes the needs and rights of its adherents an afterthought and instead prioritizes dogmatic aspects of faith. Although, this is an obvious statement, it seems a difficult truth for faith communities to acknowledge.

There are passages in the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah that we can all get behind. Whether it’s called zakat, tzedakah, alms, or dāna, most religions fall very clearly on the side of charity. Many religious adherents live and preach peaceful, benevolent values. But we also consistently see faiths devote unnecessary attention to what ought to be minor theological concerns. This is indicative of the major problem with many religions that focus not on human needs, but rather on how humans can serve the will of a mysterious and apparently very picky deity. The results of this can range from confusing and almost amusing (like the ban on gluten-free wafers) to deeply troubling (religious justification for acts of violence).

Humanism is, in a way, the antithesis of such a system. In humanism, the person is at all times the sole focus—human benefit and well-being is the guiding principle. This is where religion has the most to learn from humanism.

By viewing our time on earth as an audition for a higher plane of existence (and here I refer to theistic religions with a concept of the afterlife, or at least karmic reincarnation), theistic worldviews miss the chance to focus on the good that people can do for themselves and each other in the here and now. For example, the issue of the gluten-free communion wafer is for the benefit of a deity and its  future judgement, not for a human with celiac disease Rituals themselves, from small personal ones done before everyday activities to more performative ones done with a group, can be very beneficial. A good humanist would never chide someone else for doing something that the person found calming, encouraging, or reassuring. They would, however, recoil from the idea of doing such an activity for a purpose besides personal satisfaction or self-care, especially if that activity harmed someone else.

What’s absurd about glutinous wafer situation is the obsession with minutiae in a ceremony that seems already extrinsic to what ought to be the core of Catholic faith. Religion appeals to a human desire to be certain and reassured in a scary and uncertain world. Belief in a divine purpose and infallible guide, then, are understandable responses for those thrust into such an environment. However, it doesn’t make sense that somehow your divine, infallible guide will rescind its protection if the wafer that’s supposed to turn into the body of its son is made with something other than wheat.

Especially given that “low-gluten” wafers, containing potentially less than twenty parts per million of gluten, are accepted. Now, I’m not a scientist, but “less than twenty ppm” makes it sound like a gluten-free wafer could be brushed against a piece of bread and suddenly meet the Catholic Church’s requirements. Furthermore, as the Los Angeles Times noted, the FDA actually allows products containing gluten at such a concentration to be labeled “gluten-free.” This means you can buy gluten-free wafers that are in concordance with the church’s no-gluten-free-wafers policy. It’s here (actually, it was probably well before this point) that religion left the realm of “reassuring belief system” and entered the realm of… honestly, I don’t know what this realm is called. What I do know is that obsession over minute details of faith distract from its potential to provide comfort and inspire good deeds.