Someone once said to me, “I have no problem believing that it’s Jesus, it’s believing that it’s bread that I find difficult!” Another time I heard someone explaining, “it’s not supposed to be bread, it’s just supposed to symbolise bread.” In the early church, Christians used the same baking techniques and same ovens for both their daily bread and that which was to be used in the Eucharist. For about a thousand years the bread of the Eucharist was ordinary, leavened bread. Then, in the Western church, there came a growing distinction between the “symbolic” and the “real.” This resulted in changes to the theology of the Eucharist. A dichotomy grew between our daily bread and the “bread of angels,” the “manna from heaven.” The eucharistic presence was too holy to occur in ordinary bread. Furthermore, the growing practice of reservation of the sacrament required the bread to be unleavened.
If what we receive in communion appears neither as bread nor as broken, how can we say that “We break this bread to share in the body of Christ”? Celebrating Eucharist Chapter 10 – The Preparation of the Gifts
There has recently been a lot of discussion (some quite “energetic”) about Cardinal Robert Sarah’s recent Circular letter to Bishops on the bread and wine for the Eucharist. No one would accuse me of being a Cardinal Sarah groupie, but the circular, in fact, adds nothing new. That this is not a blog post written, say, the day after the publication isn’t then such a big deal. It also doesn’t hurt, on a site that tries to bring more light than heat, to let the dust (or other tiny particles) settle.
In brief, the letter says that there must be some gluten present (the amount is not specified) in bread for the Eucharist, but there need not be alcohol present in the wine.
This circular simply expands a more-than-two-decades-old Letter to all Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences concerning the use of low-gluten altar breads and mustum as matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.
The first point, then, is that this is addressed to bishops. There is a certain expectation of theological agility. This blog post, then, will reflect within the sacramental theological model of substance, accidents, validity, licitness, and grace.
Firstly, there is a ruling here that there needs to be some gluten present for the substance brought to the Eucharist to be considered as bread. We could distract ourselves by discussing whether there is such a substance as “bread”. But I want to note that there is no specification of how little gluten is to be present. Let me underline that. For something to be classified as “gluten-free”, NZ has one of the strictest specifications (often described as less than 3 parts per million). In other words, even if there is some gluten present, in the country with the world’s most stringent legislation it would be classed as “gluten free”. Would such “gluten free” bread fit within the Vatican requirements?
A significant point follows. In the online reaction to the circular letter to Bishops, a lot of non-RC churches have contrasted the availability of gluten-free wafers at their services with RC practices. What I note in such crowing is that there generally appears little effort made to prevent cross-contamination. Gluten is very sticky, and if someone has been distributing bread (or wafers) containing gluten, they are far more likely to transmit more gluten to someone with celiac disease, even if handing out a gluten-free wafer, than the careful pastoral practice advocated, say, by the USA Conference of Catholic Bishops. [This RC pastoral carefulness extends to the use of the chalice. Gluten can be transmitted from lips of communicants to the chalice from which those with celiac disease might receive.]
In the online conversations, I have also noticed several stories about a person in prison unable to get bread and wine. People then leap from stories of such exceptional circumstances to justifying, for example, Ribena (a blackcurrant-based drink) in our outside-of-such-prisons context. Hard cases make bad law. To be clear, I am not in any way questioning that Christ is present and that grace is received in the prison cell where no bread or wine is available.
As an aside at this point, I note that the letter requires unleavened bread (3a). As we know that the Vatican accepts leavened bread as matter for the Eucharist, one can only assume that, at this point, it is speaking about licitness (in the Latin Rite) rather than validity.
Then, at 4(b), it repeats the earlier ruling:
Mustum, which is grape juice that is either fresh or preserved by methods that suspend its fermentation without altering its nature (for example, freezing), is valid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist”.
Firstly, I would note that this is no free for all to abandon wine (i.e. with alcohol) at RC eucharists. The Vatican is clear: someone who suffers from alcoholism cannot be ordained a priest. Should they develop alcoholism after ordination, the preferred solution is intinction. Beyond that, “the permission to use mustum can be granted by ordinaries to priests affected by alcoholism or other conditions which prevent the ingestion of even the smallest quantity of alcohol, after presentation of a medical certificate.” There are further limitations to concelebration for such a priest.
An undergirding issue remains: please could someone agile in RC sacramental theology explain why mustum (grape juice rather than wine) is seen to be valid matter while bread with no gluten is not. Roma locuta; causa finita est I think does not apply in this case.
To move from discussions of validity to licitness, NZ Anglicanism is crystal clear:
The bread for the Eucharist should be a good quality bread (either loaf or wafer) and the wine for the Eucharist should be a good quality wine. (NZPB/HKMA page 515)
If you want to see changes to that agreement that clergy vow and sign up to, you know the drill: agreement to your change by General Synod Te Hinota Whanui (GSTHW); debated at all diocesan synods and hui amorangi and agreement by a majority of them; 2/3 agreement in each of the three Houses at a newly-elected GSTHW; a year of “lying on the table” for any objection.