So, I was all set to write a blog on something I read in Oprah while I was at the gym last week, when I came across something much more pressing in The Christian Century today, and changed direction entirely. [Oh, do I even need to say that I am a huge fan of promiscuous reading? That’s Margaret Miles’ term, and I love it: never assume that something has to be explicitly religious for it to be deeply and compellingly theological–just READ!!!]
Anyway, the article I was reading in The Christian Century was called “Faith of the Senses,” by S. Brent Plate, and he was describing five objects that “tell the story” of the Christian faith. Unsurprisingly, one of those objects was the communion wafer–and more particularly, the “low-gluten altar bread” that is made by the Benedictine sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Missouri. Here is the opening paragraph of that part of the article:
“For Roman Catholics, wheat bread and alcoholic wine are the approved ingredients of the Eucharist, and there is to be no substitute–no gluten-free bread, no alcohol-free wine. In 1995, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, writing as a prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [or, as I like to call it, in his role as papal-sanctioned choleric attack-dog], defended this stance and stated, ‘Given the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the priest, candidates for the priesthood who are affected by celiac disease or suffer from alcoholism or similar conditions may not be admitted to holy orders’.”
Did you know that? I didn’t–and frankly, it stopped me in my tracks. I mean, after the first sentence, I was already outraged by the misplaced eucharistic rigidity that not only would exclude particular individuals from the Lord’s Supper, but that also would cause such financial and practical challenges for Christians in other parts of the world, where either bread or wine–or both–are difficult or expensive to find. As a Lutheran, of course, I believe the elements themselves are important, and they neither cannot nor should not be substituted on a whim [if this were the case, I certainly would have worked in chocolate by now…]. However, the Sacrament of the Altar is more than just a loaf of bread and a jug of wine: it invites and includes the community in the liturgical invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” So, I could easily have written a post on the meaning and function of the Eucharist as it relates to the elements themselves.
But frankly, my response escalated from mere theological indignation to absolute theological scandal when I got to Ratzinger’s defense, which included the pronouncement that the gluten-intolerant and the alcohol-addicted are excluded from the priesthood. Somehow, for me, it is the latter that gets me the most–even though I find both outrageous. I think this is because we just finished a great Academy Week where one of our presenters, Cheryl Peterson, shared with us some of the activities of Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Addiction Awareness Group. Her insights were profound and powerful, and many of us realized how little we know about alcohol addiction [she talked about other addictions, too, of course], and how important it is to understand that alcoholism is much more of a disease than a moral failing–even though many people still treat it as the latter, creating a dense cloud of shame that hovers over alcoholics and their families. I have written before about how addiction is a powerful metaphor for sin; and therefore, in my view, to say that an alcoholic can’t be a priest feels very much to me like a classic Donatist move, where the emphasis in the Eucharist shifts from the holiness of Christ and his work to the holiness of the presider: does anyone really want to go there?
The Eucharist should be the church at its best: welcoming the neighbor and the stranger together to the table, literally becoming the body of Christ as we take him into our own bodies, and are given strength for the lives we are called to live for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. When this transformative gift gets lost in the weeds, and when undue barriers are set up that prevent the body of Christ in all its fullness–and in all its brokenness–from coming together around the table and being fed together to do God’s work in the world, the church is doing something wrong. To tweak slightly the words of Mary Oliver, “let the church keep its mind on what matters.”
But back to the article. That particular Benedictine community started making altar bread in 1910 and they are currently one of the largest such producers in the world. In 2003, they started making low-gluten wafers, and since then, “they have since been overwhelmed by the demand.” They came up with a special recipe, which, according to the article, “uses a wheat starch with most of the gluten removed.” Since it still uses only wheat, it gets the thumbs-up from the Vatican, but also is safe for the gluten-intolerant–the gluten content is less than .01%. I’m not so churlish that I would refuse to celebrate this option, but at the same time, I regret the “isn’t-this-just-a-tiny-bit-absurd” legalism that demands it. Frankly, this kind of theological nit-picking makes my head spin, and gives all theologians a bad name.
However, I was saved from despair as I reflected on class yesterday. There, my students and I had a rich, vibrant conversation about the Sacraments that focused on their meaning and their power in the life of both individuals and the world. We examined critically current Lutheran practices, and discussed how people understand what they are and how they function–how the church talks about them in a way that conveys their central importance for the Christian life. I left feeling excited and uplifted by students who clearly “get” that the Sacraments matter–really matter, regardless of whether the bread is gluten free or not. That’s the kind of conversation that gives theology a good name–the name it deserves!