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What Counts as Valid Wine for the Eucharist?

An alarming story out of Kansas City has people wondering if they've been gravely misled.

Jimmy Akin

In a disturbing story coming out of the Kansas City archdiocese, The Pillar reports,

“It has recently been reported by two priests, having served in three different parishes, that upon their appointment to these parishes they soon discovered the long-term use of wines that were in fact invalid matter for the confection of the Eucharist,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann noted in a May 31 letter obtained by The Pillar.

As a result, he wrote, in those parishes, “for any number of years all Masses were invalid and therefore the intentions for which those Masses were offered were not satisfied, including the obligation pastors have to offer Mass for the people.”

“This is a gravely serious situation for which we must now petition the Holy See for guidance on restorative matters.”

The article does not say what wines were being used or what made them invalid, but the faithful in other dioceses may be concerned about the wine used at the Masses they attend, so it’s worth looking at what kinds of wine can be validly used to consecrate the Eucharist.

According to the Code of Canon Law:

The most holy eucharistic sacrifice must be offered with bread and with wine in which a little water must be mixed.

The bread must be only wheat and recently made so that there is no danger of spoiling.

The wine must be natural from the fruit of the vine and not spoiled (924, §§1-3).

“Fruit of the vine” means grapes, so wines based on other plants (e.g., elderberry wine, strawberry wine, dandelion wine, rice wine) are not allowed. If any of the latter were being used in Kansas City, they would be understood to be invalid.

The elements required for the valid celebration of the Eucharist are based on what Jesus used on Holy Thursday: unleavened bread (see Matt. 26:17) and grape wine (Jesus references “fruit of the vine,” e.g., in Matt. 26:29).

However, bread and wine were made multiple different ways in the first century, and no detailed instructions were given about which specific types could be used in the Eucharist.

For example, during the festival of Unleavened Bread, Jews were forbidden to have leaven in their houses, so their bread during this period—which would have been made from wheat—was unleavened. But the lack of leaven was not required of Jews at other times of year, and it was not required at all of Gentiles.

Consequently, some early Christians celebrated the Eucharist using leavened bread. The Church determined that this is valid matter, and today, leavened bread is used in many Eastern Catholic churches.

Similarly, you might think that since the wine becomes Christ’s blood, the use of red wine might be mandatory at Mass, but it’s not. White wine is perfectly valid matter.

It’s also interesting that white wine doesn’t have to be made from white grapes. It is sometimes made from red grapes, and the skins are removed during the fermentation process. Thus, it appears that you do not have to use the entire grape in making wine for the Eucharist. It is sufficient that grapes—but not necessarily the whole grape—be used.

Given the lack of early, detailed instructions to the contrary and the flexibility that we have just seen, it would appear that anything that the first Christians would have considered wheat bread and grape wine would be valid matter for the Eucharist.

This is suggested by the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which states,

The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition. It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament (48).

So only bread made from pure wheat is licit (lawful) to use, but it would still be valid matter if mixed with other substances, as long as it would “commonly be considered wheat bread.”

The same should be true of wine. It might be illicit (unlawful) to use if mixed with other things, but it would still be valid matter as long as it would commonly be considered grape wine.

In regard to both elements, this flexibility is good, and it is part of God’s general policy of making the sacraments hard to break, because humans are fallible and will break things if they can. The sacraments are not meant to be fragile and invalidated by the smallest deviation.

The smallest deviations may be illegal, but the sacrament will still be valid if a priest, sacristan, or other person makes a mistake. As long as you’ve got wheat bread and grape wine—even if they aren’t pure—the consecration will be valid.

What are the limits of valid matter? The Church has not provided us with a comprehensive answer to this question, but it has provided us pieces of it.

For example, in 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued letter in which it authorized the use of mustum for priests who are alcohol intolerant or who suffer from alcoholism. It stated,

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 (A.3).

Fresh grape juice contains no alcohol, so the validity of mustum indicates that the alcohol content of eucharistic wine can be as low as zero percent.

What about the other end of the spectrum? How much alcohol can the wine have?

In 1896, the Holy Office confirmed that it is licit to use wine fortified up to 18% alcohol content (DH 3313), so up to at least that level is valid.

There is an interesting history about how such fortification can occur. In 1887, the Holy Office was asked whether it would be preferable to prevent wine from spoiling by adding a small quantity of brandy (which is made from distilled wine) or by heating it to 149 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Holy Office responded that the heating method is preferable, but it did not rule out adding brandy (DH 3198). This would indicate that the addition of a substance labeled something other than “wine” (i.e., brandy, even though it’s made from wine) could be used in principle.

In 1890, the Holy Office was asked whether you could simply add alcohol to the wine to make it more long-lasting, and the Holy Office said yes, as long as the alcohol is extracted from grape wine (DH 3264).

And in 1896, the Holy Office was asked whether you could add sugar from sugarcane during the fermentation process to raise the alcohol content. The Holy Office replied that alcohol made with grapes should be used instead (DH 3312), but it didn’t say that adding sugar would make the wine invalid.

In 2013, the Congregation for Divine Worship also stated that adding sulfites during the fermentation process and the use of genetically modified organisms would not affect validity (Letter, Dec. 9, 2013, Prot. N. 89/78—44897).

We thus see the competent Vatican dicasteries urging the use of products made from grapes (of any kind, red or white, and including genetically modified ones), but not excluding the use of brandy, sugar, alcohol (made from grapes), or sulfites as preservatives. For some of these, their use was not recommended, but in no case did the Holy See say that their use would invalidate the wine.

This indicates that there is flexibility regarding what wine is licit to use, and what wines are valid to use will be even broader.

The Holy See has not tried to tell us what the limits of validity are. It is gravely sinful to use doubtful or clearly invalid wine, but there is more flexibility here than many might suppose.

My suspicion is that the principle used in the early Church is correct—i.e., a wine is valid if it would be considered grape wine in the common opinion of men, even if it has minor admixtures.

I don’t know what kind of wines were being used in the Archdiocese of Kansas City. If they were using wine made from elderberries, other fruit besides grapes, or other plants like dandelions or rice, then it would be clearly invalid. If they were using grape wines that had admixtures, the matter is not as clear.

Fortunately, Archbishop Naumann has indicated the archdiocese will seek guidance from Rome on how to deal with the situation, and Rome’s response may help clarify the limits of validity.

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