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I Would Feed You with the Finest of Wheat

In the May/June 2001 issue of This Rock, as a case study of how or why some people may leave the Church (“The Long Way Home”), Karl Keating discusses the details of the controversy in the Boston Archdiocese over the grain used to make altar bread. This uproar arose early in 2001 due to secular media focus on the problem of celiac disease, a severe condition of gluten intolerance in which the ingestion of any grain containing a particular protein (alpha-gliadin) causes an allergic reaction resulting in serious intestinal damage or even death.

Many laypeople were dismayed when the archbishop, Bernard Cardinal Law, declined to grant any exception to the norm forbidding substitution of a grain other than wheat (which—like barley, oats, and rye—contains gluten). To them it seemed arbitrary, inflexible, and even cruel for the Church to recommend that those burdened with this sickness avail themselves of the opportunity to receive Communion under the form of wine alone. This stance deprives those afflicted of the consecrated host that everyone else has access to. Why should it matter, they complained, which grains are used? Would it make any difference to Jesus what kind of altar bread is converted (as Catholics profess) into the substance of his body at the consecration of the Mass?

The explanations offered by archdiocesan spokesmen (and published in The Pilot, the Boston Archdiocese’s official newspaper) invoked traditional policies and practices of the Church. This, of course, is fine. But it did not convince skeptics who are always looking for pretexts to portray the Church as an unenlightened, dictatorial institution obsessed with enforcing antiquated customs and mindless regulations. If we want to be credible apologists, we ought to make at least a valiant attempt at a more cogent defense in favor of the Church’s position.

The Church’s doctrine allowing only wheat flour as valid matter for composing altar bread cannot, it is true, be demonstrated strictly by unaided human reason. It can, though, be rationally vindicated on the basis of Scripture, which Christians accept on faith as the revealed word of God. Here we follow the model of Augustine, who asserted, “I believe in order that I might understand.”

In the sacraments God utilizes material things as channels of grace so that he beings about the spiritual effects that they symbolize. Now, it’s a plain fact of life that some materials are more fit than others for serving a specific symbolic function. For example, when our Lord instituted baptism, the sacrament of spiritual rebirth, he explicitly mandated water (see John 3:5). Indeed, only pure water is a suitable vehicle for baptism, because more than any other liquid it is apt for signifying what it produces in the soul: cleansing from sin and regeneration into new life.

Still the question remains to be answered: Why, among all grains, is wheat the most conducive for the Blessed Sacrament, in which Christ’s body is truly present under the appearance of bread? Wheat bears to a superlative degree both the agricultural and biblical connotations of being sown, fallen, crushed, buried, and then after harvest risen into life-giving bread that is broken and shared. These are all symbols of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and Real Presence to us in the sacrifice of the Mass.

But why wheat and not, say, barley or rye, which have the same physical characteristics? Because of the historical and cultural context of the Incarnation. Wheat was the predominant grain in the Middle East of biblical times. This can be seen by the scriptural references below. We may speculate that if Jesus had chosen to incarnate in Japan, rice would have been the proper grain for altar bread. But he did not, and it is not.

Scripture may be cited to support the thesis that no grain except wheat is appropriate for the Eucharist. First, Jesus compares his own body to wheat in John 12:24 when he declares: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Next, he compares Peter—and, by extension, the other apostles—to wheat in Luke 22:31–32, when he admonishes him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” These rich verses indicate a participation of the Church’s hierarchy (successors of the apostles) in our Lord’s redemptive suffering, as well as a share in his supreme authority to teach the faith infallibly and to sanctify the community.

Finally, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24–30, which ends with the command “gather the wheat into my barn,” Jesus compares his own chosen people to wheat, the people of whom his Mystical Body is comprised.

Throughout these passages we hear Christ provide the unifying metaphor of wheat for himself, the head of the body, and his members (both clergy and laity). He mentions no other grain in this context. Since the Eucharist is preeminently the sacrament of unity, we are forced to conclude that its proper matter, willed by the founder of the Church, is wheat flour.

To buttress this conclusion, we can quote some pertinent verses referring to wheat from the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 81:17 prophecies God’s eucharistic plan for the Church (the New Israel): “I would feed you [Israel] with the finest of wheat.” Moreover, announcing the fulfillment of this plan, Psalm 147:14 proclaims, “He fills you with the finest of the wheat.”

Our popular culture purveys a sappy picture of God, as though he were permissive and non-judgmental toward all things well-intentioned. But we must exercise great care not to interpret God’s infinite compassion and mercy in an excessively emotional way, as though every rule were a question of mere custom or changeable convention.

In particular, it clearly matters to the Creator of matter what materials are used for what purposes. Perhaps God manifests his love for us in a special manner by setting absolute standards to root us in the objective natures of things, lest we lapse into relativistic indifferentism.

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