Genetically-modified (GM) wheat may not be be suitable under canon law to be used to make hosts for the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, it's been claimed.
Fr Sean McDonagh, a Columban priest and well-known commentator on environmental issues, questions whether the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith which oversees Catholic doctrine could ever sanction GM wheat. Writing in Intercom, a publication of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, Fr McDonagh cites the example that gluten-free hosts are outlawed for use in communion -- even though it can endanger the health of those suffering from coeliac disease, which is a bowel disorder. Low gluten hosts are permitted.
"Crops which have been genetically engineered to date include maize, soya beans, canola (derived from rapeseed) and potatoes. Many biotech companies would like to genetically engineer wheat. If this is pushed through, the question will arise as to whether GM wheat can be used in the Eucharist?"
Fr McDonagh quotes from Canon Law 924, section two, which stipulates: "the bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption."
But he says that genetically-engineered wheat is not "made solely from wheat" because of protein added to make it resistant to a weed killer. "For example, people who suffer coeliac disease are unable to absorb gluten, a protein found in wheat. Eating even small amounts of wheat can make them ill.
"In recent decades, it has been possible to extract the gluten from wheaten bread so that people can eat bread without endangering their health. Despite the fact that gluten-wheat poses a health threat, which can often be serious, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated in a reply in 1982 that, 'the local Ordinary could not permit a priest to consecrate special gluten-free hosts for the communion of coeliacs'," writes Fr McDonagh.
Fr McDoangh says that the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, addressed the subject in 1994 when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The statement from the Holy Office said: "Special hosts, quibus glutinum ablatum est (from which gluten has been removed), are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist".
The statement added that low-gluten hosts are valid matter, provided that they contain the amount of gluten sufficient to obtain the confection of bread and that the procedure for making such hosts is not such as to alter the nature of the substance of the bread.
"Given the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the priest, candidates for the priesthood who are affected by coeliac disease or suffer from alcoholism or similar conditions may not be admitted to holy orders," the statement added.
Fr McDonagh believes that this statement from the Holy Office has ramifications for the use of GM-modified wheat in the Sacrament which is central to the Catholic faith.
"Genetically-engineered wheat will have an added protein which will make it tolerant to the herbicide of a biotech company.
"This raises questions whether it is lawful to use GM wheat as matter for the Eucharist. If, notwithstanding a pressing health need, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith refused to sanction gluten-free hosts as valid matter for the Eucharist because a protein has been extracted from the wheat, how can it sanction genetically-engineered wheat which has an added protein designed to make it resistant to a weed killer?"
Four years ago biotech-giant Monsanto announced it had decided to shelve plans to introduce its controversial genetically-engineered Roundup Ready wheat. Genetic modification is considered more difficult for wheat than for other crops like maize and soya beans and its widespread use may be years away.