BRIELLE, N.J. -- An 8-year-old girl with a rare digestive disorder who cannot eat wheat had her first Holy Communion declared invalid because the wafer contained no wheat, violating Roman Catholic doctrine.
Haley Waldman's mother, Elizabeth Pelly-Waldman, is pushing the Diocese of Trenton and the Vatican to make an exception, saying the girl's condition should not exclude her from the sacrament, which commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his Crucifixion. She believes a rice Communion wafer would suffice.
Church doctrine holds that Communion wafers, like the bread served at the Last Supper, must have at least some unleavened wheat.
"This is not an issue to be determined at the diocesan or parish level but has already been decided for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world by Vatican authority," Trenton Bishop John M. Smith said in a statement last week.
Haley was diagnosed with celiac sprue disease when she was 5. The disorder occurs in people with a genetic intolerance of gluten, a food protein contained in wheat and other grains. When consumed by celiac sufferers, gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, blocking nutrient absorption and leading to vitamin deficiencies, bone thinning, and sometimes gastrointestinal cancer.
The diocese told Haley's mother that the girl can receive a low-gluten wafer or just drink wine at Communion, but anything without gluten does not qualify.
Pelly-Waldman rejected the offer, saying her child could be harmed by a small amount of the substance.
Haley's Communion controversy is not the first. In 2001, the family of a 5-year-old Jenny Richardson, a Natick girl with the disease, left the Catholic Church after being denied permission to use a rice wafer.
Some Catholic churches allow no-gluten hosts, while others do not, said Elaine Monarch, executive director of the Celiac Disease Foundation, a California-based support group for sufferers.
Last year, as Hayley, a third-grader, approached Holy Communion age, her mother told officials at St. Denis Catholic Church in Manasquan that the girl could not have the standard host.
After the church's pastor refused to allow a substitute, a priest at a nearby parish volunteered to offer one.
Last month, the diocese told the priest that the church would not validate Haley's sacrament because of the substitute wafer.
"I struggled with telling her that the sacrament did not happen," Pelly-Waldman said.
She has written to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, challenging the church's policy. "This is a church rule, not God's will, and it can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the people," she wrote.
The theological implications are staggering, if not slightly ridiculous.