The Canonical Rights of God’s Special Children

Too often, when carrying out the Church’s public ministry, our local Catholic communities neglect the rights of those who are mentally and developmentally challenged. This happens, unfortunately, despite the admonition of canon 213: “Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especia1ly by the word of God and the sacraments.”

A Duty to Catechize and Instruct

In short, like all other Catholics, the mentally and developmentally challenged possess the canonical right to be assisted by the Church through catechesis and the administration of the sacraments.

Yet within our ministry as canonists, each of the present authors has encountered situations where the rights of the mentally and developmentally challenged are not properly understood. To provide the reader with a brief background as to how each author became involved in this issue, Ian is a lay canonist interested in promoting and vindicating the canonical rights of laity. Pete, on the other hand. is an active member of the International Order of Alhambra — a Catholic fraternal organization devoted to assisting the mentally and developmentally challenged. The Alhambra often refers to the mentally and developmentally challenged as “God's special children,” an expression that will be used interchangeably throughout this canonical commentary.

Now beginning with the right to catechesis, canon 773 introduces us to the Church's ideal pastoral praxis concerning this topic. This canon states: “It is pastors of souls especially who have the serious duty of attending to the catechesis of the Christian people, so that, through doctrinal formation and the experience of the Christian life, the faith of the people may be living, manifest and active.” In short, canon law places upon pastors a serious duty. “By virtue of his office,” canon 776 explains, “the parish priest is bound to ensure the catechetical formation of adults, young people and children.”

Notice, from these two canons cited above, that the pastor’s duty is to instruct the Christian faithful in the truths of the Catholic faith, helping the faithful to form their consciences according to these same truths. This duty comes by virtue of his office, meaning by the vary fact a priest has been appointed pastor of a parish. The parish priest is to see to the catechesis of all the faithful entrusted to his care, regardless of age. As part of catechetical formation, the pastor is also to assist the faithful in leading an active spiritual life. Thus the faith of Catholics, without prejudice to one’s age, state of life, or social status, ought to be living, visible to all, and ongoing. This is the Church’s universal call to holiness, as expressed at the Second Vatican Council.

Yet what about God's special children? Does canon law envision a duty for pastors to catechize and instruct the mentally and developmentally challenged? Canon 777 provides an appropriate answer to this question. “In a special way,” this canon states, “the parish priest is to ensure, in accordance with the norms laid down by the diocesan Bishop, that: 1) an adequate catechesis is given for me celebration of the sacraments [and] 4) as far as their condition allows, catechetical formation is given to the mentally and physically handicapped.”

In short, a parish priest is to insure that God's special children receive ongoing catechesis insofar as they are capable. Of course, God's special children will not comprehend and retain knowledge of the Church’s teaching at the same level as others their age, and often even the most elementary catechesis must be repeated during the course of their lifetime. Nevertheless, pastors have a canonical duty to catechize God’s special children and, insofar as they are capable of receiving it, a pastor should ensure that God's special children are adequately catechized to receive the sacraments.

When in Doubt, Feed

This raises a second issue, namely, the canonical right of the mentally and developmentally challenged to assistance from the Church's pastors in the administration of the sacraments. “Through the liturgy a complete public worship is offered to God by the head and members of the mystical body of Christ.” This teaching, excerpted from the first paragraph of canon 834, is significant for various reason. First, it comes as the opening canon of Book IV within the Code of Canon Law — the section of the Code that governs the administration of the sacraments and other acts of worship within the Church. Secondly, this statement is theological and provides canonists with a guiding principle through which we interpret all subsequent canons pertaining to the administration of the sacraments and all other acts of public worship. The mentally and developmentally challenged, like all the baptized, are members of the Church. As Pope John Paul II declared, while discussing catechesis, those suffering from physical or mental challenges “have a right like others of their age, to know the ‘mystery of faith.’”

The Church is reminded, both in canon 889, 1 and article 1306 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that those who have been baptized “can and should” receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Yet before someone receives the sacrament in the Latin Church, they should be properly educated as to what they are receiving. Nevertheless, the inability to receive the proper catechesis does not exclude one from this sacrament. In fact, catechesis can and should be adapted to suit the particular need of God's special children. Although canon 890 specifies that “parents” and “especially pastors of souls” are to instruct the faithful with regard to the reception of this sacrament, and although canon 889 clearly states the person must have the “use of reason,” the absence of such is not an obstacle for the mentally and developmentally challenged receiving Confirmation. For even if catechesis cannot be adapted to their mental capacity, one cannot immediately refuse them this sacrament. In canonical language, the necessity of the “use of reason” and/or “suitable instruction” merely pertains to what is necessary for the licit reception of the sacrament under normal circumstances.

On the other hand, the plight of the mentally and developmentally challenged presents special circumstances. Within these special circumstances, the U.S. Bishops, under guideline number sixteen of their Guidelines for Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities encourage the handicapped to ask for the sacrament. If they are incapable of so doing, or if they lack the requisite mental capacity to make this request, their parents or legal guardians may petition on their behalf for the administration of the sacrament. Thus the U.S. bishops guard against any rigid application of the law, opting instead to follow the canonical principle of “favors are to be multiplied, and burdens restricted.”

Moving on to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting from the Second Vatican Council, upholds this Most Blessed Sacrament as the “source and summit of the Christian life” Because the Eucharist is the focus of the Christian life, the spiritual life of any Catholic would surely be incomplete if he or she was not permitted to receive the Eucharist. For this reason, canon 912 states, “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion.” In the Latin Church sui iuris, one is usually first admitted to this sacrament at around the age of seven. This is the age, within canon law, when someone is seen to have obtained the use of reason. The use of reason helps the person receive the proper instruction for the sacrament. The law, however, does admit an exception. Canon 913, 2 allows for children to receive the Eucharist “if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion reverently.”

This capacity to distinguish need not necessarily be verbal, especially as such a requirement could potentially continue to exclude some of God's special children, but rather it may be in some other special way suited to their particular condition. Even a gesture or reverential silence is a possible indication of their ability to receive the sacrament (cf. Guidelines for Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities, no. 20). Again, the U.S. Bishops remind us that “Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the Sacrament. The existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving the Eucharist.”

In a broad sense, the right to receive the Eucharist also gives way to questions concerning access to the Eucharist, especially within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Our parishes should also examine what steps have been taken to make the parish accessible to the mentally and developmentally challenged. As members of the parish community, they should also be invited to participate in the life of the community. Mass might also be adapted to suit their needs on special occasions or for special events. It might also be advantageous to establish or draw upon the assistance of Catholic organizations like the International Order of Alhambra and L'Arche — Catholic organizations experienced in involving God's special children within the active life of a parish. A 1994 Archdiocese of Seattle study found that perhaps 10% of a parish has some form of disability. This statistic would include the mentally and developmentally challenged. Thus we must ask ourselves: are God’s special children being fully integrated and welcomed into Church life? Or are they being unjustly excluded through either ignorance or error when it comes to their canonical status and rights?

The Healing Touch

Moving on to the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, ordinarily this sacrament is administered to those who have reached the use of reason. In accordance with canon 1004, 1, the sacrament is intended for those who find themselves suffering from serious illness, injury or effects of old age. In many places, a custom has arisen whereby pastors administer this sacrament to those whose sickness or injury does not fulfill the strict criteria outlined within canon law. For example, you may be familiar with, or may have witnessed for yourself, nursing home residents receiving this sacrament with no regard to particular condition. You may also have participated in parish liturgies where everyone present is invited indiscriminately to receive the Anointing of the Sick.

This custom is well intentioned, in that it reinforces the idea this is the Sacrament of the Sick and not merely of the dying. Nevertheless, it often degenerates into a liturgical abuse, and the potential risk is that it be indiscriminately extended to God's special children. An individual in a nursing home or parish should not receive the sacrament unless he or she suffers from some serious effects of illness or of old age. Similarly, neither should the sacrament be administered to one of God's special children simply because he or she is mentally or developmentally challenged. In other words, the disability is not necessarily a sickness that calls for the administration of the Sacrament of the Sick.

It would indeed show great ignorance on the part of the community if the disabled were called to receive this sacrament for no other reason than their disability. So that disability is not reduced to a type of sickness, the U.S. bishops suggest that the disabled be admitted to the sacrament under the same standards as “any other member of the Christian community.” This being said, God's special children should be admitted to the sacrament if their life is threatened because of injury, illness or the effects of old age. If there is a question concerning the individual's “use of reason,” the question should be resolved in favor of the mentally or developmentally challenged individual receiving the sacrament.

Along with the Anointing of the Sick, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is a sacrament of healing. The penitent who approaches this sacrament seeks healing and absolution from his or her sins. Before one can receive the healing and pardon, canon 987 declares the penitent must be resolved to reject the sins committed and have a firm purpose of amendment. With regards to mortal sin, canon law requires that those who have reached the age of reason receive this sacrament at least once a year.

Yet one encounters a unique set of circumstances when applying canon law to the mentally and developmentally challenged with regards to the Sacrament of Penance. Simply put, many of God's special children are incapable of forming the requisite intention to commit a mortal sin. Nevertheless, they might still have a sense of sin over various venial sins they may have committed, and they might feel that their sin is grave before God. Furthermore, this sense of sin contrition may also be expressed in another manner if God's special children are not capable of expressing contrition like other members of the Christian faithful. “Even if he/she cannot describe the sin precisely in words,” the U.S. bishops state, “the contrite disabled person can receive the sacrament.”

What then is to be said of confession of mortal sin by the mentally and developmentally challenged? Following the teachings of the Church and sound moral theology which requires that full knowledge and deliberate consent be present for the commission of a mortal sin, it is probably safe to assume that both would be lacking for the severely mentally challenged. In this case, there is no obligation to confess mortal sins at least once a year, although they still may approach the sacrament for other sins. As Fr. Woestman, the noted professor of Canon Law, taught the present authors in his course on canon law and the sacrament of Confession: “We should not prohibit little children from approaching the sacrament of confession simply because they are not capable of committing a mortal sin. After all, the Church encourages her priests and religious to approach the sacrament frequently, although she certainly does not expect them to frequently commit mortal sins.” In a similar spirit, it is imprudent to suggest that the mentally and developmentally challenged are simply incapable of mortal sin, and thus have no need of frequenting the sacrament. It thus remains the confessor’s prerogative to question the individual penitent about his full knowledge and deliberate consent.

In conclusion, the Second Vatican Council's universal call to holiness applies to all baptized Catholics. This includes the mentally and developmentally challenged. Hence, God's special children have the canonical right, according to their capacity, to receive catechesis and the sacraments. Both pastors and parents should be aware of these canonical rights, and be prepared to vindicate them an behalf of the mentally and developmentally challenged when necessary. For God desires their salvation and participation in Divine worship as well.

Pete Vere, JCL, earned his ecclesiastical licentiate in canon law from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. In his spare time, he volunteers as a Deputy Regional Director for the International Order of Alhambra — a Catholic family organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and developmentally challenged.

Ian Burgess, JCL, earned an MA in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and a Master of Canon Law and ecclesiastical license in canon law from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. He presently serves the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina as a staff canon lawyer.

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and is reprinted electronically with the permission of the authors.

Pete Vere


Pete Vere is a canon lawyer, author, and Byzantine Catholic from Northern Ontario, Canada. He and his wife Sonya have six children. In his few spare moments, when he is not cooking or camping with his family, he enjoys hunting, reading, video games and scotch.

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