Communion and the developmentally disabled
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Regarding Communion and the developmentally disabled, there is no consensus on whether Christians who are developmentally disabled or mentally retarded should be allowed to partake of the Eucharist. Some Christians maintain that a rational understanding is necessary to receive the sacrament and that such persons should therefore not be permitted to partake. Others believe that the disabled should not be excluded from the sacraments. Different Christian denominations have different philosophies and regulations in this regard.
The history of administering the sacraments to the mentally retarded is difficult to establish. Many forms of developmental disability were only identified comparatively recently, and cases of mental retardation may often have been mistaken for demonic possession or the particularly dramatic consequence of original sin. In these cases, the Eucharist may have been withheld simply by virtue of a misunderstanding of the nature of the condition.
The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church (and those bodies in full communion with it) has no official policy about the sacraments and the developmentally disabled as such. The nearest parallel can be found in the principles relating to infant communion, specifically, the age of reason. According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Communion of Children:
- "In the best-supported view of theologians this phrase means, not the attainment of a definite number of years, but rather the arrival at a certain stage in mental development, when children become able to discern the Eucharistic from ordinary bread, to realize in some measure the dignity and excellence of the Sacrament of the Altar, to believe in the Real Presence, and adore Christ under the sacramental veils."
Additionally, Canon 913 states
- "§1. The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion."
- "§2. The Most Holy Eucharist, however, can be administered to children in danger of death if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion reverently."
- Children who are mentally retarded are to be admitted to the Eucharist when they express a desire for the sacrament and in some way manifest their reverence for it. In cases of profound retardation, the Eucharist may be shared without further requirements, as long as the child is able to consume the sacred elements. (,)
Additionally, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in its Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities (approved 1995):
- the criterion for reception of holy communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally. Pastors are encouraged to consult with parents, those who take the place of parents, diocesan personnel involved with disability issues, psychologists, religious educators, and other experts in making their judgment. If it is determined that a parishioner who is disabled is not ready to receive the sacrament, great care is to be taken in explaining the reasons for this decision. 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.
The Eastern Catholic Churches, which practice infant communion, have no hesitation in communing the developmentally disabled, agreeing in practice and belief with the Eastern Orthodox Churches (mentioned in the next section).
Orthodox Christianity makes Communion available to all baptized and chrismated church members who wish to receive it, regardless of developmental or other disabilities. The theory is that the soul of the recipient understands what is being received even if the conscious mind is incapable of doing so, and that the grace imparted by Communion "for the healing of soul and body" is a benefit that most especially should not be denied in such cases. This is consistent with the practice of Infant Communion in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Christians typically receive the Sacrament of Confession before receiving the Eucharist (see Eucharistic discipline). However, for those who are either mentally incapable of recognizing or recalling their sins, or who are mentally or physically incapable of communicating their sins to a priest, this requirement is dispensed with, just as it is for very young children.
The Church of Scotland says this regarding those with learning difficulties:
- "Notwithstanding the terms of Section 13 above [which obliges a Kirk Session to test the faith and understanding of a baptised person before authorising admission to the Lord's Table (ed.)] there is nothing in the law of the Church which would automatically disqualify a person with learning difficulties from admission to the Lord's Table and from having his or her name added to the Communion Roll of a congregation."
In most evangelical Christian churches, the only requirement for any individual to participate in Communion is that the person professes to have a personal relationship with God and to have accepted Jesus Christ as his or her Savior. Before Communion in these churches, the policy is usually verbally outlined and the decision is left up to the individual.
- Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops
- Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities, also from USCCB
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Communion of Children
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Frequent Communion
- Code of Canon Law
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