Wednesday, March 18, 2020

On communing children and the mentally handicapped

Sometimes the differences in Orthodoxy and Catholicism are thought of in terms of actual practice. Sometimes it's in terms of thought. In communion we see the intersection of both. Can Orthodoxy square the Catholic understanding of Eucharistic preparedness with its own understanding in a way that the two could live together? The immediate answer is "Greek Catholics seem to have no problem with it," but Uniatism is less a bridge than it is a confusing experiment that both confounds and complicates things. This may be an unpopular opinion for some readers, I know.

Either the Catholic Church - in all its expressions whether Roman or Malankara or Melkite - believes the same thing or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, can such theology as expressed below be said to be definitive. Either infants and the mentally handicapped should receive communion or they shouldn't. Is this restriction merely a discipline? And if so, should parents of such children just go to Eastern Catholic parishes? My personal experience says that this is exactly what parents of special needs children do.

(Get Religion) - Ever since the Last Supper, Catholics have pondered what happens during the Mass when they believe the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.

"Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering … it has always been the conviction of the Church … that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood," proclaimed the Council of Trent, after the Protestant Reformation.

"This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation. The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist."

Believers approach this mystery with the greatest care and respect. This may be hard for children to grasp as they prepare for First Communion.

Now imagine trying to teach this core Catholic doctrine to persons – young and old – who have mental and physical disabilities that make it hard, or impossible, for them to acknowledge what is happening in the Mass.

"Because we believe Holy Communion is the Body and Blood or our Lord, we want to be very careful about this," said Father Matthew Schneider, who is known to his Twitter followers as @AutisticPriest.

"This isn't a theology test. No one needs a theology degree to take Holy Communion. We simply need to make sure that they know this is an act in a church rite – that they are not eating ordinary food like at home. We're trying to find out if they have a basic understanding of what's happening."

Under Catholic canon law, children can be given Holy Communion "if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion reverently."

Schneider noted that U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines state that some individuals – because of their disabilities – may need to communicate this understanding "through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally."

This discernment process can be emotional, complicated and even painful. Thus, the bishops encouraged priests 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 Catholic to receive the sacrament."

This is a topic close to Schneider's heart, since he was diagnosed as autistic two years after his ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He has paid close attention to how Catholic clergy and educators minister to people all along the autism spectrum, while personally wrestling with what used to be called Asperger's syndrome.

"Some autistics – who don't adapt to this neurotypical world too well – really can't go through the normal sacramental preparation class," he wrote, in an online commentary on this topic. "It's just not going to work. I went through all the pretty much normal ones as a kid, but I can see a lot of other autistics really struggling with that."

Under normal circumstances children receive First Communion after completing an education process that leads to the confession of sins, in what is now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, children with disabilities may struggle with this process or find it impossible, depending on their ability to communicate.

Father Schneider stressed that this is when parents and pastors should seek help from specialists at their local diocese, or a nearby archdiocese, who can help them find the proper materials and teaching methods for each special-needs child. For example, there are now flipbooks and picture-card sets that – without words – explain the symbols and rituals in a Mass.

One "Communion Is Not the Same as Food" puzzle set uses simple images to help children distinguish between the Eucharist and "home food."

"Sometimes ordinary human communications can simply break down," said Father Schneider. "Pastors and parents have to find a way to stay on the same page while handling these sensitive issues."


  1. I've never understood how RC communion discipline differs from Baptists' understanding of baptism.

  2. On the first day of an upper level undergraduate class on Thomism, my professor said to the 20 or so students "only 1, maybe 2 of you will be able to to actually comprehend and 'do' metaphysics". At first I thought he was underestimating his students and displaying some sort of elitism, but I realized as the class went on he was right. Metaphysics always leads to a fundamental epistemological problem, usually 'solved' with an epistemic assent that is abstract in its very nature. What of those whose abstract reasoning is limited in way way or another, either inherently or by accident?

    When Realist Symbols (such as the Eucharist - ALL our Sacraments really) were transformed by the metaphysical turn in the middle ages to nominalistic "symbolism" the very nature of worship, our relationship to God, ourselves, knowledge, and the world changed. Tran-substantiation is but a poor attempt to glue together the Sacred and Holy back unto the world and our embodied selves...

  3. Jake,

    There is quite a bit of merit in that; in fact it’s hard to deny that influence.

    Personally, I’ve continued to be intrigued by Phenomenology and it’s application in speaking about our Faith and the Sacraments.

    What are you thoughts on that?

    1. Fr. Alexis,

      In short, I also am intrigued. From a technical yet also practical witness point of view, it encourages us, I want to say "naturally", to see a larger picture of humanity/persons as existing *in a narrative* of meaning, being and existence, and time - all of which is larger and more human than mere metaphysics. As you are probably aware Zizioulas, Hierotheos, Yannaras and others have all dialogued/grappled with it and come to slightly divergent estimations of it. I have never taken a deep dive into its sources directly myself however outside of Kierkegaard who is a sort of proto-phenomologist.

      Lately I have been very interested in the work of J.P. Manoussakis and how he ties in a phenomenological account of Time and its meaning with the classical Greek/Christian synthesis around Creation and our embodied existence, 'telos' and eschatology. I hope to get past the Preface of his "The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change" during this shut it period!

      As a preacher, how has it informed how you speak/preach "practically" as they say?

  4. The RCC would not commune my aunt who had dementia because “she didn’t have the capacity to understand” what she was receiving. She was the woman who passed the Faith on to me and was devote her entire life. I was heartbroken by that.

  5. Am I missing something? By identical line of reasoning, Roman Catholics should not be practicing infant baptism. A baby has no "basic understanding of what's happening".

  6. The ancient church did not practice infant baptism. My understanding is that it came about because too many people were postponing adult baptism.People reasoned that they could "live it up"; then be baptized and have their sins washed away, but were dying before this could be accomplished.

    1. It's not true that "the ancient church did not practice infant baptism;" the most one can say is that it did not require it of the faithful. See Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries by Joachim Jeremias (London, 1960: SCM Press).

      Of course, there is a vast literature on this topic, but it still seems to me that Prof. Jeremias' small book of 112 pages is the best place to start one's historical inquiry. Jeremias (1900-1979) was a relatively conservative German Lutheran academic theologian. Another German Lutheran, Kurt Aland, tried to refute Jeremias in his Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? (SCM Press, 1962) to which Jeremias responded with The Origins of Infant Baptism (SCM Press, 1963).

  7. Father,

    The answer would likely incite uncharitable polemics. I have sent my comment to Father Joseph Hunycutt and you may obtain it from him. He will have my email, too.

    In the case of dementia, as related by Athanasia, we do not know all of the facts concerning the status of her Aunt's organic mental deterioration. For example, some dementia patients will spit communion back out. Where it can be safely given so that the individual with the cross of dementia will not choke on the body of our Lord or spit it out, it may be given by RCs.