The age of reason

The story of Denum Ellarby, the seven-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome who has not been allowed to participate in preparation classes for First Holy Communion is causing controversy this morning, with even some Catholics stating that the Church is shooting herself in the foot.

I have to confess some sympathy, no-one wants to deny anyone the comfort of the sacraments on the basis of a disability, furthermore we know that Jesus does not deny Himself to anyone, so it is not difficult to empathise with his mother and wonder if some remedy could be found.

My eldest is currently undertaking First Holy Communion preparation classes, which consist of bi-weekly classes lasting an hour and half. A lot of emphasis is placed on understanding, in addition to the classes which include a quick revision quiz at the beginning and end, there is also quite a thick accompanying workbook for the children to go through at home and my daughter has been set various tasks, including learning prayers and responses, as well as completing the exercises in the workbook. It goes without saying that we are being scrupulous in terms of ensuring that there are no gaps in her knowledge.

The problem, as I see it, is that preparation for First Holy Communion, ideally requires quite a bit of knowledge. Whilst I am prepared to accept that not all 7 and 8 year olds reach the same level of understanding, all children are required to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, i.e. make their first confession, prior to receiving the Eucharist for the first time. This requires an understanding of sin, those things we do which separate us from God and an ability to examine our conscience and see those areas where we may have fallen short. Children are not normally deemed capable of reaching the age of reason until about 7 or 8, by this stage, most should be able to understand that telling lies, hitting siblings and other behaviours are bad. Most will understand the concept of right from wrong, even if they are not always capable of curbing their instincts.

If a child is unable to read, write and his speech is unable to be understood by strangers, surely it is quite wrong to place this level of expectation upon him? Surely it would be more wrong, to be able to expect him to do things beyond his abilities and actually quite cruel and unkind to state that someone with a limited understanding must be at the same level as everyone else? Is it fair to assume that he will be able to understand and make a first confession? What if he cannot remember the words of the Act of Contrition and cannot read the words on the card either? Isn’t this placing unfair pressure upon him?

It places the priest in an impossible position, as the priest must somehow believe that the child has made a genuine act of confession and contrition, but without actually being able to glean what the child has attempted to say, or whether he has been able to make an examination of conscience. Or the priest is supposed to waive the requirement for First Reconciliation, which debases the Eucharist itself?

Canon Law states the following:

people must be able to grasp something of what the mystery of Christ means. They must be able to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion. Can. 913.1.

the parish priest must see to it that those who are not prepared and not sufficiently capable, should not come to Holy Communion. Can. 914

Mrs Ellarby states that she does not attend Mass as her son is unable to cope with the service for an hour and she also finds it difficult with her younger child. She has my total sympathy and understanding there. We currently find Mass extremely difficult with a two year old and a baby, the majority of the service is spent running after the 2 year old, or attempting to occupy her with books and crayons. But we still attend nonetheless and our parishioners are very supportive and understanding, having been in similar positions themselves at some stage. Very often a kind parishioner will help, particularly if Robin is reading or whatever. My feeling is that children need to get used to Church, to being in Church and the kind of behaviour that is expected from them from an early age. Mine are far from perfect, the drawback of having two little ones so close together, is that it makes it difficult to concentrate and often distracts the 7 year old. Ideally I’d like to be helping her through the service, instead of either breastfeeding or legging it after a toddler who’s snatched a prayer card from the shrine of St Theresa. But these things pass.

If Mrs Ellarby does not take her son to Church, then how on earth is he expected to have any understanding of what is going on? According to the report on the BBC, he has difficulty in accessing the RE curriculum at school and does not really enjoy mass. So it seems entirely reasonable, that he may not be able to understand the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated bread or receive the Lord with faith and devotion.

It needs to be emphasised that having a learning disability does not preclude one from participating in the life of the Church, nor receiving the sacraments. One of our adult altar servers has quite a severe learning disability and is unable to live an independent life. There are many others I know who are not ruled out.

The Catholic Church is not permanently denying Denum the sacraments, but merely stating that he is not ready yet. That seems entirely reasonable. How is he going to be able to cope with the First Holy Communion Mass, if an hour is too long for him? Does he understand the Easter story? Does he understand that the Eucharist becomes the body and blood of Christ? None of us are in a position to answer these questions, other than the parish priest himself, but of course one way of ensuring that a child has at least had some understanding is that they attend preparation classes, taken by a qualified catechist. This is obviously going to prove tricky, when a child cannot read, write and has difficulty in communication.

It seems that Mrs Ellerby’s reasons for wishing her son to participate in First Holy Communion are predominantly cultural, as she says, it has been a tradition in her family for generations and, quite understandably, she does not want her son to be excluded or left out. But given her son has limited understanding and does not enjoy Mass, one has to ask, for whose benefit is this? For hers or her sons? The sacraments do provide comfort, but only if one has some understanding of what they mean.

As Father Z pointed out, in a similar case a few months ago, “we don’t admit children who are incapable of receiving the Eucharist with faith and devotion simply for the sake of avoiding making parents feel bad.

Despite its negative connotations, discrimination is not in itself unfair, it simply means the ability to make choices and distinguish between people and situations. At present Denum is judged unable to take part in First Holy Communion, to do so would not be fair upon him, nor the right thing to do. Indeed the Church could be accused of imposing itself on a vulnerable person, who is unable to understand the consequences of their actions. That is grave matter.

Let us all pray that this is a temporary delay, not a permanent state of affairs and that Denum and his family get the support they need to help them become fully participating members of their Church community in order that they may grow in love and faith. In the meantime, Jesus will hold their son, no less close to His Sacred Heart.