Developmental Disabilities and Sacramental Access


Edited by Edward Foley, OFM


Reviewed by Gordon Nary


The best possible overview of this landmark publication may be the powerful description of the book by Edward Foley on the book's back cover.

Is a developmental disability an appropriate reason to bar a baptized person from the sacraments? This is a disturbing question that generated this book. The pastoral reality is that Roman Catholics with developmental disabilities are often barred from the sacraments. Sometimes they are subject to dissemination or face unusual obstacles in the sacramental life of the Church. this volume, collaboratively  written by pastoral theologians from Catholic Theological Union and the Special Religious Education office of the Archdiocese of Chicago, addresses these issues. Punctuated with true stories of shame and triumph, this volume grapples with real issues that daily confront Catholics with developmental disabilities. With a breadth of scholarship that ranges from biblical perspectives  to ethical and canonical issues, the authors demonstrate how people with developmental disabilities need to be addressed by the Church and its sacrament, for they teach us something central about sacramental encounters.


In Dianne Berant, C.S.A.'s "Come, let us go up to the mountains of Israel" article, she discuses several Old Testament quotations that were "attempts to acknowledge the awesomeness of the divine and the human need to remember the extraordinary (sacred) dimension of what is ordinary (profane), and reaches three conclusions:

  • "the way society  understands what it is to be human."

  • "the change in the criteria for participation in the liturgical celebrations found in the biblical traditions."

  • "the role that ritual plays in constructing social identity."

In her concluding commentary of the story of a nine-year-old  moderately retarded boy named Raymond whose first communion was postponed, she states 'The challenge before the community may not be merely the lovingly and remorseful inclusion of all who have been unjustly barred from liturgical participation, as important as this may be. The real challenge may be the design of a new model for understanding what it is to be human."


I teared up while reading Paul J Waddell, CP's article Pondering the Anomaly of God's Love. He opens with a story of his nephew Carl who was born with cerebral palsy on a Christmas morning. Some of his observations include

  • "We wall never understand our obligations in justice to persons with disabilities unless we scrutinize that they reveal about God and ourselves."

  • "Disabled persons reflect back to us a different understanding of ourselves and a different understanding of God."

  • "Being open to the friendship of those we normally avoid is essential for discovering what God wants for all of us and what it means to treat such people justly."

  • "We exclude persons with disabilities from our midst because they unmask the pretentions with which we live. We label them as disabled or retarded or deviant  not because they are less than human, but because to accept them would be to learn that our sense of normalcy must be radically revised."

In Mark R. Francis, C.S.V.'s article Celebration the Sacraments with Those with Developmental Disabilities, he points out that some priests who may refuse to provide a sacrament to those with developmental disabilities may be a result of a misunderstanding of the purpose of the sacraments which has been evolving since Vatican II  After an exploration of these changes in perspective of the need to understand the sacraments as a prerequisite to their access, he concludes with this observation that "It is often the experience of many who work with persons with developmental disabilities that they are quite capable of knowing what the sacraments are."

John M Huels, O.S.M. discusses Canonical Right to the Sacraments with insightful commentaries on the canonical laws applicable to each of the sacraments. He includes a commentary and reflection titled Death without Dignity about a two-year-old child named Margaret, who was refused a wake or funeral liturgy by her pastor.

Mary Therese Harrington, S.H., one of the cofounders of Special Religious Education Development Network (SPRED)provides insight into the challenges of catechetics for the developmentally disabled in her report Affectivity and Symbol in the process of Catechesis. She explains that persons with normal intellectual functioning learn about God's intervention in time and space, but those with limited intellectual functioning may have difficulty in interpreting the past due to their inability in understanding of historical time which has an impact on catechesis training. She provides a great overview on the structure of catechesis training for those who volunteer to work with Spred. She explains that

  • "First, we will work together to develop a sense of the sacred, a sense of mystery. ...We respect one another and show it in how we speak, gesture, and move. "

  • "Second, we will work together to develop a sense of the people of God. We will begin by building a community of faith among ourselves."

  • "Third, we will work together a sense of Christ."

  • "Fourth, we will work together  to develop this movement  toward God in faith, hope, and love."

Herbert Anderson closes with Pastoral Epilogue and reminds that "developmentally limited  individuals are a gift to all of us because they force us to broaden our understanding of human nature."


This book has reminded me that we are all disabled in some way, some with physical disabilities, some with intellectual and developmental disabilities, some with mental disabilities, and some with spiritual disabilities. It is the disabilities that connect us and remind us that we are all commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that loving and helping those with disabilities in greatest need, especially those with developmental disabilities, is the foundation of our faith.

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