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Can an Adult With Intellectual Disabilities Receive the Eucharist?

A listener named Darby asks Father Dave if those with mental or intellectual disabilities are permitted to receive the Eucharist. She says, “I was told it’s up to the priest to make that decision…I have also been told that [those with low cognitive ability could be denied] because of their non-understanding of the concept and importance.”

Father Dave says, “Thankfully, it’s not just up to any given priest in a situation like this, nor is it just up to me to come up with some answers. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has guidelines about this: It’s called Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacrament with Persons with Disabilities.

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“It begins by saying, ‘The Church continues to affirm the dignity of every human being, and to grow in knowledge and understanding of the gifts and needs of her members who live with disabilities. Likewise, the Church recognizes that every parish community includes members with disabilities, and earnestly desires their active participation,’” he continues, and notes how this document covers a variety of conditions, not just intellectual disabilities. 

Father Dave quotes key excerpts to answer Darby’s question. “The document notes that ‘The criterion for the reception of Holy Communion is the same for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities as it is for all persons – mainly that the person is able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food.’ This is one of the reasons why we, in our Roman Catholic tradition, do not give the Sacrament of Holy Communion or even begin to prepare people for it until around the age of 7.”

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“It says, ‘Even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence, rather than verbally, the existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving Holy Communion,’” he continues. “When [Darby asked] if it is up to the priest, perhaps the priest or pastoral staff will determine something like what the document just described.” Father Dave encourages families and caregivers to meet at the parish level to help communicate their needs, with guidance from this USCCB document.

Father Dave describes how a priest or Eucharistic Minister can’t necessarily know or judge a disability in the moment during Mass. “I don’t know everybody that’s coming up in line for Communion whether or not they have a mental disability,” he says. “[This document] implies that the person making that determination has some latitude to use their own judgment to say, ‘Well, it seems like this person can tell the difference,’ and could be pastorally generous with that determination.”