Question by Williams Boakye Baafi:
My Lord, I would be very grateful if you could educate us on the possibility of persons with disabilities being admitted to the seminary and being eventually ordained to the priesthood.
According to Canon 1008, “By divine institution some among Christ’s faithful are, through the sacrament of order, marked with an indelible character and are thus constituted sacred ministers; thereby they are consecrated and deputed so that, each according to his own grade, they fulfill, in the person of Christ the Head, the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling, and so they nourish the people of God”.
The priesthood is an indispensable element in the Catholic Church and there is the need to have more priests. In order for someone to be eligible for the sacrament of holy orders, the person must first have a vocation and must be accepted by his bishop or the superior of a religious congregation to study in the seminary or in formation house.
Can a person with a disability be considered as a candidate for the priesthood or the religious life? Disability here must not be taken in a physical sense only; it can also be psychological. Indeed, before a person is ordained a priest, his bishop or superior must take a decision concerning his suitability for ordination.
According to Canon 1029, “After all circumstances have been taken into account in the prudent judgment of the proper bishop or the competent major superior, only those should be promoted to orders who have an integral faith, are motivated by a right intention, possess the required knowledge, and enjoy a good reputation, good morals, and proven virtues, and other physical and psychological qualities which are appropriate to the order to be received”.
In connection with the question under consideration posed by Mr. Baafi, I would like to draw attention to the last part of the above quotation which states that, among other things, the candidate should possess “other physical and psychological qualities which are appropriate to the order to be received”.
The existence of a physical disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from holy orders. However, candidates for ordination must possess the necessary spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological qualities and abilities to fulfill the ministerial functions of the order they receive (Canons 1029 and 1041, n. 1).
The proper bishop or competent major superior makes the judgment that candidates are suited for the ministry of the Church (Canons 241, sect. 1; 1025, sect. 2; 1051, n. 1). Cases are to be decided on an individual basis and in the light of pastoral judgment and the opinions of diocesan personnel and other experts involved with disability issues.
What is stated in Canon 1029 is very clear: it does not aim to exclude anyone, but rather simply states the necessary requirements. Indeed, there are conditions for admission into the priesthood. One is mental health. As far as this is concerned, if a person is not of a sound state of mind, that person clearly cannot be a point of reference for a community, which looks to the priest as a leader, to give attention, to listen, to discern and to provide balance.
The issue of mental health applies to all human roles of responsibility and is not in any way a judgment or a devaluation of the dignity of the person. In fact, the Church gives serious attention to the health of candidates, especially emotional health, and has initiated psychological testing as part of the admissions procedures to seminaries.
With regard to physical disability, the necessity of carrying out certain physical tasks in the church, such as the celebration of Mass and the distribution of Holy Communion, could be considered a prerequisite to ordination. If a man has no hands, for example, then he cannot become a priest because he can neither consecrate nor bless. Again, it would be very difficult for a person who cannot speak to preach the word of God.
Whether a person with a disability will be accepted for the priesthood or religious life will depend upon the kind of disability as well as the diocese or religious institute. But other conditions might be acceptable. Also, some dioceses or institutes might not accept bearers of certain bodily conditions for ordination, while other institutes or dioceses might.
The Church reserves the right to judge each case individually. In this sense, the final decision lies with the bishop or the superior who considers all the necessary information and seeks medical or psychiatric advice if necessary. Therefore, there is no absolute juridical basis for barring the ordination of men without full physical or psychological health.
However, it is also true that no one has the absolute right to be ordained as a minister in the Church. The fact that the Church is free to choose its ministers, according to its own standards, sheds some light on this particular sacrament of Holy Orders.
There is no discrimination or prejudice, but the church’s right to choose simply draws attention to the physical or mental infirmity that could effectively limit the minister’s ability and desire to serve and promote the good of the community as a whole and that of individuals.
For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).