In a controversial case out of England, the parents of seven-year-old Down Syndrome patient Denum Ellarby have accused the Catholic Church of discriminating against their son by refusing to allow him to participate in a First Communion ceremony with his classmates.
Clare Ellarby, whose family has worshipped at St. Mary of the Angels church in Batley, West Yorkshire for four generations, claims that their parish priest, Father Patrick Mungovin, refused to consider Denum for the necessary preparation classes leading up to the ceremony, believing that the boy wouldn't sufficiently "understand the preparation," or be able to "enjoy participation in Mass."
She then appealed to Monsignor Michael McQuinn of Leeds diocese, who, after speaking with Denum's teacher at St. Mary's Primary School, sent Mrs. Ellarby a letter expressing concerns about the boy's ability to concentrate for extended periods of time, and his comprehension skills. And indeed, Mrs. Ellarby said her son doesn't attend church every Sunday as "[a] one-hour Mass is simply too long for him."
But even though the Monsignor wrote, "While he [Denum] is unable to make preparations this year to the first sacrament, he may be able to do in the future when his understanding is better placed," Denum's mother wasn't consoled:
"I believe it is because of his disability that they won't accept him. I feel very upset my son is being discriminated against, and I feel really let down by the Catholic faith. They need to have more compassion. What they are doing is so cruel. As a child with Down's syndrome, he may never have a full understanding of what it is about."
Opinion is sharply divided on this story, and it's easy to see why. On the one hand, Mrs. Ellarby and her son did miss the initial class for First Holy Communion (Denum was feeling unwell), and were later told that classes were full. On the other hand, the Ellarbys said they had expected the church to be flexible in allowing Denum to receive religious instruction at home, as is customary with learning-disabled children.
The church is in a difficult position: if they did allow Denum to receive the sacrament with his classmates, some critics would accuse the church of imposing their beliefs on a child unfit to be taught them. But it does seem sad that a little boy is being excluded, and can't understand why. And, after all, how many seven-year-olds, learning-disabled or otherwise, have a firm grasp of religious principles anyway?