I did a Reddit AMA (or Ask Me Anything) on September 2. This was in the /r/Catholicism subreddit (the main Catholic subreddit). I want to present some of the best questions from the discsussion with my replies. I focused on my book on autistic prayer so I think there are more questions on that.
Canonical impediments to ordination
I read that having a mental disability is a canonical impediment to holy orders. I have been diagnosed with aspergers and adhd, though have recieved therapy and medications to manage both conditions. I felt the call to be a priest ever since I can remember. Is it still possible for me to enter the seminary and be ordained?
Well, a lot depends on how they affect you. I think in many cases, autism and ADHD are no impediment to ordination but they are often comorbid with other issues that can be more directly an impediment.
There are three kinds of mental impediments:
1. Inability to do the studies necessary to become a priest so, if one is autistic with comorbid significant intellectual delay, that can be an obstacle.
2. Mental impairments where one is unable to act in a rational manner – similar to one getting off with the insanity defense in court, although a lower bar. This would include things like schizophrenics hearing voices.
3. Issues that can cause huge pastoral problems. This can be very nebulous and is where direct autism issues can come up. You don’t need to be a social butterfly to be a priest but a basic level of social interaction is required for ministry.
If you approach a diocese or community, I would recommend you focus on the particular struggles you have or accommodations you need, not on a wide diagnosis that might be interpreted as some issues you don’t have at all.
What can a parish do to better welcome autistic Catholics, to mass as well to other elements of parish life? What are common issues or pitfalls that could make someone with autism feel uncomfortable in those situations?
I think a lot comes with asking what they need. Most often, simple things like having a sensory-friendly space are what help. I have a directory of where that is going on and often times learning by seeing others is a good way to learn: https://frmatthewlc.com/2022/02/sensory-friendly-mass-directory/Overall, the best guide I’ve seen was prepared by an Anglican diocese in England: https://frmatthewlc.com/2022/06/the-best-guide-for-autism-in-church/ Partway down that link, I summarize what they list as 9 simple steps:
1. Check the lights.
2. Check the noise level.
3. Make the building layout clear to the autistic person.
4. The order of Mass or other activity: are the instructions clear? (I think the regular order of Mass helps here.)
5. Literal language.
6. What about physical contact? Have we thought about how water splashing or shaking hands might affect an autistic?
7. Do we have a rest area an autistic can escape to if recharging is needed?
8. Be aware of differences in body language, especially eye contact, if socializing is part of an activity.
9. Clear and precise: we do much better with clear and precise descriptions.
I suspect that Venerable Sr Anne of Jesus whom was a Carmelite nun and close friend of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the cross may have been on the spectrum as she did not begin talking until the age of 7 and was very serious about following the rule of St Teresa and fought against those who tried to impose changes to it for their own agendas. She became a foundress of the order of Discalced Carmelites! Perhaps one day she will be canonised and may be made a patron of children with speech delay or who are non-verbal.
I am not so familiar with Sr Anne of Jesus. I don’t like saying specific historical people were autistic, but prefer to talk about how they had autistic traits. In my book, I note St. Thorlak, St. Thomas Aquinas and Leonine (St. Therese’s sister) had autistic traits.
Do neuro-atypical people become “typical” when in heaven? I always imagined paraplegic people for example walking around the new earth, but what about other things like austism, adhd, etc.
I guess my question is do all “disorders” become “ordered” in the new heaven and earth and are things like autism seen as disordered by the church?
I would think the challenges that come with autism would not be as tough but many of the advantages would still be there. One of the most disabling parts of autism is the society around us and I think that social disability will be gone. However, I still think a lot of the positive or neutral nerd-autism traits will remain.
Friends and Religious Life
When men enter religious orders in general, and the Legion of Christ in particular, do they keep in contact with their friends from “before”? Or do they tend to loose contact due to the massive change in lifestyle and contemplative nature of the calling?
It does vary a lot. I lost contact with most of my friends, but I also moved from western Canada to Connecticut and suspect I would have lost most of that contact with friends if I moved there for work too.
During the first two years of novitiate, we tend to have less contact with the world to learn to pray, learn the charism, and discern if it is for us. After that, there can be more contact, but I think it varies a lot from person to person.
Pro-Life and Autism
Do you feel as someone with Autism that pro life people actually respect those with disabilities? I know the whole pro birth thing is a trope often brought up by pro choice people, but I have seen people be very dismissive of those with disorders like autism and disabilities, even while claiming to be pro life. Almost as if they are okay with such people being born, yet don’t care about helping them in regards to the faith or with anything else. Do you see this or am I just being too critical of pro life people on this issue? I only ask because in my small town I grew up with an autistic sibling and people could be mean yet also kind of patronizing, saying how it was great for kids like him to be born, but then in other situations when he wasn’t around, talk about how people like him just took welfare and the usual politically conservative tropes. Not to mention making jokes and calling him “retarded” which he’s not.
I have written two pieces for America on why I think disability rights and pro-life people should work together. In the response to both, I experienced much more support from pro-life people for such an idea than I got from the disability rights community.
I think from people who are seriously pro-life and are part of the activist community or work with crisis pregnancy centers, there is a lot of acceptance of disabilities like autism – you can see it in how supported people with Trisomy-21 (DOwn’s syndrome) are embraced in the pro-life community.
However, I do think among those who are pro-life but it is just one position among many you do get the idea that aborting kids with prenatal diagnoses of disability would be OK. I get that such people could have a patronizing attitude like you mention.
More AMA questions
There are more questions over on this AMA. Enjoy. I hope some time to find some time to do one on a broader forum on Reddit, maybe the main IAMA subreddit.