Question 13


Dear Fr. Matthew @ the Abbey, 

I firmly believe in respecting life in all its forms from conception  to natural death and understand the church’s teaching on birth  control as it applies to God’s divine plan of life. However, as a  parent of a mentally challenged young adult, who would be unable to  care for a child, I would like to know how the church teachings on  birth control apply to this population and how it supports them in  making life choices. A pregnancy would not only be a physical,  emotional and mental challenge for my child, but a financial one as  well. The baby would have to be raised by someone other than my  child, who would not understand the process of pregnancy, child birth  or why the baby was taken away. Thank you for your insight.
K.C., Fort Wayne]

Dear K.C,

Your question is how does contraception, and sterilization, apply to a mentally retarded, or mentally challenged young adult? You point out that such a young person is not capable of dealing with the responsibilities which accompany marriage and children. Thus the question becomes “What can be done to insure that this young person will not become sexually active and run the risk of a pregnancy?”

I think it is important first of all to point out that that impaired condition of a person’s mind or body does not lessen the human dignity of that person. A mentally retarded, or physically handicapped, or a person suffering from a genetic disorder shares the same human dignity as a son or daughter of God, just as you or I. Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, and thus has infinite value. In another world, in eternity, such a person will be freed of their mental, physical or genetic impediments, and be a perfectly normal individual.

Morality, including sexual morality, was designed for every man, woman and child who share in human nature. There are no exceptions here. If contraception is wrong for a normal person, it is equally wrong for an impaired person. The same applies to sterilization. 

You ask how does the Church support impaired persons in making life choices, since a pregnancy would become a challenge they could not do justice to. The Church applies the virtue of chastity to every group of human beings, according to their walk of life. If a person is single, then they are to be celibate, and not indulge in sexual behavior. The sexual act is a spousal act, and each act is always to be open to the goodness of the unitive and procreative dimension of human sexuality.

This means that parents, or guardians, are to explain God’s plan for human sexuality to their impaired son or daughter, according to their ability to understand. Every human being experiences his or her sexuality. What they need to acquire is an understanding of what it means, and how it is to be lived, according to God’s plan for us. Basic values, explained in simple terms, are understandable to everyone, including persons with limited intelligence.

Just as the single person is expected to be celibate, so also is the impaired single person. Genital sex is not a sine qua non for a fulfilled human life. Think of the millions of men and women who have been called to the celibate life over the centuries. This will require that the parent of a “child-like adult” will watch over him or her, and clearly discourage any form of immoral behavior. Gaining self possession and self mastery is part of the process of becoming human. There are no technological or medical substitutes for this.

Sterilization of an impaired person is just as much a form of bodily mutilation for them as it is for a normal person. We have no right to destroy our fertility. It is a God-given gift, and is always to be treasured as such.

A mentally or physically impaired person is a gift to a family and society, not a liability or an unqualified burden. They bring something unique and special to all who know them. They have a contribution to make to the world. They require special caring and guidance, but they repay that caring and guidance with the goodness and love of their person. 

We see something of the mystery of life here. A “perfect” human life is much more complex than the world understands it to be. Sexuality has only a limited role to play in human life. We are all totally dependent upon God. The impaired persons reveal this more clearly than others.

Cordially yours,

Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB