A woman suffering from moderate Alzheimer’s began attending RCIA. She is a baptized non-Catholic. She lived with her son (a Catholic) who diligently brought her classes. The catechesis she was receiving was tailored to her abilities (can. 777, 4°). Her condition began deteriorating quickly and her inability to remember her young grandson and son made peaceable living impossible. She was moved to a memory care facility. At the facility she speaks of herself as being Catholic. Can this woman enter full communion with the Catholic Church?
Yes, of course! Holy Mother Church would never deny someone the grace of full communion. But, how does one make sense of it canonically. The act by which a baptized non-Catholic enters into full communion is simply the public, juridic manifestation of one’s intention to become Catholic (cf. Huels, Liturgy and Law, 76). One must distinguish between this act, which is the constitutive element for valid reception into the Church, and the the liturgical act, namely the Rite of Reception in the RCIA ritual. This is important because it means valid entrance into the Church is not dependent on one’s ability to fully perform the rite. All that is necessary is that she manifests her intention to become Catholic before competent ecclesiastical authority. The competent authority need not do anything besides knowingly witness the person’s manifestation of intention (Huels, Liturgy and Law, 77).
With that in mind, I think there are a two options.
A) Alzheimer’s disease in its moderate and severe stages places a person in danger of death. Every baptized but unconfirmed person is capable of receiving confirmation and in instances of danger of death a person is to be confirmed immediately regardless if one has the use of reason (cann. 891 and 889 §2). Additionally, baptized non-Catholics who are in danger of death can receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing if they demonstrate a Catholic faith and spontaneously ask for them (can. 844 §4), at least implicitly prior to losing their faculties (can. 1006). This woman’s participation in RCIA and her self-identification as a Catholic manifests her intention to become Catholic, suitably demonstrates a Catholic faith in the sacraments, and implicitly expresses her desire to receive the fullness of sacramental grace. Her reception into the Church takes place implicitly by her reception of confirmation by a Catholic minister (cf. Huels, The Pastoral Companion, 84).
B) Another possible route follows from the canon 99, which canonically equates persons who habitually lack the use of reason to infants. These persons are not responsible for themselves (non sui compos) because they lack the use of reason (cann. 97 and 99). A person with Alzheimer’s disease will become progressively less capable of personal responsibility as the disease progresses. To understand the canonical significance of the deterioration, we must consider the spectrum canon law uses to describe juridic capability.
- Adults. They are person over 18 who have the full exercise of their rights and are fully responsible for themselves (cann. 97 and 98 §1).
- Adult persons who have some impairment in the use of reason but still possess sufficient use of reason to marry (can. 1095, 1°).
- Adult persons of diminished mental capacity (minus firmae mentis). They can speak for themselves regarding their own delicts but normally act through a guardian/curator especially in the administration of temporal goods (can. 1478 §4).
- Minors over the age of 14. They can speak for themselves in spiritual matters (1478 §3) such as freely choosing in which sui iuris church to be baptized (can. 111 §2). In all other things they must act through a guardian/curator.
- Minors with the use of reason. The law presumes one has the use of reason after age 7 (can. 97 §2). These persons persons exercise their rights in a limited fashion through their guardian (can. 98 §2). They can, for example, ask for baptism with their parents consent (RCIA [USA] 252).
- Those who lack the use of reason and are completely incapable of personal responsibility (non sui compos). Their guardian/curator acts for them in absolutely all matters (cann. 97 §2; 98 §2; and 99).
These last three stages (4, 5, 6) can be respectively thought of as the mental ability of an adolescent, the mental ability of a 7 year-old, and the mental ability of a baby. From the above, it would seem that the mental capability necessary for a baptized Protestant to validly be received into the Catholic Church on his or her own (that is, publicly manifest his intention to become Catholic in a juridically cognizable fashion) would that of an adolescent (stage 4). This is because reception into the Catholic Church necessary means freely submitting oneself to her laws and beliefs, the same things that distinguish one sui iuris church from another. A person in stage 5 could do so through a guardian/curator. A person in stage 6 becomes Catholic simply at the declaration of his or her guardian/curator (cf. Huels, Liturgy and Law, 95).
The progression of Alzheimer’s will take a person through all these stages of juridic capability. When one compares the stages of canonical capability with the commonly outlined stages of Alzheimer’s disease (Alzheimers.net), the following conclusions seem appropriate:
- Alzheimer’s stages 1 & 2 do not affect a person’s juridic capability.
- Alzheimer’s stage 3 renders one diminished in mental capacity and in need of a guardian/curator for temporal goods administration.
- Alzheimer’s stages 4 & 5 means one acts through a guardian/curator, but may well be able to make decisions in spiritual matters on one’s own depending on the precise progression of the disease in that individual.
- Alzheimer’s stages 6 and 7 render one completely non sui compos. Their guardian/curator acts for them in all things.
So going back to the original question, if the woman is in stage 6 or 7 Alzheimer’s, then her entrance into the Church comes via a declaration of whoever has legal guardianship of her person (cf. Huels, Liturgy and Law, 95). If she is in stage 5, her self-identification as Catholic combined with her guardian’s statement regarding her desires would be enough to manifest her intention to become Catholic. It seems most likely that if she is in stage 4 she is still fully capable of acting canonically on her own with respect to entering the Church.