In the painting above, Adoration of the Christ Child by an unknown Flemish painting, you will see that a child with Down syndrome is alongside the Blessed Virgin Mary adoring the Christ Child. This 16th century painting is the earliest clear depiction of Down syndrome - it is here recorded in paint over three centuries before the condition was defined by John Langdon Down in 1866.
The painting evokes a common question about the status of mentally handicapped people and their relationship to the Catholic Church. Should mentally handicapped people be baptized? This question was of a subject of debate in the early Church and a topic of great interest in the middle ages.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine affirmed that mentally incapacitated people could and should be baptized. Regarding a friend who experienced a lapse in mental faculties, he wrote: "he was baptized when his recovery was despaired of" (Confessions 4).
Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century also affirmed that mentally handicapped and incapacitated persons could be baptized. "For some are so from birth, and have no lucid intervals, and show no signs of the use of reason. And with regard to these it seems that we should come to the same decision as with regard to children who are baptized in the Faith of the Church."
Saint Thomas' argument was like that of Saint Augustine. Infant baptism is an obvious analogue since infants also do not have the ability to ask for baptism. We baptize infants who have not yet reached the age of reason. We do so with the conviction that these children will be rightfully catechized and embrace the Catholic Faith. This, however, is how infant baptism is different than the baptism of mentally handicapped children. With infants, we presume that they will grow up and embrace the faith with the will. A person with severe mental handicaps might never do this explicitly. (Of course, there are numerous examples of mentally handicapped children and adults who not only develop a rich interior life, but also excel in the virtues. Some have sought to to enter the religious life!)
Yet again, we baptize babies who are dying and in doing so we know that they will not grow up to embrace the faith explicitly. So then, it is necessary that we baptize those who do not have the use of reason and perhaps will never have the use of reason.
Saint Thomas Aquinas makes one qualifier in the case for those who were once fully sane but then fell insane: "If, on the other hand, while sane they showed no desire to receive Baptism, they must not be baptized."
I should add that baptized mentally incapacitated children and adults are 100% assured of Heaven. Without the use of reason, they cannot sin. Having been cleansed of original sin, they are perfectly ready to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven prepared for them by Christ their Lord. The painting above reveals the veneration Catholics hold for these special children.
Holy Innocents, pray for us.