This is the fifth post in Political Theology Today’s symposium on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on marriage and the family. The first four posts can be found here, here, here, and here. Future posts will be published on Wednesdays and Fridays in the upcoming weeks.
Given the vast scope of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, an attempt to address “the family” in all its diversity, multiplicity, and contexts, it is unsurprising to see that the apostolic exhortation touched on the role of disability in families. It was also unsurprising, and frankly disappointing, to see the discussion of disability couched in the euphemistic terms of “special needs,” “gift,” and “witness.” Francis’s use of these tropes is predictable given the history of how disability has appeared in the Catholic social tradition; other parts of the document, however, provide the seeds of a theology that will push us towards being a more inclusive church.
Below is a lengthy paragraph on disability from Amoris Laetitia:
The Fathers also called particular attention to “families of persons with special needs, where the unexpected challenge of dealing with a disability can upset a family’s equilibrium, desires and expectations . . . Families who lovingly accept the difficult trial of a child with special needs are greatly to be admired. They render the Church and society an invaluable witness of faithfulness to the gift of life. In these situations, the family can discover, together with the Christian community, new approaches, new ways of acting, a different way of understanding and identifying with others, by welcoming and caring for the mystery of the frailty of human life. People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity . . . If the family, in the light of the faith, accepts the presence of persons with special needs, they will be able to recognize and ensure the quality and value of every human life, with its proper needs, rights and opportunities. This approach will promote care and services on behalf of these disadvantaged persons and will encourage people to draw near to them and provide affection at every stage of their life.” Here I would stress that dedication and concern shown to migrants and to persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit. Both situations are paradigmatic: they serve as a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities. (#47)
It is important to notice that approximately three-fourths of this text is a direct, albeit edited, quotation from the final Relatio of the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Here Francis draws a connection between the vulnerability and fragility of people with disabilities and that of migrants. The way in which Francis draws connections between a variety of ways in which people and families are vulnerable in this world is to be admired. He is not wrong to render these as “a test of our commitment to show mercy;” and yet, he is mistaken to simply leave it at that.
Below is the full section from the Relatio, and the parts that Francis edited out of Amoris Laetitia are bolded (note that the translations are slightly different between the two documents).
Particular attention needs to be given to families whose members have special needs. In these cases, the sudden entrance of a person with a disability into a family creates profound and unexpected challenges and upsets a family’s equilibrium, desires and expectations. This situation gives rise to mixed emotions and difficult decisions in coping and planning, while imposing duties, urgencies and new responsibilities. The reality of the family and every aspect of its life are profoundly disturbed. Families which lovingly accept the difficult trial of a child with special needs are to be greatly admired. They render the Church and society an invaluable witness of their faithfulness to the gift of life. In these situations, the family has the opportunity to discover, together with the Christian community, new approaches, new ways of acting, a different manner in understanding and identifying the family and in welcoming and caring for the mystery of the fragility of human life. People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity. The Church, God’s family, wants to be a welcoming home to families with persons with special needs (cf. John Paul II, Homily for the Jubilee of the Disabled, 3 December 2000). She collaborates in strengthening the family’s relationships and training and offers ways for participating in the liturgical life of the community. For many persons with special needs, who are abandoned or alone, the Church‘s institutions, who welcome them, are often their only families. The Synod expresses profound gratitude and deep appreciation to these institutions. The process of integrating people with special needs into society is more difficult because of an enduring stigma and prejudice — even to the point of a theorization based on eugenics. On the contrary, many families, communities and ecclesial movements become aware of and celebrate the gifts of God in these people with special needs, particularly their unique communication skills and ability to bring people together. Special attention needs to be given to disabled persons who outlive their parents and others in their family who assisted them in life. The death of those who loved them and whom they loved makes these persons even more vulnerable. If the family, in the light of the faith, accepts the presence of people with special needs, they will be able to recognize and guarantee the quality and value of every human life, with its proper needs, rights and opportunities. This approach will encourage care and services on behalf of these disadvantaged persons and will encourage people to draw near to them and provide affection at every stage of their life. (#21)
The first thing that strikes me in the difference between the Relatio and Amoris Laetitia is that Francis has sanitized the experience of dealing with a disability, having removed the “mixed emotions and difficult decisions,” the imposition of “duties, urgencies and new responsibilities” — and the Relatio wasn’t especially detailed on that front as it stands. I am a member of one of those “special needs” families — a family with good healthcare, access to strong special education programs, and numerous other advantages that many others lack — and as much as I loved my brother, it hardly felt like a gift most days.
On a certain level, I think I understand Francis’s impulse here. As has been argued elsewhere, when disability is still so stigmatized, still seen as a threat and danger throughout much of the world, Francis’s own pastoral instinct for mercy and hope calls him to offer a more positive view than might be found elsewhere. Still, I worry that a pastoral opportunity has actually been missed here, to affirm the difficulties and fear and anxiety of living with disability — whether your own or that of a loved one — and relieve families of the expectation to be heroes and saints.
This brings me to the second striking aspect of these documents: the continued failure of both the Relatio and Amoris Laetitia to either move beyond the paradigm of “charity,” or to admit to the church’s own complicity in the “enduring stigma and prejudice” that people with disabilities – physical, intellectual, and emotional – continue to face. Previously, I have described the difficulties in the Catholic pastoral response to disability; and I am not the first person to point out that these continue in Amoris Laetitia. David Perry’s essay for Crux poignantly outlines the problems with this image of both people with disabilities and their families: the person with a disability becomes a tool, an instrument that teaches a lesson, rather than being allowed to be human in their own right. “Better theologies,” writes Perry, “of disability and the family would open pathways to witness and embrace our shared humanity, regardless of the functioning of our bodies and minds, and understand that all of us need the opportunities to be both actors and be acted upon as we pursue a good life in our communities.”
As I read through the rest of Amoris Laetitia, it occurred to me that the best contribution Francis makes for serving people with disabilities and their families is actually in the way he addresses reception of the Eucharist, not his more direct treatment of these families. The part of Amoris Laetitia which has generated the most interest has certainly been Francis’s claim that people who are divorced and remarried “are not excommunicated and should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community” (#243). Without delving into debates about what this means for reception of communion, a central theme here is the presumption of belonging, of rightful participation for all members of the church in the ongoing life of the church.
This same presumption needs to be applied to people with disabilities. Recently, I taught a brief class to M.Div. students about ministry with people with disabilities. I (only partially joking) told them that if they learned nothing else in my course, I wanted them to take away one line from the USCCB’s “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” about whether someone with an intellectual disability can receive communion: “Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament” (#22). I would suggest that this line, this presumption of the right to receive, is the same kind of mercy that Francis is suggesting for Catholics who are divorced and remarried and others in “irregular” situations, and which I believe can be extended to people with disabilities and their families. The challenge is to do more than write such words — as a Church, we must learn to practice them.
There is much more that I wish Francis had said regarding the experiences of people with disabilities. I wish both Francis and the bishops had spoken of how pastoral practices for inclusion could be improved. I wish they had discussed the controversies around people with disabilities getting married and having their own families, instead of being seen exclusively as a problem that (presumably nondisabled) family members have to deal with. As dissatisfied as the apostolic exhortation may leave me on these counts, it does give me some hope that we might continue to grow in understanding these needs, and the needs of many other vulnerable people in our church.
Lorraine Cuddeback is a PhD candidate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research is in social ethics, particularly disability and theology, Catholic social teaching, and feminist ethics. Her dissertation is about ethics, practices, and theologies of inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.