Catholic Social Teaching and Living with Disability

The Catholic tradition understands every human life to be equal, inherently sacred and worth of dignity and respect as the bedrock of a just society. This is not a passive teaching, however, but is instead a call to create communities and social systems that reflect the underlying love and divinity of each person. It is from the perspective that the Church criticises systems, values and structures that exclude, discriminate, hide or otherwise diminish people living with disabilities – it offends their human dignity and so is also a symptom of an unjust society. A just society stands with (solidarity) people with disabilities and offers them with the same opportunities and respects their equality with all people, it allows them to make their own decisions in relation to their own needs, relationships and communities (subsidiarity) and does not unduly delegate their decision making power to higher authorities and governing bodies. In a just society people with disabilities are not pushed to the margins and impoverished but are integrated and full a part of social life and so recognised as a valuable part of the human family.

God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

-1 Cor 1:27

What do Church leaders say and do about life for people with disability

The Australian Church has an Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Commission for Pastoral Life under which sits the Australian Catholic Disability Council. It advises the Bishops’ Commission on strategies and projects it can undertake to promote the participation of people with disability in the life of the Australian Church. The Commission is chaired by Bishop Terry Brady while the Council is chaired by Sister Myree Harris RSJ. It also has a Disability Projects Office. Together they have produced a range of resources which have been used and are available to parishes and the whole Catholic community. The Projects Officer, Patricia Mowbray co-authored an Australian Catholic Social Justice Council’s ‘Catholic Social Justice Series’ in 2012. It is calledWhere do we stand? With whom do we stand? – People with disability and the call of Jesus’.

The Church supports and often celebrates International Day of People with Disability. In 2015 Bishop Terry Brady said, ‘Parish communities need every person to be part of the worshiping body. A Parish is not complete or whole unless it includes, nurtures, and rejoices in each of its members. Parishes are called to be communities that gladly and authentically welcome people with disability and their families to life of the Church’.

The way we experience illness and disability is an index of the love we are ready to offer.

-Pope Francis

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Social Justice Statement, Lazarus at Our Gate, 2013-14

‘Disabilities are both a cause and consequence of poverty. People living with a disability make up around 15 per cent of the world’s population and about 20 per cent of the very poorest in the world’.

‘The needs of people with disabilities remind us of the respect that must be accorded to the most vulnerable. The ministry we share with Christ reminds us of the sacredness of life from conception until death and the innate human dignity of each person throughout their life. In every person we see the image of God before us, no matter how great their need or challenging their circumstances’.

‘We urge the Australian government to use its international standing and take a leadership role among international development donors to make the needs of disabled people a core part of its strategies for ending poverty.’

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Social Justice Statement, The Gift of the Family in Difficult Times, 2012-13

‘People with disabilities and others with special needs and their families are often ignored by wider society and experience real discrimination in their daily lives’.

‘As a nation we need to redress the discrimination and exclusion of our fellow citizens and make sure that this basic level of social justice is met’.

Patricke McArdle and Patricia Mowbray, Where Do We Stand? With Whom Do We Stand? Catholic Social Justice Series, ACSJC, No. 73

‘Social justice in the tradition of Catholic social thought is a story of relationships, of right relationships, relationships that enhance the world and society. […] It would seem – despite our protests to the contrary – that we too often choose not to stand with those who live with disability, with their families or their carers. We make this choice subtly and covertly – we choose who we include and who we exclude’. p. 5-6.

‘Only when the mutual vulnerabilities of persons are recognised can there be a solid basis for relationships and only in relationships can humanity fulfill its call to be the image and likeness of God, to be the Kingdom in the here and now’. p.7

‘The Gospel does not ask us to do all we can but to do all that is needed!’ p.14

‘Inclusion, real inclusion, will encompass leadership roles, central roles in the life of the Church and Church organisations, and recognising the strengths and gifts of all. IN this way we will be witness to the Call of Jesus to respond to the vulnerable’. p.26

Pope Francis has been a vocal advocate and example of a true culture of encounter and solidarity. He has spoken often about the inherent dignity shared by all human beings, about the need for our parishes and life in the Church to be open to all, to accept and embrace difference. In June 2016 he hosted a Jubilee for the Sick and Disabled in Rome. At the June 12 Mass at St Peter’s people with disabilities, lay, religious and clergy, took lead roles in the celebration with Pope Francis. They were readers, singers, altar serves and Mass was made accessible with sign language, braille books and in other ways.

During the Jubilee Francis said in his homily, ‘It is thought that sick or disabled persons cannot be happy, since they cannot live the lifestyle held up by the culture of pleasure and entertainment.  In an age when care for one’s body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few and endangers the dominant model’.

Throughout his papacy Francis has emphasised and demonstrated acceptance, real love, equality and the need for those living without disabilities, and especially our parish communities, to be truly open and respecting the different ways people experience, learn and express their faith.

I have something, you have another, and together we have something bigger and more beautiful. This is how we go forward.

-Pope Francis

A Few Helpful Church Readings

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

  • Sections 1701-1709 – outlines the dignity of the human person.
  • Sections 1877-1914 – outlines humans’ social nature and our responsibilities towards one another in that respect.
  • Sections 1929-1938 – outlines the equal dignity of the human person as the basis for social justice.

Pope Paul IV, 1968. Humanae Vitae – Encyclical. Discusses the dignity and value of all human life.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Commission for Pastoral Life, We Have a Story: A Collection of stories from people with disability, their families and faith communities participating fully in the life of the Church in Australia, 2006.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Social Justice Statement, The Challenge of Ageing, 1998 and the more recent Statement. A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society’, 2016-17. (Many older people live with disability and there is good crossover in some of our attitudes, systems and structures around old age and with disability more generally).

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1999). Though not an official Church document, this book, written by the founder of L’Arche Communities, is an insightful read about forming the common good by transforming our relationships with those we see as weak, different, foreign or inferior to ourselves.

You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

-1 Cor 12:27