A new challenge for the Church

The full integration of persons with disabilities into the life of the Church is presented as "a new challenge for the Church" and for society. So says Antonio Martínez-Pujalte, PhD in Law from the University of Valencia and Professor of Philosophy of Law at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, that  reflects on this work in Omnes. 

Antonio-Luis Martínez-Pujalte-December 27, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

The Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life has recently published an interesting document, The Church is our homeThe result of the participation in the synodal journey of a group of people with disabilities from different countries of the five continents.

This is a particularly significant document, especially insofar as it represents the assumption of the new paradigm advocated by the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - even if it is not expressly mentioned - which must also be reflected in the Church.

A new paradigm that implies moving away from the traditional welfare vision that considered people with disabilities only as passive recipients of the assistance that others should provide them, to establish them as full protagonists of social life, who must exercise their rights and responsibilities on an equal footing with all other people.

Characteristic of the new paradigm is also to emphasize the individuality of people with disabilities, far from any prejudice or stereotype: people with disabilities are no better or worse than others.

They are not, as has sometimes been thought in the Church, either sinners or angelic beings blessed by their suffering: they are normal people, with their qualities and their defects, with their desires and preferences, which deserve the same respect as those of all other people.

It is evident that the old paradigm has been and continues to be present in the life of the Church, as well as in the entire society that surrounds it. The document refers in this sense to the paternalistic attitude that has presided over the way we look at people with disabilities, which has even led us to see them as already saints or "Christs on the cross" because of their condition of disability, forgetting that they are, like all other Christians, simple believers in need of conversion. And he cites some concrete manifestations of exclusion, mainly two: the denial of sacraments to people with disabilities, which is done for many different reasons.from prejudice about the ability to understand the nature of the sacrament, to the uselessness of offering reconciliation to those who already atone for their sins by their own suffering, to prejudice about the ability to express definitive consent, to the lack of a deep pastoral approach that uses all the senses to facilitate communication."and the segregation of many people with disabilities in care institutions, not few of them governed by Church-related organizations, where their wishes are not taken into account and basic rights and freedoms are often restricted.

A change of mentality is therefore necessary. And not because it is fashionable, because it is politically correct or because it is indicated by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. On the contrary, it is a matter of assuming the profound meaning of the intrinsic dignity of every human being-and, in the Church, of every member of the faithful-which demands the full affirmation of their radical equality and, consequently, the guarantee of the equal participation of all and the equal exercise of their rights.

This paradigm has very concrete consequences: for example, in relation to the access of persons with intellectual disabilities to sacramental communion, the new paradigm would oppose denying communion to persons with intellectual disabilities by presupposing an insufficient degree of discernment, as has often been done, and would require trying to offer them the explanation of the sacrament that is accessible to them, bearing in mind also that, as Benedict XVI already pointed out in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (n. 58), regardless of their degree of understanding, receive the sacrament in the faith of the Church.

The new paradigm must also manifest itself in language, which is not trivial, as it contributes to the dissemination of a new mentality or the perpetuation of the old one: in this sense, it is necessary to avoid any denomination that substantivizes disability, and always put the condition of the person first. Hence the appropriateness of the expression "persons with disabilities". And we must also avoid equating disability with suffering: disability is a condition of the person, which in itself does not necessarily generate any suffering -in many cases, on the contrary, it stimulates the desire to overcome-, and which in the vast majority of cases is fully compatible with joy and a dignified and happy life. 

Moreover, in order for people with disabilities to fully exercise their rights and responsibilities within the Church, accessibility is an unavoidable requirement, which is the condition that buildings, spaces, products and services must have so that they can be used by all people in conditions of equality and as autonomously as possible. As the document highlights, this is still a pending issue, beginning with the very frequent existence of physical barriers for people with reduced mobility in accessing churches. 

But accessibility is not only understood as physical accessibility; there is no accessibility to education for the blind, for example, if there are no texts written in Braille; accessibility for the deaf is not guaranteed if there are no sign language interpreters at liturgical celebrations and if there are no confessors able to hear confessions in sign language; or there is no accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities if easy-to-read texts are not used or if homilies do not use clear, simple and accessible language for all (which, by the way, would benefit not only people with intellectual disabilities).

The document also calls for the full participation of persons with disabilities in the life and governance of the Church. In particular, they should participate in those bodies that deal specifically with disability. "Nothing for people with disabilities without people with disabilities."This motto, which has guided most movements of people with disabilities for more than fifty years, is also reflected in the text, and is entirely reasonable, since it is people with disabilities who know best their own needs and demands.

We find ourselves, then, before a new challenge for the Church: the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in its pastoral action. And the objective is not, of course, that there should be a specialized pastoral care for persons with disabilities, much less specialized pastoral care for the different types of disabilities, but that attention should be given to persons with disabilities in the ordinary pastoral care of the Church. 

However, in order to achieve this objective, I believe that it would be very necessary to create, at the different levels of government, sections or organizations specifically dedicated to disability (episcopal delegations in the dioceses, at least in the most important ones, commissions in the episcopal conferences, etc.), since there is much work to be done: accessibility must be promoted in the different areas, the new paradigm we have spoken about in these lines must be transmitted to all priests and also to the laity, etc.

But this is an exciting challenge, which, in addition to being an integral part of the new evangelization, will constitute a clear and living message against the "throwaway culture" so often denounced by Pope Francis.

Ultimately, including people with disabilities means nothing other than assuming the full consequences of the universality of the redemption worked by Christ.

In this regard, the document aptly quotes the phrase of Gaudium et Spes, n. 22: "The Son of God by his incarnation has united himself, in a certain way, with every man." Jesus Christ has also been united with disability, which is a characteristic of the human condition.

The authorAntonio-Luis Martínez-Pujalte

D. in Law from the University of Valencia and Professor of Philosophy of Law at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche.

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