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Community, Solidarity, and the Disabled

September 13, 2023


School has begun for my fifteen-year-old son, and he couldn’t be happier. His school is about thirty-five minutes from our home, and, unfortunately, all his friends live on the opposite side of the school from us. His class is a tight-knit group, and that means frequent long, and often late, commutes to and from their homes so he can attend gatherings on weekends or after school. Summer schedules have made those gatherings harder and rarer, so most of their face-time has been virtual. My son—unlike his parents—is overjoyed to be back in school’s daily grind, even with the long twice-daily commute.

William is the youngest of seven children and grew up with six mothers: my wife and his five older sisters. He was our daughters’ prince, and his feet barely touched the ground for the first several years of his life, at least until he got big enough that carrying him to-and-fro was difficult. William loves his friends and his family. Maybe because of his early upbringing surrounded by a house full of people, he treasures his community. It is important to him.

As members of the Body of Christ, most of us treasure our community of friends. We are tribal people, after all. God made us this way. Very few of us are called to be hermits, living in solitude and praying alone in a small cell every day. But even Carthusian monks who elect this eremitic life gather regularly for a long three- or four-hour walk (their spatiamentum), during which they can speak freely with one another and strengthen their fraternal bonds of friendship. They also have times of communal prayer, where they join their hearts, minds, and voices to praise God in worship before they return in silence to their solitary lives.

To remove community from individuals can be devastating, as we have all seen in the fallout from the pandemic lockdowns. During that time, when community life and human interaction—even going to Mass—was taken away from us, we experienced a steep increase in anxiety and depression, including increased drug use, self-harm, and suicide. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

The CDC has reported that in 2019, the percentage of Americans suffering from anxiety was between 7.4% and 8.6%, and depression was between 5.9% and 7.5%. From April 2020 to August 2021, the period of the pandemic, those numbers rose to 28.2% to 37.2% of Americans suffering from anxiety and 20.2% to 31.1% suffering from depression. Those statistics are shocking. In a fall 2022 poll, 90% of Americans agreed that we are experiencing a mental health crisis in the United States. The evidence around us is undeniable.

There is a resolution to loneliness. Community!

The mental health crisis in the typical population during the pandemic has been frequently discussed and well documented. There is another group, however, for whom isolation and its consequences are the norm but are rarely discussed. That is, persons living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, it was recently revealed that some individuals living with intellectual disabilities and autism had requested death and met the six criteria necessary for their wish to be granted. To quote from a Kingston University review of the cases, “Factors directly associated with intellectual disability and/or ASD (Autism spectrum disorder) were the sole cause of suffering described in 21% of cases and a major contributing factor in a further 42% of cases.” Furthermore, and relevant to the topic here, 77% of those individuals cited “loneliness and social isolation” as the reason for their appeal to the government to be killed. In one-third of the cases, the physicians stated that there was no chance of improvement in their condition because their disability isn’t treatable.

Please read those last two sentences again and let the reality sink in for a few moments. 

A large percentage of these people with intellectual disabilities and autism wanted to die because they were lonely and isolated, and the government doctors said there was no chance of improvement in their condition! Isn’t the deadly paradox strikingly self-evident? There is a resolution to loneliness. Community!

Many persons living with intellectual and developmental disabilities spend their lives with no community other than close family and paid caregivers. One study found that 61% of disabled people are chronically lonely, and 70% reported a significant increase in mental health issues as a result. The study also noted that the isolation due to the way the pandemic was managed exacerbated their situation, causing persons with disabilities to be disproportionately affected by the lockdowns.

Loneliness can have damaging consequences. According to a 2015 study, social isolation can increase mortality by 29% and loneliness by 26% in the general population. A 2020 study of the “Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness in Children with Neurodevelopmental Disabilities” showed that the negative consequences for children and adults with these disabilities are significant contributors to anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, and impediments to social-emotional development.

For a highly vulnerable population like those living with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the role of the Church in providing community is clear. Modeled for us in the book of Acts, especially chapter 2, the Body of Christ should shine in our society as a primary community of support for all its members.

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A core principle of Catholic social teaching is the principle of solidarity, and the Church presents Jesus of Nazareth as the “unsurpassed apex” of this principle. He is “one with humanity even to the point of ‘death on a cross,’” and he “takes on the infirmities of his people, walks with them, saves them and makes them one.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 196). There should be no loneliness in the Body of Christ, no “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, [there should be] a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” Those are the words of St. John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (38), in which he encourages us to take responsibility for the integral development of all people.

Yes, we are all really responsible for all. The strong for the weak, and the weak for the strong; the rich for the poor, and the poor for the rich; those strong in mind and body for those who are impaired and vice versa. That is the model for a community that understands the responsibilities that Jesus has given us in his Church. We all know this intellectually. Living it is a challenge.

It is easy for those like my young son to find support in a community of friends. It is not so easy for those who are different—those living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In a spirit of solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s be welcoming, especially to those whose impairments place them on the margins of our communities—and don’t forget their families too. Many have reported that they don’t feel welcome; in fact, about one-third have left their church and moved to another church community because of it. (The link provided gives statistics from Protestant churches, but we share the same experiences.) 

Please pray for those unfortunate individuals in the Netherlands, and especially for others in that country, that they don’t meet the same deadly fate. The consequences in our country are not the same, but the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation are a cause of real suffering. As our beloved St. John Paul II taught us, “We are all really responsible for all.”