On June 16, at their plenary meeting in Orlando, Florida, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved the drafting of a new pastoral statement to address the role of persons with disabilities in the life of the Church. The document will be prepared under the oversight of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth. The chairman of that committee is Bishop Robert Barron.
The bishops’ last pastoral statement on persons with disabilities was published forty-five years ago in 1978. They reaffirmed that statement on its tenth anniversary and then published a revision a year later in 1989. Then in 1995 they published Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities to encourage provisions that would enable “persons with disabilities to participate fully in the Eucharist and other liturgical celebrations.”
A lot has changed in the last forty-five years, and while great strides have been made in some areas, there is still a lot to accomplish to realize the goals of these earlier documents. We can anticipate that the new statement will incorporate current language related to disability, and we can hope for a more nuanced theological context for understanding the dignity of persons with disabilities. I am certain there will be an aspirational, inclusive perspective of their role in the life of the Church.
There is an inherent risk in attempting to address disability, and that is to homogenize the community at the upper levels of ability. It is difficult in a brief statement to take on the hard task of reaching deeply into the beautifully broad and diverse reality that is the community of Catholics who are living with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities.
To address the lesser impaired misses the mark for those families who are living with profound disability. How does the Church reach out to them to offer support, opportunity for worship, the strength of the sacraments, and relief from the exhaustion they face every day? How do we identify families who have fallen off the parish register because for years it has just been too hard to get to Mass, or who stopped coming because they had an unwelcoming reaction at Mass to a family member who lacks physical or vocal control?
The 1978 pastoral statement suggested a census to identify parishioners with disabilities, but we will have to dig deeper than that to find them. Dated statistics from a 2004 survey of various religious traditions indicate that only 44 percent of adults with severe disabilities reported attending a place of worship once a month, compared to 57 percent of people without disabilities. Tragically, one out of three parents have changed their place of worship because their child wasn’t included or welcomed. Again, these are not specifically Catholic statistics but are representative of several religious traditions (see here).
A truly meaningful statement from the bishops will address this challenge of finding these Catholic families and encouraging them to come back to church. The Body of Christ is incomplete without them.
I am convinced that attitudes toward disability are generational, and that to prepare a more welcoming and inclusive future in the Church, we must focus on inclusive Catholic education in parish and diocesan schools. Publicly funded schools have been mandated under the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004” to provide a free and appropriate public education for all students that meets the unique educational needs of children with learning differences. The result has been that now, about two-thirds of students with learning differences in public schools are in classes with their typical peers about eighty percent of the time. To have typical kids sitting side-by-side in classes with kids with intellectual disabilities normalizes the relationship and begins to change attitudes from an early age.
In my view, the bishops should encourage more Catholic schools to follow the public school model and work toward inclusion in schools as a pathway to broader inclusion of those with disabilities in parish life. Some are doing this already. Organizations like the All Belong Center for Inclusive Education work with Christ-centered schools (many Catholic) to assist them in implementing a plan to include children living with disabilities into their schools. Parent-founded schools like Immaculata Classical Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, provide excellent models of what can be done in private Catholic education.
Lastly, the 1978 document mentions the right to life and the challenge of abortion and postnatal neglect. However, the current medical culture around prenatal care and routine prenatal screening is presenting a tremendous threat to the lives of babies who have been diagnosed in the womb with a disability. In 1978, prenatal diagnosis wasn’t as widespread and included an invasive test (amniocentesis) to diagnose a disability. The current standard is to screen using what is called a noninvasive test that claims a high degree of accuracy in diagnosing several genetic anomalies with a simple maternal blood test.
The threat to prenatal life has never been greater, and the new statement would be incomplete without acknowledging this threat to families and the necessity of making known resources to assist families in the event that a test returns a positive result.
Much gratitude is owed to the bishops for voting to move the process forward of developing a new document that addresses the needs of individuals living with disabilities and their families in the Church. This is a great opportunity to utilize the many resources available to provide the most helpful and comprehensive statement that will guide pastors and parishes over the next several years. We can all look forward to seeing the final result.