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Jana BennettJune 27, 2024
Pope Francis blesses a woman as he greets people who have disabilities following Mass in St. Peter’s Square on June 17, 2013. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The recently released Vatican document “Dignitas Infinita” attracted much discussion and debate related to its statements about gender ideology and sex change therapy. Yet there is much more in this declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that deserves attention. It states, for example:

[The] condition of those experiencing physical or mental limitations warrants special attention and concern. Such conditions of acute vulnerability—which feature prominently in the Gospels—prompt universal questions about what it means to be a human person, especially starting from the condition of impairment or disability…. However, the truth is that each human being, regardless of their vulnerabilities, receives his or her dignity from the sole fact of being willed and loved by God. [No. 53]

While “Dignitas Infinita” notes that human beings have dignity simply because of God’s all-encompassing love, the declaration also recognizes that questions of human dignity are involved in any discussions related to disability.

A necessary conversation

As someone who writes and teaches about disability, I typically encounter one of two assumptions from friends and fellow academics on the subject. One is that disability theology is merely a trendy academic movement, just another form of identity politics. A second is that disability theology is mostly pastoral in nature, mostly aimed at some rather small, unfortunate group of people who need care, charity and sometimes social justice action in order to be fully included in society and the church itself.

In my estimation, neither of these responses demonstrates an adequate understanding of either disability or theology. Disability has a much broader meaning. People often use the word to refer to a consistent physical, cognitive or developmental challenge that affects life on a consistent, usually daily, basis. Disability may include both the visible characteristics that we often think about (using a wheelchair or cane, or having a disability that features noticeable tics) and invisible conditions such as low vision or hearing loss, autism, chronic illnesses like diabetes, and depression.

Having a disability does not necessarily mean people are unable to complete a task or participate in an activity, but they may need for the activity or task to be made more accessible to them. In fact, many scholars writing on disability suggest that the issue is less the disability and more the ways that society dis-enables people from full participation. The church can be as much an instigator of dis-enabling practices as secular places, including in its sacramental practice and its lack of welcome and support for caregivers and disabled people alike.

Related to the two main responses I mentioned above, it is important to note that disability may be an identity marker for some—especially those who find themselves in a society that wants them not to exist. Proudly carrying that identity may be important. Particular disabilities may need care in varying degrees, but it is not at all clear that caregiving (and charity with it) ought to be the primary way that we interact with each other. The breadth of disabilities—and their impacts on people’s lives—means that we need to shift from thinking about disability as relating to only a small number of people to an understanding that all of us are likely to be disabled at some point in our lives. When we recognize that disability is in fact close at hand, treating someone with the intrinsic dignity mentioned in “Dignitas Infinita” takes on a heightened and more pressing character.

Discussions around disability are critical for understanding the church’s theology, particularly with regard to the concept of the imago Dei, the belief, drawn from Scripture, that emphasizes that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and so bear something of the divine in them. So too does “Dignitas Infinita” focus on the idea that our infinite dignity exists precisely because we are made in the image and likeness of God. However, this concept also presents challenges for thinking about disability.

Theological considerations of disability cannot be dismissed as mere politics or simple charity. If we wish to embrace Christian belief and practice, our theological conversation must include open discussions of disability. The following three views of the imago Dei and their implications are important for any discussion of disability and its theological considerations.

The intellect

What does it mean to say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God? St. Augustine’s answer in the fifth century was that we are like other animals in many respects but different in one: our soul, based in our intellect. There are different accounts of what it means to have an intellect, but suggestions include that we have free will, that we remember, and that we can reason. St. Thomas Aquinas followed in the Summa Theologiae, quoting Augustinethat “[m]an’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul which raises him above the beasts of the field.”

This focus on intellect raises its own questions. Does having an intellect mean that I am able to think about the world with a certain kind of logic, to assert my will and my choices in the world? If that is the case, then Christians need to account for how those who do not display such thought patterns might be made in God’s image. This is true not only for cognitively impaired people, but also infants and people with Alzheimer’s and similar conditions.

The church’s language can be confusing on this point; there are times when rationality is downplayed and other times when rationality is required. “Dignitas Infinita” says that “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions” (No. 29), and also asserts that a person’s rational nature allows us to “exercis[e] the freedom to cultivate the riches of our nature, [to] grow over time” (No. 9). We can make choices, love, know, desire. At the same time, “Dignitas Infinita” insists that “[e]ven if a person is unable to exercise these capabilities due to various limitations or conditions, nevertheless the person always subsists as an ‘individual substance’ with a complete and inalienable dignity” (No. 9).

Nevertheless, the church’s tradition has often relied on particular views of rationality in dealing with people with disabilities. A crucial example is in the sacramental theology of Latin Rite churches. Canon law states that “the administration of the most holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion” (Canon 913). This law relates as well to the question of whether someone is able to have moral discernment and make free choices, and has been used to prevent children with significant disabilities from receiving the sacrament of reconciliation or Communion. When parents and other caregivers are expected to seek out special permission to the Eucharistic table for their disabled children (including children who are autistic, deaf or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), they can be made to feel like oddities or temporary guests, which is not in tune with the basic vision of dignity and worth for human beings.

Relationships

A second view of the imago Dei emphasizes that we exist in relationship with each other just as the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—exists as relationship. Our relationships with each other demonstrate the ways we are images of God.

The Trinity is inextricably relational. To use language from the Apostle’s Creed, the Son is always begotten of the Father. Though the Son was revealed to us in Jesus Christ in a particular time and location, the divinity of Christ is eternally present as God. The Holy Spirit “proceeds from” the Father and the Son always, indicating the everlasting existence of the third person of the Trinity. Just as God always exists in Trinitarian relationship, so too we are made to be in relationship with God and with each other.

Pope Francis has linked human relationships to intrinsic human dignity. “Dignitas Infinita” quotes him on this subject before noting: “Based on this recognition and acceptance of human dignity, a new coexistence among people can be established that develops social relationships in the context of authentic fraternity” (No. 6). Part of what marks me as human is that I am born from other human beings and into a God-given human community that existed before I was born. In that community, I am formed into a way of life and culture that fosters particular kinds of relationships.

The church fosters particular kinds of relationships that indicate some aspect of the imago Dei. One primary example is marriage: Each member of a couple offers a self-gift of love to the other. For those who are not in marital relationships, self-gift can be offered as a gift of love to the world.

In disability theology, an emphasis on nuptial terminology brings concerns. One of the concerns for either the marital self-gift or the celibate self-gift is whether there is an implied understanding of the use of reason and will in order to be able to offer such a self-gift to another human being, which then simply brings us back to the considerations I mentioned earlier. Further, people with disabilities are sometimes dissuaded from marriage out of a belief that cognitive function (and therefore consent) are not operative. This can be the case even if disabilities are not necessarily cognitive in nature; hearing loss, for instance, does not necessarily indicate unawareness of consent, but it is sometimes taken as evidence of cognitive decline.

As an alternative to nuptial love, some emphasize the relationship of friendship for people with disabilities as one that signifies the imago Dei. Friendship is less specific than the marital relationship, but it also enables thinking about reciprocal love. The key question here is the extent to which friendship relies on particular kinds of human reason and will. For example, does friendship require an ability to act toward, and in response to, another person? If it does, if we must be fully active participants in these relationships, what about people with specific disabilities that prevent such active participation? Are they not made in the image of God?

It is also a reality that many people respond out of fear to disability. It is difficult to consider for oneself the possibility of losing sight, hearing, cognition, use of limbs and more. This can affect our desires to have relationships with others, especially those who do not have the sight, hearing, cognition, use of limbs and more that we desire. It is fear that often prevents people with disabilities from being voted into parish councils, taking on authority in leading parish programs and more. Relationships, even among Christians, can emphasize our fears of the other rather than being expressions of love and joy.

Embodied limits

A third way to consider the imago Dei has roots in Aquinas as well as the work of 20th-century theologians like Herbert McCabe, O.P., and Deborah Creamer. This third way flips our vision of the image of God. Rather than beginning by contemplating how it is that we have incomparable dignity, what if we begin first from the realization that we are not God? This is how Aquinas begins his major theological treatise. Father McCabe suggests in his book Faith Within Reason: “God is not any character in the drama of the universe but the author of the universe, the mystery of wisdom which we know of but cannot begin to understand.” Dr. Creamer similarly reminds us in her book Disability and Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities that human beings are creatures with limits; we are not immortal, we are not omnipotent, we are not God.

Only when we have recognized that we are not God—only when God is where no one else can be—can we then begin to understand the incomparable dignity and worth of human beings, who are made out of nothing but the love of God. I admit, this is my favored view of the imago Dei, in part because when we begin with our utter non-God-ness, we confront our limits.

These limits of what it means to be human in turn remind us of our kinship with all other human beings, including and especially those with disabilities. As I mentioned earlier, we need to understand disability in a broad enough way that recognizes that each one of us might one day be disabled, either temporarily or permanently. A theology of limits nurtures a similar vision.

“Dignitas Infinita” suggests that “every effort should be made to encourage the inclusion and active participation of those who are affected by frailty or disability in the life of society and of the church” (No. 53). Our theology of the imago Dei most definitely affects that endeavor. In order to meaningfully think and reflect about God and what it means to be made in God’s image, we must also consider what it means to be disabled human beings.

Understanding that all of us are limited could perhaps open more room for thinking better about relationships; the limits of even the person with the supposed smartest intellect, best physique, or the sharpest wit; sacramental accessibility; disabled peoples’ leadership in the church; and other aspects that have prevented people with disabilities from living fully as people with dignity and worth. I lift it up here as a suggestion in a centuries-long conversation about what it means to be made in God’s image.

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