Rebooting pastoral care in the image of our disabled God

Francis Davis

This article questions whether a culture of secular beauty pervades the Church, such that people with disabilities are routinely marginalised.

We need a theology of disability writes Francis Davis, Professor of Religion, Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham, and from 2017-18 was Ministerial Advisor for Disability Issues.

It says something of the power of certain advocacy groups, even in religious circles, that media coverage linked to the 2018 Youth Synod in Rome captured disputes surrounding sexuality, marriage and ordination but at no stage even hovered gently around the lives, significance and potential of disabled people of any age. In fact the Synod’s preparatory documents combined their assessment of those with disabilities with those ‘sick’ and suffering. Survey the websites of most British dioceses and the pattern is sustained with annual Masses for the ‘sick and disabled’ and pilgrimages to ‘cure’ or ‘heal’ disabled people a constant feature of Catholic life. Disabled people appear as among those whom Catholics should care about before birth but rarely in episcopal articulations of rights or justice after birth. They are omnipresent in ideas of ‘concern’ and yet all the struggles for recognition they have won in society are almost perfectly ignored in the Church. At a distance all of this is statistically, morally and theologically striking: There are almost as many disabled people globally as there are Catholics.

According to the World Report on Disability1, people with disabilities number somewhere just over one billion. Hardly a week goes by when the international health community does not seek to mark this via its own secular liturgical cycle of awareness-raising. World, national, and community days for particular disabilities abound, emphasising the reality that disability is a human experience from which no-one can hide. A full 15% of humanity lives with diverse disabilities too often stereotyped by the image of a wheelchair user, or a child with a learning disability. Survey the ranks of the international Catholic hierarchy though and that number falls away below 2%.

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