If you read this post on Msgr. Pope’s blog, you will find many of his other outstanding reflections. For your convenience it is copied below with his kind permission.
Accepting the Disabled in a World Obsessed with Physical Perfection
By: Msgr. Charles Pope (posted with permission – source)
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Pope Francis recently lamented the obsession of modern society with perfect bodies. Although our first thought on contemplating this might be cosmetics and plastic surgery, he was actually speaking about our increasing rejection of the disabled and the sick.
This rejection is perhaps most sadly evidenced by the fact that more than 90% of unborn children with a “poor prenatal diagnosis” are aborted. Perhaps the parents are informed that their child will have Down Syndrome, or maybe that the child has a birth defect that will lead to a lifetime of challenges or even to an early death.
The pressure on such families to abort is often enormous. They are told, “It’s the right thing to do,” or, “You shouldn’t make the child suffer.” Some are even made to feel that they are doing something unethical by bringing forth such children. In addition, parents are often pressured to make a decision quickly; doctors often want the decision to terminate made within a matter of days.
Is there such a thing as a life not worth living? Many in our culture seem to believe that there is. There has arisen the tragically ironic idea that death is a form of therapy, that an appropriate treatment for disabled unborn children is to kill them. Of course death is neither a treatment nor a therapy; it cannot be considered an acceptable solution for the one who loses his or her life. Yet this is often the advice that parents in this situation are given.
All of this “advice” and pressure goes a long way toward explaining why more than 90% of unborn children with a poor prenatal diagnosis are aborted. We in the Church cannot remain silent in the face of this; we must reach out compassionately to families experiencing such a crisis. Many of them are devastated by the news that their baby may have serious disabilities. Often they descend into shock and are overwhelmed by fear, conflicting feelings, and even anger towards God or others. Sometimes the greatest gifts we can give them are time, information, and the framework of faith. Simply considering some of the following may help:
- Despite what parents are told, there is no rush. Serious, life-changing decisions should never have to be made within a short time period. Pressure should not be applied to families (by medical personnel or others); doing so is a grave injustice.
- Prenatal diagnoses are not always accurate. We often think of medicine as an exact science; it is not. Data can be misinterpreted and predictions can be wrong. Further, there is a difference between the result of a screening and an actual diagnosis. A screening can point to a potential problem and assess its probability, but it is not a diagnosis. Further study is always called for if a screening indicates a possible issue. Sometimes, further tests after a screening reveal that in fact there isn’t a problem at all.
- As the Pope pointed out, disabilities are not always as terrible as we, in our insistence on perfection, might imagine. Many people with disabilities live very full lives and are a tremendous gift to their families, the Church, and the world. Providing families with more information about disabilities and connecting them with other families who have experience is essential in helping them to avoid the doomsday mentality that sometimes sets in when an adverse prenatal diagnosis is received.
- It is vital to connect the faithful with the most basic truths of our Christian faith. The cross is an absurdity to this world, but to those of the Christian faith it brings life and blessings in spite of the pain. Were it not for our crosses, most of us could never be saved. Raising a disabled child is not easy, but God never fails. He can make a way out of no way; He can do anything except fail. My own sister, Mary Anne, was mentally ill and carried a cross. We, her family, had a share in that cross. But Mary Anne brought blessings to us as well. In fact, I don’t know if I’d be a priest today if it had not been for her. I’m sure that I wouldn’t be as compassionate, and I doubt that I could be saved were it not for the important lessons Mary Anne taught me. I know that she brought out strength and mercy, not to mention humility, from all of us in the family. Her cross and ours brought grace, strength, and many personal gifts to all of us. The cross is painful, but it brings life as well. Easter Sunday is not possible without Good Friday. Yes, to the world the cross is an absurdity. To us who believe, it is salvation, life, and our only real hope; it is our truest glory to carry it as Christ did.
- Disability is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Disability exists on a continuum. All of us are disabled in some way. Some of us have serious weight problems; others are diabetic, have high blood pressure, or experience heart problems. Some are intellectually challenged in certain areas. Others struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, or compulsion. Some experience a loss of mobility as a result of an accident or just due to the aging process. The fact is, all of us have abilities and disabilities. Some disabilities are more visible than others; some are more serious than others. But in most cases, we are able to adjust and still live reasonably full lives. We may not be able to do all that we would like, but life still has blessings for us. And even our weaknesses and disabilities can, and do, bring us blessings by helping to keep us humble. How much disability is too much? Can we really be the judge of that? Can we really decide for someone else that his or her life is not worth living?
- Life is often not what it seems. In this world, we value things like wealth, ability, strength, and power. But God is not all that impressed by these sorts of things. God has a special place for the poor and the humble. The Lord has said that many who are last in this life will be first in the next (cf Mat 19:30). There is a great reversal coming, wherein the mighty will be cast down and the lowly raised up. We may look upon those who suffer disability with a misplaced sense of pity, but they are going to be the exalted ones in the kingdom of Heaven. As we accept the disabled and the needy in our midst, we are accepting those who will be royalty in Heaven. We ought to learn to look up to them, to beg their prayers, and to hope that hanging on their coattails may help us to attain some of the glory they will specially enjoy. The world may refuse to see their dignity, but we who believe cannot fail to remember that the last shall be first. Yes, life is not always what it seems.
What about those who aborted their babies? We as a Church cannot avoid our responsibility to declare the dignity and worth of the disabled. More than ever, our world needs the Church’s testimony, for this 90% statistic is a startling one. But even as we witness to the dignity of the disabled and to the wrongness of abortion, we must also embrace those who chose abortion and now struggle with that decision. We are called to reconcile and to bring healing to all who have faced this crisis and fallen. Many were pressured and felt alone and afraid. We offer this embrace through confession and through healing ministries like Project Rachel, which offers counseling, spiritual direction, support groups, and prayer services. Even as the Church speaks out against abortion, she must also reconcile those who have fallen under the weight of these heavy issues.
Tomorrow I will write a little bit more on this topic and present a parable of sorts. [READ IT BELOW]
Here are some resources for more information:
- National Catholic Partnership on Disability
- Project Rachel (Post-abortion healing)
- Be Not Afraid (Online outreach to parents who have received a difficult prenatal diagnosis)
- Parental Partners for Life (Support information and encouragement for carrying to term with an adverse prenatal diagnosis, and support for raising your child with special needs after birth)
Allow me to begin with a simple parable. Every now and then I take a perfectly good paper clip and untwist it, reconfiguring it for some other purpose. Once, I used them to hang Christmas ornaments on my tree. Another time I fashioned a paperclip into a hook to keep my broken file drawer from rolling open. Now if paperclips could see or think, they might be horrified and saddened to see a fellow paperclip so deformed. Perhaps I could try to explain that not only were their “deformed” brethren not a disaster, they were actually quite useful and important to me in their condition. But alas, paperclips can’t understand this; they just “look on” with sadness and horror. After all, how can you expect a paperclip to understand any function other than holding together sheets of paper? They can’t understand things beyond the world that they know.
I have often wondered if this isn’t somewhat analogous to our understanding of things such as disability, birth defects, and the personal challenges of some of our fellow humans. As we look upon the disabled, the handicapped, the deformed, and the mentally ill, we are often moved to sadness and even horror. And we sometimes ask why God allows this. We often conclude that such people’s lives are unhappy or that they will never reach their full potential.
And yet I wonder if we really know what we’re talking about. Who of us can really say what our own purpose is in God’s plan is, let alone anyone else’s? We are like paperclips; we know only one thing. Our minds are too small to ever comprehend the very special and significant role that even the most “impaired” in our world play. Perhaps in Heaven we will realize what indispensable and central roles they had in God’s plan and His victory. Of all the paperclips in my drawer, some of the most useful to me are the ones I’ve twisted and refashioned.
A knowledge too high – I pray that you will accept my humble example of a paperclip. I mean no disrespect to humanity in comparing us to paperclips. We are surely more precious and complicated and God does not use us cavalierly like paperclips. But my example must be humble in order to illustrate what is a knowledge too high for us to grasp: the dignity and essential purpose of every human being to God and His plan.
Our judgment in this matter isn’t much better than that of a paperclip, when compared to God’s omniscient wisdom. If it is absurd for us to imagine that a paperclip could understand our ways, is it any less absurd to think we can understand God’s ways? And if we can’t understand His ways, then why do we make judgments as to another person’s role, usefulness, beatitude, or status?
It is easy for us to look down on the poor, but Scripture says that we should look up to them. God is especially close to the poor, the suffering, the brokenhearted, and the humble. Scripture says that God uses the lowly to humble the proud. And yet we so easily look with pity on those we consider disadvantaged.
Over twenty years ago, I worked for a year with the profoundly mentally disabled. They lay in beds and wheelchairs, often having little control over their muscles. None of them could talk and only a few could engage in even the most rudimentary communication. There was one man in his forties who had never emerged from a fetal position. He lay in a large crib, his tiny yet clearly adult body curled up like a newborn. But on his face was an angelic smile that almost never diminished.
He had been baptized as an infant and to my knowledge could not have sinned. Each visit, I looked with marvel upon his innocent and beatific countenance. What an astonishing gift he was! And who knows, except God, why he was this way? But God does know; I think He had very important reasons for permitting this. There was something central and indispensable in this man’s existence, some role that only he could fill. Apparently I was not able to fill it.
In this sense he was not disabled—he was differently abled, uniquely abled for something out of the ordinary. Looking upon him, I had little doubt that he was directly in touch with God in a way that I never had been; his radiant face conveyed that. With our human eyes we can be saddened, even appalled. But we’ll understand it better someday. One day, in the great by and by, we may be surprised to learn that the most critical people in God’s plan were the most humble and the most broken, and that we would never have made it without them.
This video depicts the paradox of disability that sometimes shines through to teach us that we do not see the whole picture. Patrick Henry Hughes was born with significant defects, but as he grew, remarkable gifts showed forth. This is just a little reminder from God, a glimpse of what God sees. To Him, the disabled are differently and wonderfully abled.