Toward a theology of disability

By Patricia Mowbray

The Disability Projects Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is a much more all-encompassing ministry than one might imagine. It involves encouraging and promoting the full participation of people with disability, their families and friends in the faith life of our Church in Australia.

It’s all about taking our rightful place in the Body of Christ.

It is vital that we encourage and assist faith communities to discover and celebrate the beauty and strength of the Body of Christ. It is a call to create opportunities for participation in which everyone is valued, gifted and acknowledged.

It is in this recognition and rejoicing in each person’s gifts and weaknesses, and through the mutual giving and receiving in both good and bad times, that communities realise their potential of providing ‘real’ liberation and freedom through the Body of Christ.

People with disability and their families discover their authentic and visible place within the Body of Christ through the call and discovery of their own unique gifts. When our gifts and our weaknesses are acknowledged and freely shared, we empower each other to live out our Baptismal promises to evangelise, to love and to tell our Good News.

The Disability Projects Office is a work of the Bishops Conference and involves a wide range of tasks and issues. Our work can be anything from advocating for the inclusion and rights of people with disability in faith communities and society, supporting women after prenatal diagnosis to actively supporting our aboriginal brothers and sisters living with disability
The Office also supports the Australian Catholic Disability Council and its Deaf and Hard of Hearing Committee, two advisory bodies to the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life. Both the Council and Committee strive for full inclusion and active participation of all people with disability.

I came to this job in an unusual and prophetic kind of way. I have a background in education with a special interest and passion for disability and pastoral care. However, my real inspiration comes from my four adult children. My husband and I were blessed to have adopted our four children as tiny babies. Our three sons have Downs syndrome and our daughter, although diagnosed with serious health challenges, has grown into a young woman keen to experience all that life has to offer. Our journey together as a family has been graced with challenges, joys, tears, frustrations and laughter. It is a journey in love where vulnerability is the greatest lesson.

It is in this vein that we search for a true theology of disability and spirituality. Writers like Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement, are examples of people who have started to develop something of a theology around disability, and why it is essential that as a Church, we recognise the unique gifts people with disability bring.

Jean Vanier says in his book “Becoming Human” that, “There is a lack of synchronicity between our society and people with disabilities. A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.

“Those who see the heart only as a place of weakness will be fearful of their own hearts. For them, the heart is a place of pain and anguish, of chaos and of transitory emotions. So they reject those who live essentially by their hearts, who cannot develop the same intellectual and rational capacities as others.” (Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 46)

For him, his deepest experience of communion with God was living in community with people who had a wide range of abilities. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian and writer, had a similar experience through the L’Arche movement. He wrote,“The question is not, ‘How can we help people with disability?’ The much more important question is, ‘How can we allow people with disability to give their spiritual gifts to us and call us to conversion, call us to wholeness, call us to love?’”(Open Hearts, Open Minds)

Both of these men saw the profound exclusion of people with disability and their families, and through their lives, aimed to help the most vulnerable, the most unable to speak for themselves to find a voice and a place in the Body of Christ. And the experience changed them profoundly.

As faith communities, we are one body and through Baptism, we are in solidarity as we journey together with our diverse personalities, struggles and gifts. It is my hope and dream that our Office will not only improve the physical access challenges faced by our faith communities, but also open our hearts to each other, so that we are all called to conversion, all called to love and all called to wholeness.