The Catholic Church People with Disabilities

"People with physical or psychological handicaps number, in effect, about 500 million, but many of these, unfortunately,
do not yet have the benefit of the necessary services....

Public opinion, which devotes space and attention to passing themes, styles and customs, does not take adequate interest in such a serious problem....there is still a great deal left to be done to overcome the cultural, social and architectural barriers which hinder people with disabilities from realizing their legitimate aspirations....
entrusting purely discretional assistance to the generosity of some people is not enough....

International law clearly acknowledges that every human person has basic rights which are inalienable, inviolable and indivisible....

St. Paul in speaking of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ,
reminds that "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it" (1 Cor 12:26)....

The family, state and Church, three important structures of human society, are asked to make their own specific contribution towards the development of the culture of solidarity so that people with disabilities can become authentic and free agents of their own existence....

attention for those in need must always aim at further involving the whole ecclesial community, so that each person, and particularly the one in difficulty, can be fully integrated into the life of the family of believers"

(Pope John Paul II, The Inalienable Rights of the Disabled, 11/21/93)

Disability Ministry is a Sacred Concern.


In Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II reaffirms the sacredness of human life, contrasting the Culture of Death with the Culture of Life. At the root of the Culture of Death, he recognizes a devaluing of human life. Where life is not recognized as sacred, it becomes a means and not an end. Where a human life stands in the way of what is desired, disregarding that life, discarding that life, or eliminating that life becomes acceptable. This is readily apparent in the stories of drug wars and drive-by-shootings that fill our newspapers, as well as in horrible stories of violence by and against teens.

Some manifestations of the Culture of Death receive near universal condemnation. The Culture of Death also has a more insidious form, with crimes against life performed by people, who are seen as "respectable" and not "criminal." Where the sacredness of all human life is not accepted, heinous acts can even be promoted as beneficial and noble. A child of pre-Word War II Europe, the Holy Father is intimately aware that the Nazis promoted euthanasia as a "humanitarian" service for people with disabilities. Currently, one group of people with disabilities tries to alert us to the reincarnation of that Nazi lie, reminding us that they are "Not Dead Yet! " The Vatican is acutely aware that the presence or possible presence of disability is used in fatally flawed attempts to justify both euthanasia and abortion.

The National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities is an invaluable promoter of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church concerning people with disabilities.  More than twenty-five years ago, the Catholic Bishops of the United States began to specifically remind us that our treatment of people with disabilities announced whether we stood for the Culture of Death or the Culture of Life. The Bishops ' Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities clariffies that we have no option but to stand for life and the defense of vulnerable people. To be sure that this witness carried into our liturgical lives, the bishops gave us Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilites. The inclusion of people with disabilities is not simply a matter of generosity but a matter of justice:

"Our defense of life and rejection of the culture of death requires that we acknowledge the dignity and positive contributions of our brothers and sisters with disabilities. We unequivocally oppose negative attitudes toward disability which often lead to abortion, medical rationing, and euthanasia."
(Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities ,11/98).

Rather than a new or novel idea, the right of people with disabilities to receive the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is emphatically stated in the Code of Canon Law:

"There is a proper & serious duty, especially on the part of pastors of souls, to provide for the catechesis of the Christian people so that the faith of the faithful becomes living, explicit and productive through formation in doctrine and the experience of Christian living"
(Canon 773).

So serious a charge is by no means annuled, when it comes to people with disabilites:

"In accord with the norms established by the diocesan bishop,
the pastor is to make particular provision:
...that catechetical formation also be given
to those handicapped in body or mind
insofar as their condition permits"
(Canon 777)

Concern about people with disabilities permeates Church teaching - particularly the writings and talks of Pope John Paul II.  What follows is a brief sampling:

1.) As the family is society's principal unit, the Holy Father calls for special concern for families of people with disabilitie (Familiaris Consortio).  He has reminded us that people who are Mentally Ill are Also Made in God's Image and that "the pain [that we]... witness [should be] the measure of the dedicated response expected."  The Holy Father opened a Vatican conference on Families & Children with Disabilities.

2.) Recognizing that people with disabilites are especially vulnerable to unemployment and underemployment, the Holy Father calls upon society to ensure their dignity in the world of work (Laborem Exercens).  In Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Bishops echoed this call.

3.) In a world of seemingly baffling medical technologies, the Vatican provides a Charter for Health Care Workers, reminding us of the sacredness of all human life.


One study (Archdiocese of Seattle, Origins 24(13)) found parishes to typically report less than ten members with a disability. The Holy Father's worldwide count of 500 million people with disabilities is in keeping with other estimates of 15 - 20% for the population.



Is there not a great need for outreach and evangelization to our brothers and sisters with disabilities? In reflecting upon the approach of the Third Millennium, our Holy Father reminded us:

"Acknowledging the weakness of the past is an act of honesty & courage which helps us to strengthen our faith,
which alerts us to face today's temptations & challenges &
prepares us to meet them....
Among the sins which require a greater commitment
to repentance & conversion should certainly be counted
those which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for His people."


Throughout two thousand years of Catholic Church history, numerous clerics, religious, and lay people have devoted themselves to people with disabilities. Numerous people with disabilities have also been among the Church's clerics, religious and lay faithful.

The Church recognizes certain canonized saints to be the patrons of certain groups of people with disabilities. For example, Saint Francis de Sales is recognized as the patron saint for Deaf people. Yet, some soon-to-be or newly recognized saints seem to also have particular interest in Deaf and hard of hearing people. Filippo Smaldone, canonized in May 1996, was a 19th & 20th century Italian priest who founded an order of nuns devoted to Deaf people. Mother Katharine Drexel was a 19th & 20th century American heiress, who founded a religious community. Though not known for work among Deaf or hard of hearing people during her lifetime, both of her Vatican verified miracles concern people with a hearing loss in the greater Philadelphia area. It is interesting that this champion of social justice has highlighted the needs of people with hearing losses.


Promoting acceptance, accessibility,and the inestimable value of people with disabilities is pro-life work, in which the Church should be leading the way. Unfortunately, some Church-related facilities may instead be in violation of civil mandates.  

"A Loving Justice: The Moral &
Legal Responsibilities of the U.S.Catholic Church under the Americans with Disabilities Act" is available from the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act calls for non-discrimination and accessibility in







We need to understand these needs and concerns, to plan for the inclusion of all our brother and sisters with disabilities.  What practical steps can we take to help people get closer to Jesus?

"While He was delivering God's word to them, some people arrived bringing a paralyzed man to Him.  The four who carried him were unable to bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, so they began to open up the roof over the spot where Jesus was.  When they had made a hole, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.  When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralyzed man, `My son your sins are forgiven'"
(Mark 2: 3-5).

The faithful people of Jesus' day took some very practical steps to get a person with a disability to Jesus.  Because of their faith, Jesus healed the person with a disability.

To help us get through crowds & clear a path to Jesus, there are a variety of resources which we can consult (A vital caution, however, is that some resources do not fully appreciate the vision of the Gospel of Life.).

The fastest growing segment of the population of people with disabilities seems to
consist of those whose disabilities are associated with aging:

Cognitive Disabilities:

Emotional Disabilities:
National Institute of Mental Health

Sensory Disabilities (eg., Hearing Impairment):
American Foundation for the Blind
National Association of the Deaf
Self Help for the Hard of Hearing

Information about Physical & Other Types of Disabilities:
Duke University Medical Center Library
National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research
National Institute on Disability & Rehabilitation Research
National Rehabilitation Information Center

Studies have shown that people with disabilities are generally less affluent than others.  It may be far more difficult for a person with a disability to own a car.  For some, disability-related limitations may even preclude driving and/or use of ordinary public transportation.  While certainly not a perfect solution, SEPTA (& other public transportation carriers) provides certain accessible services, which might be better utilized.  In addition to reduced fare programs, lift-equipped buses, kneeling buses, and certain accessible rail stations, SEPTA offers "paratransit" services for people whose disabilities prevent them from using existing bus service.  The origin and destination of a trip must be within of a mile of a fixed SEPTA route.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
New Jersey Transit

Universal Design &/or Removing Architectural Barriers:
U.S. Access Board

Special Education Services & Catholic Schools
Florence v. Carter
The Zobrest Decision

Viewing Disabilty Concerns from a Pro-life Perspective
(1st, what are we up against?):
Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics
National Catholic Bioethics Center
The Vatican's Charter for Health Care Workers

Read about the Vatican's Jubilee for People with Disabilities.

A few words from Cardinal Rigali
(with a sign language interpreter)....

(Click for other interpreted homilies from Cardinal Riglai)