At their summer 2023 USCCB General Assembly, the bishops voted to approve the drafting of a new Pastoral Statement on persons with disabilities. The Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth chaired by Bishop Robert Barron has been assigned to draw up the new declaration.

This approval got my attention for two reasons. First, I have a disability due to a rare neurovascular disorder called erythromelalgia. Second, the most recent Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities was published in 1978, so it’s past time for a new one.

In the meantime, parishes can draw from the rich well of Catholic teaching to better address ministry to and concerns of disabled persons. Let me offer five actions all parishes can begin taking today.

(Note: this essay uses both person-first and disability-first language.)

1. Foster an Attitude of Inclusivity

The 1978 Statement ends with a declaration of ecclesial unity, “There can be no separate Church for persons with disabilities. We are one flock that follows a single shepherd.” Pope Francis affirmed inclusion’s importance in his 2020 message on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, “Inclusion should be the first ‘rock’ on which to build our house.”

In his 2022 message, Pope Francis commissioned parishes to create a climate of inclusivity. “I trust that every Christian community will be open to the presence of our brothers and sisters with disabilities, and ensure that they are always welcomed and fully included.”

I don’t believe any Catholic would deny this, but we must ensure inclusion is more than just words to make ourselves feel better. It must become actualized. In a 2022 audience, the Holy Father insisted, “There is no inclusion if the experience of fraternity and mutual communion is missing. There is no inclusion if it remains a slogan.”

No one would insist that certain people don’t belong in their parish, but actions can tell a different story. Persons with disabilities often recount negative experiences of ableism they’ve suffered. Maybe you’ve heard homilies mention the sin of ableism, but I haven’t. A Catholic Charities USA webinar defines ableism as “discrimination and/or social prejudice against people with disabilities in favor of non-disabled people.” In includes the belief that people with disabilities are flawed” and “the belief that typical abilities are superior.”

Pope Francis condemned “the culture of rejection towards persons with disabilities [and] the idea that the lives of persons with disabilities are worth less than others.” In Fratelli Tutti, the pontiff denounced discrimination against disabled persons as a feature of the throwaway culture.

The pope’s advocacy for persons with disability shows up in the logo for the Synod on Synodality. It includes a person walking with a cane and another person in a wheelchair. This image communicates inclusivity. No one needs a new episcopal statement before repenting of ableism and fostering inclusion.

2. Create a Culture of Integration

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (148) insists on the full integration of persons with disabilities. “They are to be helped to participate in every dimension of family and social life at every level accessible to them and according to their possibilities.”

Integration becomes difficult, if not impossible, without the elimination of physical barriers. My former parish installed a handrail so our parochial vicar could ascend the stairs leading to the altar and ambo. (Yes, there are disabled clergy too.) The elimination of livestreaming the Mass erects a barrier excluding disabled persons who are physically unable to attend the liturgy.

While inclusion begins with physical access, integration involves more. Consider a person who uses a wheelchair. They are included when a parish provided suitable seating. That same person is integrated when they serve as a lector.

The Second Vatican Council welcomes all persons as “full and active” participants, not just spectators. The 1978 Pastoral Statement echoes the Council, “It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities.”

Pope Francis insisted on the sacramental equality for disabled persons, “Baptism makes each one of us a full-fledged member of the Church community, so that all of us, without exclusion or discrimination, can say: ‘I am Church!’ The Church is truly your home!”

The 1978 Pastoral Statement establishes a key principle for integrating disabled persons into their sacramental home. “It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities.”

Because the parish is the sacramental home, the Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments commissions “pastors and other parish ministers [to] make every effort to provide for all Catholics with disabilities who reside within a parish’s boundaries.” These Guidelines reiterate the Council. The “Church recognizes that every parish community includes members with disabilities, and earnestly desires their active participation. All members of the Body of Christ are uniquely called by God by virtue of their Baptism.”

Parishes are to integrate disabled persons who are called to serve in ways commensurate with their gifts, skills, and abilities. The Guidelines affirm the right of disabled persons to receive each sacrament just as nondisabled persons do. To ensure integration, parishes must not presume that a disabled person is incapable or uninterested. Instead, they must intentionally remove roadblocks by advocating for disabled persons, encouraging involvement, and providing the tools necessary for participation.

3. Use Respectful Language

Daily speech is filled with ableist slurs. Whether used intentionally or not, terms like “lame, insane, or crazy” perpetuate stereotypes and need to be removed from our vocabulary.

Words change meaning over time. “Crippled” and “handicapped” may have been customary a few decades ago, but they’re generally considered insults today. Recently, the phrase “special needs” was the norm, but many people now consider it to have negative and confusing connotations. As advanced as the 1978 pastoral statement was, it contains outdated expressions. The “r-word” may have been medical terminology 50 years ago, but today people rightfully consider it repellant.

It is essential not to infantilize people with language or tone. “Differently abled” is condescending. So is conversing with a caregiver or aide while ignoring the person they’re supporting.

Phrases like “confined to a wheelchair” do not accurately describe the reality. My wheelchair is a mobility device that gives me access I would not otherwise have, and Pope Francis is not confined to his wheelchair as he travels around the globe.

Refrain from using specific conditions as collective nouns. “The deaf, blind, or disabled” are not homogenous groups. Avoid saying someone is “suffering” from their disability. Suffering relates to a person’s lived experience, not necessarily from a physical or mental condition itself. When it comes to suffering, allow people to describe their own experience.

Because our words represent what’s in our hearts, don’t complain when someone informs you that you’ve used an offensive word. Thank them and learn to use more appropriate vocabulary. Respect the way disabled persons understand the connotations of the words they’re exposed to.

4. Consider Your Theology

The Compendium of Catholic Social support affirms, “Persons with disabilities are fully human subjects, with rights and duties” (148). St. Pope John Paul II declared, “[E]ven when disabled persons are mentally impaired or when their sensory or intellectual capacity is damaged, they are fully human beings.” Pope Francis reasserted this essential teaching. “Christ’s face shines in the heart of each person.”

The disabled body is not broken or cursed because of sin, and there is no reason to believe that God “gave” someone a disability to test their faith. In John 9:2 the disciples asked our Lord, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” He responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The second half of his answer is open to a range of interpretations and does not necessarily imply God caused the man’s vision impairment. Sometimes the only sin causing a disability might be the ableism of others.

Our society’s image of the ideal human body tends to follow the classical Greek image chiseled in marble. This stands in contrast to the body of our crucified and risen Lord. Pope John Paul II demonstrated the likeness of Christ in his own disabled body, and he taught that disability does not nullify a person’s humanity. “With disabilities you can become holy persons; you can reach the high goal which God has reserved for human beings, the creatures of his love.”

Nevertheless, the cultural concept appears every time a well-meaning church member promises to pray away someone’s disability without asking first. Even our Lord respected Bartimaeus (not “Blind Bartimaeus”) enough to ask, “What do you want me to do for you?

Just as words change meaning, so do spiritual analogies. “I once was blind, but now I see” might be understood as equating vision impairment to spiritual condemnation. This isn’t to recommend the elimination of liturgical readings like the Light of the Word or the Ten Men with Leprosy, but we should show sensitivity and creativity in preaching the Gospel.

5. Do Not Be Afraid

Pope Francis encourages us, “Let us learn to overcome the discomfort and fear that at times we can feel toward persons with disabilities.”

As a former educator, I taught students who had significant support needs such as nonverbal autism and microcephaly. Early on, I was afraid I might do the wrong thing, my teaching style would have to change, or my students might make loud noises and unexpected movements. The issue was mine, not theirs. As I got to know them and their families, my fears dissipated.

I assume all parishes want to integrate every member, but sometimes they might be afraid. Developing relationships is the way to conquer fear. If you’re not sure how to integrate a disabled person into parish life, ask them. If your parish is home to disabled children, ask their parents the best ways to meet their child’s sacramental and catechetical needs. Your diocesan office for disability ministries and Catholic Charities will gladly help, and your parish may have educators who would love to serve.

Other fears might occasionally arise. Fear of change, cost, or what “someone might say” (whoever someone might be). Relationships with disabled persons and their families will quickly eliminate your fears. If fears persist, I respectfully say, “Get over it.” Do you really want fear to be the defining characteristic of your parish?

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Just be thoughtful and respectful. No one is out to catch you being offensive.

We give thanks for the parishes who already integrate disabled persons into their sacramental communities so that they, in the concluding words of the 1978 Statement, “serve the community and enjoy their full baptismal rights as members of the Church.”

Let us all pray for the Committee as they draft the new pastoral statement. You can submit your comments to offer them your suggestions and encouragement.

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Kevin Beck is a former educator who lives in Colorado Springs with his family. After being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, he began writing on disability, grief and the intersection of disability and faith.

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