The Incarnate Word - Disabled

Our theology tends to think of impairment as misfortune.
Our theology would be so much richer if we could see it
as part of our shared humanity – as assumed by Christ.


Photo: Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences

Fr Justin Glyn SJ, General Counsel of the Australian Province, delivered this speech on 10 April in Rome at the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences.

Time and habit have sometimes dulled our awareness of the uniqueness of the claim of the Incarnation – that in becoming “one like us in all things but sin”, Christ has irrevocably entered into the lives of all of us. We do not hold that the incidents which Christ assumed were restricted to those of his time, place, gender or ethnicity. Christ is not only the saviour of 33-year-old, first century, male Jewish craftsmen! Indeed, theologians have long been comfortable with the understanding that, while Christ had to be contingent and limited (even unto death) to become incarnate, the act of salvation was not bound by those limits but extends to all.

It is therefore perhaps surprising that we have been much slower to accept that among the many-splendoured attributes of the human person included in the Incarnation are the many manifestations of impairment and disability and the incidents which attend it. Instead, we have tended to put disability into the category of theodicy – how can a good God allow suffering and evil in a good world? This, despite the fact that much disability is innate – a part of the human design (the spectrum of fleshliness, if you will) – and causes no pain beyond that inflicted by a discriminatory society. Instead, the understanding has been that disability is a problem of “them”, not “us” – a marring or diminishment of the image of God, rather than its embodiment.

As I have commented elsewhere, this theological understanding of disability closely parallels what is sometimes called the “medical model” of disability: the idea that disability is a flaw in the individual and demands nothing of the society at large. Most of us who do experience disability would subscribe rather to a “social model” – an understanding that impairment is something much more variable and an intrinsic part of the human condition but that disability reflects the way that people are excluded from society because of it.

Fr Justin Glyn SJ (standing, front row, third from right) in Rome before delivering his speech.

Consider, for example, that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, people who wished to work or study from home by remote means, or asked for groceries to be delivered to their homes because of their lack of mobility, were often refused these concessions on the grounds of expense or inconvenience. When lockdowns came, of course, these measures became standard for everyone. When it was decided that (despite a rapidly mutating virus) society should be opened up again, these “concessions” once again became impossibly expensive or inconvenient. Society made clear who was included and who was not. It was left to disabled people ourselves to form mutual aid networks to assist each other where we could.

The truth (which many have found unpalatable), of course, is that impairment (innate or acquired) and lack of function of body or mind in general, is a part of every human’s condition. We were all born without the ability to speak, to see clearly, to reason or to control our most basic bodily functions. Those who live long enough are likely to die that way as well.

All of this is true of Jesus, too. Indeed, it is exactly what we would expect, given our long-held belief that, as it was put by Gregory of Nazianzus, “that which he has not assumed, he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.” We devoutly picture the newborn Jesus lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling bands (Lk 2:12) without considering the very lack of physical capacity that such a picture implies. Jesus, like any other human baby, was loved into existence and cared for through all his childhood, bearing all the incapacities that come with human birth and maturation.

One area of Jesus’ incarnate life which receives much attention, especially from those who would equate disability with sin, is his ministry of healing. Matthew 8:16-17 (quoting Is. 53:4) describes Jesus’ healings as follows:

16 That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick.  17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

As the American Catholic priest and scholar Thomas Weinandy points out, this strongly suggests that Jesus entered into so great a solidarity with those he healed that he actually assumed their ailments. In other words, the healing miracles were acts of profound accompaniment – entry into their world, impairments and all – as much as they were acts of healing. If this is correct, it represents something much more akin to the profound solidarity of the Cross than it does the action of a story-book wizard curing ills with the wave of a hand.

Indeed, it is at the Cross and Resurrection where Jesus’ assumption of human disability has long been most obvious. As the late US academic and author Nancy Eiesland famously pointed out, he not only suffered the incapacities that go with being scourged and tortured to death under one of the Roman Empire’s most horrific punishments – but also proudly retained and showed those wounds as token of his Resurrection.

This is, of course, dangerous talk. As the Concept Paper to this Conference noted: “vulnerability and frailty are a part of the human condition and not only of persons with limitations”.

Indeed, even the limits imposed by disability and impairment are more apparent in some areas than others. When I am ministering as a priest or a lawyer, for example, it is I who am the person in the relationship who is able to render assistance to supplement the limits of the other. By contrast, when I am being picked up off the floor after an epileptic seizure or reliant on someone else to transport me because I cannot drive, then I am most definitely the one in need of help. As noted above, much of the work of disabled communities of solidarity during the pandemic has involved communities of love supplying each other’s weaknesses.

As Ignatius famously puts it in his Contemplation to Attain the Love of God: “…love consists in mutual communication. That is to say, the lover gives and communicates to the loved on what they have, or something of what they have, or are able to give; and in turn the one loved does the same for the lover.”

While Ignatius is clear that this describes the relationship between God and the individual, he is equally adamant that we are called to image this in our own interrelationship also.

If this could be internalised in our theology, in our teaching and in our pastoral praxis, then we would not indeed need a theology of disability at all. If all humans are limited in various ways, if the Incarnation entails a radical acceptance by Christ of all human limitations (including disability) and if Church and society were prepared to live that vision, helping each other in the love of Christ and bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), then the question of how to protect or include disabled people as an “other” would not arise. Unfortunately, while the journey has indeed begun (as evidenced by this very conference) we are some way off that yet.

Fr Justin Glyn SJ, General Counsel of the Australian Province, has been appointed by Pope Francis as consultor to the Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life.

Watch Fr Justin Glyn SJ talking to Karabo Resoketswe Ramaila and Sean van Staden on the Jesuit Institute South Africa’s ‘Christ Alive Episode 4’, about the Church and people with disabilities.
Watch Fr Justin Glyn in the ‘Infinite Dignity’ video clip on the Vatican and disability.

Banner image by Antonprado, Canva.

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