Living Independently with Disabilities
On the cover of the most recent issue of Faith & Family, a magazine for Catholic families until recently owned by the Legionnaries of Christ, is a picture of a beautiful child with Down's Syndrome. The idea is to further the pro-life cause by showing children with disabilities in a positive light.I know the motive is good. But the fact is many children with disabilities do not meet the standards of physical and mental normalcy. And Catholics who tend to be concerned with the pretty picture of a holy domestic life can be pretty ruthless when it comes to maintaining the integrity of that picture. I know from my mother, who was long active in religious education for the mentally handicapped, that some priests and nuns and DREs and parents didn't want such children receiving first communion with the rest of the class, precisely because they would ruin the perfect photograph.But I have even stronger worries about making the case for carrying children with disabilities to term on the grounds of the cuteness of small children. In fact, one of the biggest worries that face parents of children with disabilities is what will happen to them when they are no longer small, young, and cute. The older man with schizophrenia, the twenty-five year old girl with both Down's Syndrome and an Autism spectrum disorder are still someone's child--they are the children of their parents on earth, or in heaven, they are the children of Mary, the mother of us all, and they are the children of God. They are too frequently seen as ugly annoyances, impediments to those who present themselves as modeling a beautiful life of faith & family."Cute" fades--for us all. Rather than trying to fit those with disabilities within conventional notions of beauty, I think a little bit of Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological aestheticsis in order--the life and death of Jesus Christ actually ought to reconstitute our notion of what counts as beautiful.I was in Rhode Island last weekend, and came across an article about an innovative state program to help people with disabilities live independently in the community. It's far more cost effective than group homes. It integrates them into the community in a more natural way. It's good for the college student caregivers. It's good for the families. And it's under deep threat in the current budget crisis.Supporting programs like this because they contribute to the common good--the good of us all, of each and every one of us-- is part of what it means to build a culture of life. I hope Bishop Tobin agrees.
About the Author
Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.