The Catholic Church and Persons with Disabilities

Catholic institutions attempt to serve all people with disabilities even though the law exempts most churches.
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Both society in general and religious groups in particular have at times treated persons with disabilities unfairly; however, since 1978, the Catholic Church has made a determined effort to include all people in its services, regardless of physical abilities. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official book of church doctrines, set a high standard for inclusion of all people. However, there are those who believe the standard is not always met. Some complain of priests denying them participation in certain church functions because of their disability. This imminent conflict between the desire to include all persons in church activities and the respect for a priest’s power to control his parish highlights the difficulty of achieving the church’s ideals for including persons with disabilities.

1 1978 Pastoral Statement

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed in 1978 the goal of equality for disabled persons within its churches. In a published pastoral statement, the USCCB called for Catholics to integrate these fellow worshipers into the faith at all levels. This statement covered most areas of Catholic life, including baptism and communion, and instructed parishes on how to serve the needs of persons with disabilities. The bishops conceded that at times churches might have to adjust standards to allow for differences of physical and mental capabilities.

2 The Catechism

The Catechism of the Catholic Church implores followers to respect the lives of people with disabilities. This document of religious, spiritual and moral standards gives Catholic families the duty to provide care for any members with disabilities. If a family cannot, for practical reasons, provide such care as needed, then the responsibility falls upon the church community. The overall goal being to ensure that those with disabilities enjoy lives as full members of the church

3 The Sacraments

Sacraments represent important religious events, moments and choices that Christians partake to enjoy a full life. Baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, confession, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders are the seven sacraments. A priest has the responsibility to decide if a person can participate in the sacraments. Traditionally, Catholics must demonstrate comprehension of church doctrine before receiving approval. Bishops allow priests the latitude to interpret and change parish requirements to accommodate the needs of the disabled. If the priest has any doubt as to the fairness of parish regulations for receiving sacraments, then the bishops ask that he confer the sacrament rather than risk withholding the benefit from a person because of a disability.

4 Criticism

The high standards set by the bishops and the Catechism have created difficulties for some priests. There are occasions when priests believe a person does not possess the mental or physical capacity to participate in the church sacraments. People with diminished mental abilities can present such an issue. It is this gulf between the priest’s role as ultimate authority of a parish and the Catholic regulations that seek greater acceptance of persons with disabilities that engenders complaints of possible discrimination.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.