Parish Resource - Benton and Thompson

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedMaking Room for Persons with Disabilities

by Janice Benton, OFS, and Nancy Thompson, OCDS, D.Min.
National Catholic Partnership on Disability

The idea of "making room" has both negative and positive connotations: "allowing in" and "proactive anticipation." The Catholic Church does not "allow in" persons with disabilities, because we recognize that they already belong. If a person is missing or not recognized as a valuable member of the community, the Body of Christ is incomplete. Instead, we must take proactive steps to make room for and embrace persons with disabilities and their families with pastoral decisions to always "say yes"; to be welcoming and to create universally designed settings and programs that accommodate both those born with disability and those who acquire disability through accident, illness, or as part of the natural aging process.

We are blessed by the teachings and Tradition of our Catholic faith, which affirm the dignity of every human person, born in the image and likeness of God. St. John Paul II, in his 1980 "Message to the Handicapped," noted, "God has shown us unsurpassably how he loves all human beings, and thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity" (Angelus, November 16, 1980: Insegnamenti, 3/2 [1980], 1232.)

Do individuals with disabilities experience this dignity within their faith communities? Do they find the open doors called for by His Holiness Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium: "The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. . . . Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason" (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2013], no. 47)? Are they seen as of "inestimable value . . . masterpieces of God's creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever" (Pope Francis, Message Before Day for Life, July 17, 2013, In many parishes, yes. In too many parishes, no.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) knows that "being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–USCCB, 2000], no. 357).

Because we are Catholic, we know that each person has innate dignity. "By reason of their baptism, all Catholics are equal in dignity in the sight of God and have the same divine calling" (Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities [Washington, DC: USCCB, 1995], no. 1). We believe that "each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary" (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, April 24, 2005, no. 6,, and that "all life has inestimable value . . . even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God's creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect" (Pope Francis, Message Before Day for Life). Bringing this to lived experience in each parish is the challenge.

NCPD defines disabilities as the "normal, anticipated outcomes of the risks, stresses, and strains of the living process" (Mary Jane Owen, NCPD, 2000). In other words, disabilities are a normal part of life, touching everyone regardless of age, race, or culture. One person in five has some form of disability; one family in every three has a member with a disability (United States Census Bureau, Disability is not exceptional but a natural condition that we must anticipate and prepare for in our parishes.

Physical access for persons with disability is important, but attitudes of openness, value, and welcome are crucial. Many Catholic families leave the Church when a member with physical disabilities cannot enter the buildings and go to a different parish or denomination whose worship site is accessible; many others leave due to attitudes of disdain or unwelcome. They find that being inside the church does not guarantee belonging. Families and people with disabilities have shared that they often feel on the periphery, seen as a problem to be solved or dealt with, rather than as valued, contributing members of the parish. The NCPD surveyed families of children with autism to gather stories to take to the Vatican for a presentation by Janice Benton on November 21, 2014, at the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers' XXIX International Conference, The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope. Respondents were asked to share a "best story" experience with their child in a parish. Tragically, the responses from three families were, "I wish I could think of some," "I have yet to experience this," and, "There is no hope in my parish."

There is an important distinction between "inclusion" and "belonging," which has begun to be articulated in the United States. When people are "included," they are "allowed in" based on the goodwill of those in charge. There is the possibility of "exclusion" for any number of reasons, including lack of preparation, budget concerns, fear, and disinterest. A sense of "belonging," on the other hand, recognizes that by virtue of our Baptism, we belong (see Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition: New English Translation [Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC)] [Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998], c. 204). As a mother of a young woman with significant disabilities explained, "Before I read the bishops' Pastoral Statement (Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities, [Pastoral Statement] USCCB, 1978), I thought that my parish offered our family three 'B's'—Baptism, back of the Church seating, and burial. But after reading the Pastoral Statement, I understood that the Church offered my family 'belonging.'" 

The statement referenced by this mother was written by the Catholic bishops of the United States in 1978. The profound truths of it and subsequent documents continue to touch hearts and direct our ministry with people with disabilities in dioceses throughout the United States. The 1995 Guidelines, due to be revised in 2015, have provided fuller access to the sacraments by persons with disabilities. They state that "Catholics with disabilities have a right to participate in the sacraments as full functioning members of the local ecclesial community (Cf. CIC, canon 213). Ministers are not to refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, who are properly disposed, and who are not prohibited by law from receiving them (Cf. CIC, canon 843, sect. 1)" (Guidelines, no. 2).

In 1998, the USCCB released a statement that provided a moral framework based upon previous Catholic documents to serve as a guide for contemplation and action to "assist the faithful in bringing the principles of justice and inclusion to the many new and evolving challenges confronted by persons with disabilities" (Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities: A Framework of Access and Inclusion, [USCCB: Washington, DC, 1998]). That was followed in 2005 by the National Directory for Catechesis (NDC), which states that "all persons with disabilities have the capacity to proclaim the Gospel and to be living witnesses to its truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts. Their involvement enriches every aspect of Church life. They are not just the recipients of catechesis—they are also its agents. Bishops have invited qualified persons with disabilities to ordination, to consecrated life, and to full-time professional service in the Church. All persons with disabilities or special needs should be welcomed in the Church. Every person, however limited, is capable of growth in holiness" (NDC [USCCB: Washington, DC, 2005] no. 49).

What does religious liberty mean for persons with disability? At the most fundamental level, it means the right to be born, live, and die with dignity. The abortion rate for fetuses suspected of having disability or a life-threatening condition ranges from 80-94%. Babies born with disability or life-threatening conditions face the threat of being allowed to die due to various reasons that are all opposed to Catholic teaching. At the end of life, the threat of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide that targets people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities decries the sanctity of life and the sacredness of the human person.

We all take for granted our right to worship our God without interference. It is not always a "given" for persons with disability to make that assumption in their own parish. Will there be sign language interpreters when needed, physical access, acceptance as valued members of the community, faith formation, and sacramental reception opportunities throughout their lifetime? Not necessarily so.

There are many practical actions and proactive steps that dioceses and parishes can take to ensure that people with disabilities and their families feel that they truly belong. First and foremost, make a commitment to serve children and adults with disabilities, acknowledging their place in the parish community. The sidebar offers practical first steps.

Safeguarding the dignity of every human person is not an option for Catholics—it is a foundational principle of our faith. Good catechesis for children and adults will include concepts and formation techniques that are age and developmentally appropriate to communicate this important teaching. Parish planning and experience must be informed by it. Diocesan and parish leaders must design guidelines and plans to support it. The dignity of each person, born in the image and likeness of God, is a precious gift to the Church and the world.

Practical First Steps

1.    Diocesan and parish catechetical leaders (PCL) must make the conscious decision to become aware of what you will need to serve this population in your diocese and parish. The NCPD and many diocesan and parish leaders are already experts in this field and are eager to share their knowledge and resources with you. The primary person to consult is the individual with a disability or his or her family member, as appropriate.

2.    Find resources at NCPD (, the National Catholic Organization for the Deaf (, and the University of Dayton Institute for Pastoral Initiatives/Resources for Inclusive Catechesis ( Seek support from your Catholic religious education publishers in adapting materials for use with persons with disabilities, or seek out materials specifically designed for them, such as (1) the Loyola Press Sacramental Preparation Kits and Adaptive Finding God series; (2) NCPD’s My Catholic Church app to prepare those with more severe disability for Mass attendance, Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Confirmation; (3) the Kennedy Curriculum as recently adapted for students with autism by the Diocese of Pittsburgh; and (4) the University of Dayton sacramental preparation books, DVDs, online resources, and Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation, which includes a certification track of courses on disability ministry.

3.    Provide in-service to catechists and school teachers.

4.    Work on proactive plans for including students with various disabilities into parish catechetical programs and schools.

5.    Remember that “one size” does not fit all. Be prepared to individualize.

6.    Place notices in bulletins and make announcements that all children are part of the parish family and welcome in the programs.

7.    Ask diocesan newspapers to have positive articles on people with disabilities in each issue to spread awareness throughout the parishes.

8.    Find meaningful ways for children and adults with disabilities to serve the parish according to their gifts and interests.

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, April 24, 2005,copyright © 2005, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.