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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: ‘In God’s Image’

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ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven with author Archbishop of Melbourne Peter A Comensoli
ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Greg Craven with author Archbishop of Melbourne Peter A Comensoli at the launch of In God’s Image. PHOTO: ACU

The following is an excerpt of the text of the address by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at Australian Catholic University, North Sydney, 26 November, 2018 to launch In God’s Image by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli 

Everyone counts

I once witnessed a man in a hospital café who was profoundly physically impaired. He was wheelchair bound and it was pretty clear his hands and arms weren’t up to much – certainly not up to holding a cup in his hand and lifting it to his lips. He was trying to drink coffee through a straw, but comically the straw kept floating to the top of his drink and falling out of the cup. He would get it back in with his teeth and the straw would just sit flat on the top of his coffee. So he put his head flat on the table and slurped the coffee from that position through the straw. It was obviously very frustrating for him.

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People at surrounding tables could easily have helped him, simply holding the straw to his mouth for him. But no-one did. Maybe they thought noticing his troubles and offering to help would embarrass him. Maybe they were afraid there was an intellectual or emotional impairment to match his obvious physical ones. Maybe disability somehow made him invisible.

Why didn’t I help? It was because I was the guy desperately trying to get his caffeine fix but too crippled to do so. During my episode of Guillain-Barré Syndrome in 2016 I suffered crippling paralysis, terrible pain and other disabilities, including a decided lack of coffee. But I was one of the lucky ones with a condition from which I would recover.

The five months in hospital gave me a window into the lives of those whose physical or intellectual impairments would be permanent. I experienced first-hand the paradox of the human body unresponsive to the human spirit. I knew the grief and frustration, the challenge to patience, courage and hope.

I knew the humiliation of baby-like dependency. But I also witnessed the triumph of human spirits in the care people received, in the determination of some to conquer their disability or at least accommodate it and get on with their lives, and in the camaraderie amongst the patients as we shared our limitations and frustrations, tried to keep each other’s spirits up, and pushed each other to maintain the struggle for rehabilitation.

That camaraderie was rooted, in my case, in a strong sense, drummed into me from childhood by my Christian culture, that everyone counts. “Let the little children come to me,” said Jesus, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Lk 18:16) Let blind Bartimeus come to me (Mt 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43; cf. Mt 9:27-31; Mk 8:22-6; Jn 9:1-12). Let the lepers (Mt 8:1-4; Mk 1:40-5; Lk 5:12-14; 17:11-9). Let the man with the withered hand, even on the Sabbath (Mt 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11; Lk 14:1-6). Let the bleeding woman (Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34; Lk 8:42-48). The deaf and dumb (Mt 9:32-4; 12:22-23; Mk 7:31-7; Lk 11:14-23). The mentally impaired and devil-possessed (Mt 8:28-33; 15:21-8; 17:14-20; Mk 1:21-7; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29; Lk 4:31-6; 8:26-39; 9:37-43). Let the paralysed come, the dead and near-dead (Mt 8:5-13; 9:18,23-6; Mk 5:21-4,35-43; Lk 7:1-17; 8:40-2,49-50; 13:10-17; Jn 5:1-15; 11:1-45). Let the man with Guillain-Barré Syndrome lowered through the ceiling (Mt 9:1-8; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26).

Steeped in the Scriptural-theological and Thomistic-metaphysical traditions, Peter Comensoli argues that human beings are all made in the image of God and this image and consequent dignity cannot be diminished by profound impairment. Indeed it is we, the ‘rationally capacious’, who have the capacity to mar the image of God by conscious opposition to God’s grace.

The tendency to discount

Sadly, our world does not always welcome those with disabilities as Jesus did. The British journalist, Dominic Lawson, is former editor of the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph, son of Nigel Lawson, one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer, and brother of the ‘domestic goddess’ Nigella Lawson of whose cooking shows I am a fan. In 1995 he published a moving article about his daughter Domenica, which was republished in several Australian newspapers.[1] Domenica, whose godmother was Diana Princess of Wales, has Down’s Syndrome and her father, a non-believer who has devoted much of his energy to Down’s syndrome charities, described the search-and-destroy mission of contemporary genetic technology against babies like his.

Archbishop Comensoli and ACU Chancellor The Hon John Fahey.
Archbishop Comensoli and ACU Chancellor The Hon John Fahey. PHOTO: ACU

This evoked a great deal of comment, not all of it welcoming of Lawson’s ideas or indeed his daughter. Claire Rayner in The Independent railed against the Lawsons for imposing the burden of their decision not to abort upon Domenica herself and the community.[2] Unsurprisingly, the Down’s Syndrome Association dumped Rayner as a patron. But people with such a mindset are, I fear, winning over the people like Dominic and Domenica Lawson in the battle for the soul of our culture. In its vain search for normalcy or better, contemporary culture excludes more and more people like Domenica from experiencing life, family, community.

As the range of conditions for which pre-natal tests are available grows, parents must now put bonding with their child on hold until they are assured theirs is a child worthy of life. There are lots of things which can and should be said about the alliance between new-fangled genetics and old-fashioned eugenics: the revolution in human self-understanding genetics offers; the enormous potential for cures; and the danger of reducing people to their genes or their capacities; the pressure which the very availability of these tests puts upon parents and health professionals; and so on.

To kill a child with a disability or neglect such a child to death is a crime against that child, humanity and God, and one against which the Catholic Church has been the outstanding campaigner. Of course, saying No to such things is not enough: we must say Yes to a positive evaluation of every human being, of human diversity, of dependence and interdependence. Since the Second Vatican Council[3] the Church has done just this, in a range of Papal teaching,[4] Vatican documents[5] and national Church statements.[6]

That’s important. But too few people have examined the underpinnings of such ethical and political positions: the profound humanity of the profoundly impaired. A few, such as Alasdair MacIntyre in his Dependent Rational Animals and closer to home Nicholas Tonti-Filippini did so philosophically.[7] But we needed a theological exploration of these issues and the few important writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Eieslands and Hans Reinders have done so from within the Protestant Reformed tradition.[8] Jean Vanier is a rare example of someone writing disability theology from within the Catholic tradition.[9] Buut now Archbishop Comensoli has very significantly enlarged the Catholic contribution by drawing upon Scriptural and Thomistic theological anthropology and moral theology.

Because of or in spite of?

Addressing a culture represented by Claire Rayner that considers those with handicaps a burden impossible to bear, the Protestant theologians of disability have largely focussed upon inclusion. But Archbishop Comensoli rightly insists this is not enough.

Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. PHOTO: ACU

Why not? Surely we want the profoundly impaired to be included? Well, I’ll leave you to read the book to find out! But for now let me just point out, as Comensoli does (p. 216), that talk of inclusion immediately begs the question: “Inclusion in what?” With this question we come right back to the central question of this book: the humanity and personhood of the impaired and its intimate connection with the unimpaired. It cannot the case, our author points out, that the impaired are included as a benevolent grace extended by the unimpaired: they are intrinsically persons in their own right, already part of any community worth the name.

Let me draw a current parallel. The terrible failures of some Catholics revealed in the Royal Commission have unleashed latent sectarian and secularist forces that attack the church’s sacraments and states of life, school funding, charity status and the like. Instead of any serious recognition of religious freedom in our laws, so that we can maintain our schools as certain kinds of communities without inappropriate interference, we are presently granted (and soon may lose) only a few niggardly exemptions or exceptions from anti-discrimination laws easily weaponized against religion.

Such thinking treats religious believers as outsiders to the ‘real’ community made up of right-thinking agnostics, who then ‘generously’ if begrudgingly allow believers limited opportunities to do their religious stuff. But Catholics – like those living with disabilities – should be regarded as full members of the community all of whom share the full range of rights recognized in international law and sound moral philosophy. Inclusion is better than nothing but it doesn’t begin to capture the requirements of human dignity and community.

Of course, those who speak of inclusion do not necessarily disagree with this claim: the leading writer in this space, Hans Reinders, for instance, has written a number of books seeking inclusion and more for those living with disability.[10] Much of Comensoli’s book interrogates Reinders’ positions. A central question of In God’s Image which Comensoli asks Reinders and contemporary society is: “because of or in spite of?” – that is, are people with profound impairments ‘persons just like us’ because of their impairments, or in spite of them?

Reinders’ concept of personhood being granted through friendship with God, Comensoli argues, fails by pushing the impairment to one side, as extrinsic to the person. But, in a radical yet profoundly sensitive move, Comensoli argues in In God’s Image that humanity is lived out in the condition of the particular human person, and so the personhood of a person living with a profound impairment must be realised in their very impairment and not abstracted from it. Where Reinders proposes friendship with God and our fellows despite our impairments as a basis of our dignity and community membership, Comensoli argues that we can only befriend each other because we already accept the whole person, abilities and disabilities included, as loveable: friendship doesn’t confer personhood, it presupposes it.

Human beings or human becomings?

Comensoli’s proposal, then, is twofold:

First, being human is necessarily grounded in an immanent human nature: it is about having the nature that one has in the condition under which one has it. This is the stuff of the human project. Secondly, the nature that one has in being human itself exhibits continuity and directionality: it is about being the creature who lives out his nature from origin to end. This is the individual projecting of the human project. (pp. 154-155)

Ultimately, then, for Comensoli we are not simply human beings but also human becomings, because the measure of humanity is found in the act of living, in the choice to extend and befriend, not merely in some essentialist list of attributes: “Our humanity comes through an act of self-emptying, of giving up what we cling to, and thereby of opening up to a similarly self-emptied life” (pp. 219-220). Or again: “The condition of our humanity is simply the concrete state in which we are being human” (p. 221).

Here we immediately see the influence of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche Communities, who demonstrate the ways communities of people with different abilities and disabilities, can live in harmony, friendship and support on the basis on their shared humanity and possibly shared faith. And by insisting that people are dignified and loved in their very disabilities, Vanier and Comensoli eschew contemporary delicacy about speaking of disabled or impaired people, and show that we can celebrate and befriend people in their diversity rather than despite it. Such a mentality might mean we can fearlessly hold a straw to their coffee-deprived mouths!

The Christic echoes in this book are not accidental either. Though His nature was divine, Jesus did not cling to His equality with God, but emptied Himself to become a man (Phil 2:6-11). But having become a human being He did not cling to any idealised notion of completeness and self-sufficiency either: He further emptied himself, giving himself in friendship and care to all who came his way including the halt and lame, “even unto death, death on a cross!”  This is humanity in its fullness, humanity made in the image of God, humanity emptying itself in giving to the other. It is with great pleasure that I declare In God’s Image: Recognizing the Profoundly Impaired as Persons launched!

[1]  Dominic Lawson, “All you need is life,” The Spectator 17 June 1995; see also his “Our double standards on abortion,” The Independent 4 April 2006, “Have a care, cuddly Claire,” The Independent xxx and “Shame on the doctors prejudiced against Down syndrome,” The Independent 25 November 2008.

[2]  Claire Rayner, “A duty to choose unselfishly,” The Independent 27 June 1995.

[3]  See Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965), 12 & 24

[4]  E.g. Paul VI, Address to the Executive Council of the International League of Societies for the Mentally Handicapped, 5 February 1971 and Address to participants in the Conference of the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled, 27 October 1971; John Paul II, Address to participants in the International Games for Disabled Persons, 3 April 1981; Address to Handicapped and Disabled Persons of French Canada, 10 September 1984; Address to Handicapped and Disabled Persons of Newfoundlandc, 12 September 1984; Address to the Sick, Elderly and Handicapped of New Zealand, 23 November 1986; Address to the Sick and Handicapped of Australia, Brisbane, 25 November 1986; Address to Sick and Disabled Youth on the Occasion of the Fourth World Youth Day, Santiago de Compostella, 19 August 1989; Address to the Sick and Disabled of Uganda, 7 February 1993; Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 2208, 2276-77; Address to participants in a Congress on the Family and the Integration of the Disabled, 3 December 1999; Evangelium Vitæ: Encyclical on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, 1995; Homily for the Celebration of the Jubilee for Persons with Disabilities and Angelus Message, 3 December 2000; Address to participants in the International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, 5 January 2004; Address to members of the Office Chrétien des Handicapés, 13 November 2004; Benedict XVI, Address to Young People with Disabilities, 19 April 2008.

[5]  E.g. Holy See, Document for the International Year of Disabled Persons, 23 March 1981; Pontifical Council for the Family, Conclusions of a Congress on the Family and the Integration of the Disabled, 4 December 1999; Committee for the Celebration of the Jubilee for Persons with Disabilities, The Person with Disabilities: Subject and Receiver of Evangelisation and Catechesis, 17 May 2000.

[6]  E.g. Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, I Have A Story: People with Disabilities and their Families Participating Fully in Parish Life, 8 September 2004; National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Pro-Life Activities (US), Statement on the Uniform Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, 1986; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities, 1978 and Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities: A Framework of Access and Inclusion, 1998.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the virtues (2001); Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, About Bioethics (Connor Court, 6 volumes).

[8] Stanley Hauerwas, Responsibility for Devalued Persons: Ethical Interactions Between Society, Family, and the Retarded (1982); Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (1986); Naming the Silence: God, Medicine and the Problem of Suffering (1990); God, Medicine, and Suffering (1994); Nancy Eiesland,The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (1994); Hans Reinders, The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society (2000); Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (2008); Disability, Providence and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives (2014)

[9]  Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (1992); The Scandal of Service: Jesus Washes our Feet (1996);  etc.

[10] Hans Reinders, The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society (2000); Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (2008); Disability, Providence and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives (2014)

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