Pope Francis and Disability as Spectacle

I’ve been writing about Pope Francis and Disability this week, and Lennard Davis reminded me of his useful essay from March of 2013, just when Francis was installed as pontiff.

On his way to the inauguration, Pope Francis blessed a baby and actually got out of his Popemobile to bless a disabled man. Pope Francis kissed the man, and then cradled the man’s head in his hands as he blessed him. Later in his inauguration speech, he spoke of the poor and the need for the church to deal with poverty. Babies, the poor, and the disabled — all traditional categories in need of papal beneficence…

…Is there something inherently special about being disabled that requires a blessing? Most people with disabilities do not expect to be blessed by a religious figure just because they are disabled. The charity model sees disability as some kind of lesser human status that needs alms and blessings. The medical model updates this vision seeing disabled people as in need of a cure. But what has been called “the social model” sees disability as something that society constructs for complex and varied reasons from the eugenic need to glorify normality to the requirement of having a category of the deserving poor (since most people with disabilities do indeed live below the poverty line). Disabilities are less in the person and more in the society.

Davis refers to this as Francis forging “his compassion-credentials,” which I think is a great phrase, especially in the context of March before we knew him. I encounter compassionate people of faith regularly, but it’s so easy to descend into the charity model.

I am routinely told that my son has a special relationship with God. I smile and respond, “I hope he has the same relationship with God as every other human.”

There is something, though, in the way that religious figures deploy disability as a way to demonstrate their absolute committment to loving everybody, that disabled figures are brought forward to the Pope for special blessings, that media coverage around the pope and disability highlights spectacle and difference.

David Gayes, one of my favorite former students, wrote a gorgeous essay around this (with the first draft in my class), called, “No Beauty or Truth Excluded,” around these issues. It;s behind the Taylor and Francis paywall, but here’s the abstract:

I challenge the ableist and prejudicial assumptions that underlie common Scripture interpretations of people with disabilities. I assert that the lived experiences of this marginalized group, as well as the insights from the emerging field of disability studies, must be brought to the center in interpreting Scripture. The groundbreaking work of Nancy Eiesland, Donald Senior, and other theologians and disability thinkers offers valuable support to this contention.

You can read an early version of this (in which I participate as the abled, white, cis-male reader of Scripture) from David’s presentation at our annual “Caritas et Veritas” symposium. Here’s an excerpt [emphasis mine].

A third conventional interpretation of disability is that those with health conditions are here so that the able-bodied can “do” for them, and thus, feel good about themselves. We see this every time we see a poor crippled child walk across the stage to plead for money for the Jerry Lewis Telethon. We can donate our 10 bucks, and move on. 

On a recent trip that I took with a group, a deacon was relentlessly persistent in wanting to “experience” my “holiness” as a “crippled” person, by pushing my wheelchair without asking my permission or receiving any direction from me. He could only imagine himself in the role of the helper, and could not recognize our shared humanity.

One gets pretty weary of being other people’s service project.

This, at the core, is my critique of disability in the recent papal letter and so much well-intentioned but dehumanizing language and behavior around disability.

It’s nicer than negative stigmas, but it’s still stigma.

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