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Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities

November 16, 1978 


For the complete text of the statement go to:

1978 Bishops' Statement


A brief reflection/summary --- By  Dennis C. McNulty


If you want to know what the Catholic Church believes about persons with disabilities, this pastoral statement will present principles and faith-based beliefs that form the foundation for the integration of persons with disabilities into our church and our society.


This statement is perhaps the most important statement regarding the place of persons with disabilities in the American Catholic Church.  It calls the church to consider its vision of discipleship and the attitudes and behaviors that will assist the church in being open to all people as members.  If you took out the term, disabilities,” this document applies to all people seeking faith and active membership.  The statement is a “must read” for anyone who seriously wishes to minister with persons with disabilities. 


The Bishops say that “the Catholic Church pursues its mission by furthering the spiritual, intellectual, moral and physical development of the people it serves.”  (par. 1) Persons with disabilities are called to discipleship just as any other group is.  But, in our efforts to integrate persons with disabilities it is important to recognize their “sameness” but also their “differentness.”   This may sound strange in our “enlightened” society, but there is wisdom here that what makes each of us different from each other also makes us individual and special. 


What individuals with disabilities need, first of all, is acceptance in this difference that can neither be denied nor overlooked. No acts of charity or justice can be of lasting value unless our actions are informed by a sincere and understanding love that penetrates the wall of strangeness and affirms the common humanity underlying all distinction. Scripture teaches us that "any other commandment there may be [is] all summed up in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’"(Rom.13:9) In His wisdom, Jesus said, "as yourself." We must love others from the inside out, so to speak, accepting their difference from us in the same way that we accept our difference from them. (par. 3)


It is in this realization of “different” but the “same” that we discover the talents each person brings to the church.


The integration of persons with disabilities is no more than realizing the calling that God is extending to all people.  But this realization urges the church to respond when assistance is called for.  The Bishops call for the integration of persons with disabilities into the church but they also urge us to assist persons with disabilities to be integrated more fully in our society.  The church must advocate by applying our social justice principles to people with disabilities.


Defense of the right to life, then, implies the defense of other rights which enable the individual with a disability to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable. These include the right to equal opportunity in education, in employment, in housing, as well as the right to free access to public accommodations, facilities and services. Those who must be institutionalized deserve decent, personalized care and human support as well as the pastoral services of the Christian community. Institutionalization will gradually become less necessary for some as the Christian community increases its awareness of disabled persons and builds a stronger and more integrated support system for them. (par. 10)


It is important to note that this is written in 1978.  The Bishops call for actions from securing civil rights to de-institutionalization that still have not been accomplished for people with disabilities.  It is the call of the church to advocate for equality by words but also by action.


The integration of persons with disabilities may take many different approaches.  One program or approach will not necessarily work for all people.  Families should not be overlooked. 


No family is ever really prepared for the birth of a child with a disability. When such a child does come into the world, families often need strong support from their faith community. That support must remain firm with the passage of years. The path to independence can be difficult. Family members need to know that others stand with them, at least in spirit, as they help their children along this path. (par. 15)


The Bishops call for the integration of persons with disabilities into the full participation in the Christian community.  They call for a ministry that is carried out “with” persons with disabilities and not just a ministry provided “for” them.


The document calls for parishes to prepare for the integration of persons with disabilities by creating an attitude of “welcome,” an attitude based on knowledge, careful reflection and prayer.  Since physical access is a sign of welcome, physical modifications of the facility should be considered as well as attitudinal modification.  “Mere cost must never be the exclusive consideration, however, since the provisions of free access to religious functions for all interested people is a pastoral duty.” (par. 21)


Persons with disabilities can play strong roles ministerially, once access is accomplished.  The Bishops “look forward to the day when more individuals with disabilities are active in the full-time, professional service of the Church, and we applaud recent decisions to accept qualified candidates for ordination or the religious life in spite of their significant disabilities.” (par. 24)


Integration does not end at the church door.  The parish community must integrate persons with disabilities into the social life of the community as well.  This is not an act of charity.  It is an act of justice.  The total development of the human person lies at the heart of our beliefs in the dignity of the person


At the national level, the Bishops set “persons with disabilities” as a special focus for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference.


The concluding remarks clearly state the church’s beliefs concerning persons with disabilities.


People with disabilities are not looking for pity. They seek to serve the community and to enjoy their full baptismal rights as members of the Church. Our interaction with them can and should be an affirmation of our faith. There can be no separate Church for people with disabilities. We are one flock that serves a single shepherd.  (par. 33)


Our wholeness as individuals and as the people of God lies in openness, service and love. The bishops of the United States feel a concern for individuals with disabilities that goes beyond their spiritual welfare to encompass their total well-being. This concern should find expression at all levels. Parishes should maintain their own programs of ministry with people with disabilities, and dioceses should make every effort to establish offices that coordinate this ministry and support parish efforts. Finally, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference will be more vigilant in promoting ministry with persons with disabilities throughout the structure of the Church. (par. 34)


We look to the future with what we feel is a realistic optimism. The Church has a tradition of ministry to people with disabilities, and this tradition will fuel the stronger, more broadly based efforts called for by contemporary circumstances. We also have faith that our quest for justice, increasingly enlisted on the side of individuals with disabilities, will work powerfully in their behalf. No one would deny that every man, woman and child has the right to develop his or her potential to the fullest. With God's help and our own determination, the day will come when that right is realized in the lives of all people with disabilities. (par. 35)






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Last Update to this page was March 15, 2011

Copyright © 2006 Dennis C. McNulty