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.
One might want to ask why the Pope decided to descend from his vehicle to bless this particular disabled person? The Old and New Testament have seen disability as an affliction, often a punishment from God, in need of cure and reparation. Jesus made his name by performing miracles in which caused the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the deaf to hear. Such religious cures may inspire some people, but in our age of disability activism and identity, there is something fundamentally wrong with seeing disability as in need of a cure -- most particularly of seeing the new Pope forge his compassion-credentials on such an act.
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.
I recall a visibly disabled friend who is a professor telling me how every Christmas "well meaning" people come up to her in the shopping mall and force a few dollars into her hands, saying "You need this more than I do." Such acts of "charity" are obviously demeaning and humiliating, but they reflect a deeper sense of an inability to accept the diversity of the human body and mind. How is their action any different from the actions of the pope?
If Pope Francis wants to "help" people with disabilities, he will have to abandon his habit of kissing and blessing people with disabilities. Instead, he should make all churches accessible -- not only architecturally, but also practically so blind and deaf people can attend and follow the services. He would have to open the clergy up to all kinds of people, including priests with disabilities. And he would have to work to level the playing field in every country so that people with disabilities would, in the end, be able to bless him -- not the other way around.
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