ROME – Pope Francis on Saturday condemned what he called a “eugenic tendency” to prevent babies found by prenatal tests to have imperfections from being born, saying it’s part of a strong prejudice against people with disabilities.
“At a cultural level, there are still expressions that undermine the dignity of [people with disabilities], due to the prevalence of a false conception of life,” Francis said on Saturday.
“An often narcissistic and utilitarian vision leads, unfortunately, many to consider people with disabilities as marginalized, without seeing in them a multiform human and spiritual wealth,” he added.
The mentality of a “rejection” prevails, the pope said, as if people with disabilities weren’t capable of being happy and self-realization. This, he said, is proven by the “eugenic tendency to suppress the unborn ones who have some form of imperfection.”
Francis’s words came on Saturday, as he was addressing participants of the international conference titled “Catechesis and Persons with Disabilities: A Necessary Engagement in the Daily Pastoral Life of the Church.”
Addressing those in the room, Francis said that all of them have met people who, “with their fragility,” have been able to live a good life, “rich in meaning.”
“On the other side, we know people who are apparently perfect, yet desperate!” he said.
In addition, Francis said, it’s “a dangerous deception,” to think that only people with disabilities are vulnerable. Quoting a girl he met during his recent trip to Colombia, the pope said that vulnerability is part of the human experience.
The answer, according to the Argentine pontiff, is love, but not the “fake one, deceitful and pious, but the real one, concrete and respectful.”
In the measure that one is welcomed and included in the community and accompanied to look towards the future with trust, “the true path of life develops,” and one can experience lasting happiness. This, he said, is valid for everyone, but the most fragile people are evidence of it.
The Church, he told the group, many of whom have physical or intellectual disabilities, cannot remain on the sidelines, “voiceless” and “out of tune” when it comes to the defense and encouragement of people with disabilities. Her closeness to families helps them to overcome the loneliness they sometimes risk by closing themselves off due to a lack of attention and support.
Words and gestures to encounter people with disabilities cannot be amiss in parish life, particularly on Sunday’s liturgy, that must learn how to include them, because the “encounter with the Risen Lord and the community itself can be a source of hope.”
Catechesis in particular, Francis said, is “called to discover and experiment with coherent forms so that every person, with their gifts, limits and disabilities, even grave ones, can encounter Jesus in their path and abandon themselves to Him with faith.”
No physical or intellectual limitation, Francis said, will ever get in the way of this encounter, because “the face of Christ shines within every person.
“We also pay attention, especially the ministers of Christ’s grace, not to fall in the neo-pelagian error of not recognizing the need for the force of grace that comes from Sacraments of Christian Initiation,” the pope said.
The Pelagian heresy comes from 5th- century monk Palagius, who believed human nature is basically good and denied original sin and its taint on human nature.
To overcome this, Francis said on Saturday, it’s necessary to “invent” adequate instruments to guarantee that no one lacks the support that comes from God’s grace.
The conference included an exhibit showcasing several books, cards and even t-shirts that various ministries around the world use to engage people with disabilities, including an APP for the hearing impaired, developed by the Deaf Apostolate of the Diocese of Philadelphia, and “Without Words,” a series of visual books written by Baroness Sheila Hollins, a member of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors and an expert on the protection of children, with a particular focus on minors and vulnerable adults with disabilities.
Francis closed his address saying he hoped for people with disabilities to become catechists themselves, “even with their witness, to transmit the faith in a more effective way.”
After his remarks, Francis spent almost an hour greeting many of the 450 people who were at the Vatican’s Clementine Hall. Among them was Bridget Brown, a 30-year old actress and motivational speaker with Down syndrome from Illinois, who had her mind set on handing him a letter, which she shared with Crux on Friday.
In it, she addresses some of the issues the pope spoke about, particularly that of eugenics.
“I absolutely love my life,” the letter reads. “I am so sad to hear about all the babies with Down syndrome who are aborted, and that Iceland is leading the world in ‘eradicating Down syndrome births.”
Reading the letter to Crux, she stumbled: “I can’t even say the word,” she explained, as her eyes filled with tears.
“I am so grateful that I was not aborted, because I have a full and wonderful life! The world needs to know that I do not ‘suffer’ from Down syndrome. I am filled with joy to be alive. I believe in the sacred dignity of ALL people. AND most people I know with disabilities have full and productive lives just like me.” [Capitalization in original.]
In her letter, Brown compares the ongoing “eradication” of people with disabilities to what Adolf Hitler did during the Holocaust.
“He killed many people because he did not think they had the right to live. He learned how to kill by killing people with disabilities first,” she wrote. “It seems to me we are doing the same thing to children with disabilities today in our country.
“I think this is like genocide- the systematic killing of a whole people or nation,” she wrote. “I wonder why we think Hitler was so horrible when we are doing the same thing he did?”
Her heart breaks, she said, thinking about the fact that she might be part of the last generation of people with Down syndrome: “The world will never again benefit from our gifts.
“I will continue to pray for all the people who think we don’t have the right to live,” she said.