ROME – Several experts on disability, who are also pioneers in developing a more profound theology of disability, have said the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is making good strides in terms of welcome and acceptance.

Still, they say more needs to be done for “creative learners” to be fully incorporated into their ecclesial communities, beginning with seminary formation.

John Swinton, who specializes in mental disability as a professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, told Crux, “There have been big movements across all of the churches” on the inclusion of disabled individuals in recent years.

At an academic level, the area of disability is now a more “accepted field of study,” meaning that many of the “bigger theological issues” surrounding disability “are now part of the conversation” in a way that they weren’t in the past, he said.

“There are significant changes that have happened, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, from the top down and the bottom up, which I think is pretty much what you need,” he said.

“As far as how it transforms the church in practice, that’s a bit more difficult to gauge. It depends on the place, and it depends on the priest or minister,” Swinton said, adding, “if the person at the top of the chart doesn’t shift or see the issue, then nothing is ever going to change.”

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Swinton is among several top experts and theologians gathered for a two-day conference on disability organized by the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI) titled, “Us Not Them: Disability in the Church.”

The June 3-4 gathering is academic in nature and has gathered leading experts from around the world to discuss the topic of disability in the areas of family life, care services, and parish life. The first day of the conference will be dedicated to academic talks, whereas the second day will be spent in discussion groups to break down the content shared and explore how to make it practical in everyday life.

Cristina Gangemi, co-director of The Kairos Forum and an expert in pastoral care for people with intellectual disabilities, praised the progress made under Pope Francis, telling Crux that in his nine years on the Throne of Peter, Francis “has facilitated our voice” as theologians specializing in disability.

“My colleagues would say that he’s listened and his own language has shifted, so he doesn’t speak about ‘caring for’ anymore, he speaks about discipleship,” she said, and pointed to several initiatives undertaken during his papacy.

Several Vatican-led conferences have taken place on disability in recent years, which Gangemi helped to organize. They yielded a set of best practices that were eventually published in June 2020 as part of a set of updated Vatican guidelines for catechesis.

Among other things, these guidelines stipulated that the church’s sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, should not be denied to people with intellectual disabilities, which has been a long-running debate among Catholic theologians.

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“When we did work on people with disabilities being excluded from the sacraments, from the sacramental life, we discovered that the first sacrament that the person receives, if they’re lucky, is baptism,” Gangemi said.

“That’s the gateway to the other sacraments, but then the next sacrament that they receive, if they’re extremely lucky, is just before they die. So, therefore they enter into the sacramental life of the church and stay there” in a sort of limbo, she said.

With Pope Francis, “there’s a shift, a margin shift,” she said, saying “he’s eliminated the margins. He said disability must be up front and center.”

At one point, she said, Pope Francis was taking lessons in sign language with the Catholic Association of Deaf in Italy, and has communicated using certain signs in meetings with the deaf.

According to Gangemi, all bishops’ conferences throughout the world have been charged with including the voice of the disabled and “creative learners” in the ongoing discussions for the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and certain Vatican departments, such as the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, hold monthly online meetings with people with different disabilities from around the world.

The Vatican has also recently added two different forms of sign language to its YouTube channel, which livestreams major Vatican and papal events in different languages.

“It’s been made a deliberate focus, and that’s the first time ever. So, we’re living through that paradigm shift and it’s really exciting,” Gangemi said.

In terms of next steps, not only for the Catholic Church, but all ecclesial settings, when it comes to welcoming disability, Swinton said he believes efforts ought to be focused on “how you educate priests and how you educate congregations.”

Swinton, whose background is in medicine and mental health and who works with people who suffer from dementia and a variety of intellectual disabilities, said funding is needed “to develop a theological curriculum” around care for people with intellectual disabilities.

“That’s teaching seminarians, and ministers, and priests who are ordained what the teaching is, what the form of disability is, and how you should rethink it from how you normally think about it, and how that incorporates into the theological curriculum,” he said.

It is “crucial” to get priests, ministers, and religious on board at the educational phase of their formation, he said, so that when they go to their parishes or congregations, disability is “not a surprise; it’s part of what they are, it’s how they understand the Gospel.”

“That kind of theological education from my perspective is the next big step for taking the ideas we have and putting them into practice,” he said.

In terms of this week’s conference, which has gathered experts from various Christian denominations, Swinton said he hopes it yields a broader “ecumenical conversation…where people from different traditions are able to speak a common language, if you will, around disability.”

Similarly, Gangemi said there is a “cult of normalcy” and “a presumption of how the person is” in theological studies that still has to be overcome.

“I think that within all theological studies there should be a module or an essay that a student has to write that focuses on how theology can be applied within the realm, and the gift, and the value of difference,” she said, saying this is one practical way disability could be incorporated into theological formation.

“Where do we want to get to? Either everybody or no one, as the pope says, Fratelli Tutti. No more bias – that’s what’s important,” she said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen