Several months ago, I happened to glance at the cover of America, and noticed something strange among the featured article descriptions: “Jesus, Please Don’t Fix My Disabled Daughter.” Curious, I flipped to the indicated page number, confident that the essay would not actually advance the idea suggested. To my astonishment, however, it did.
The author, a Heather Kirn Lanier, explained that she had recently begun reading the Gospels and generally liked Jesus, but was initially disappointed with His miracles of healing. As Mrs. Lanier said, “He reinforces the idea that the disabled body is broken, damaged. He treats the disabled body as something to fix.” She went on to protest that her disabled child was not worth less than anyone else, emphasizing, “She’s not damaged goods,” and that, therefore, the little one had no need of fixing. She also proceeded to give Jesus’ actions her own interpretation, one agreeable to her view that we should not demean the disabled by trying to cure them.
At first I didn’t know how to respond. Of course Mrs. Lanier’s little girl was as precious as a child without handicaps… but why would that lead the mother to regard potential healing as an insult?
Then I understood. From that essay’s perspective, any privation meant a degradation in value. There was no distinction between saying that a child’s body had been malformed and insinuating that that child was intrinsically inferior to other children. Suddenly I understood so much of the modern world’s anguish.
The Basis of Human Dignity
What is wrong with Mrs. Lanier’s argument? She is obviously right to love and defend her child. She is even right to see the little girl’s condition as more than just a burden to endure. One can embrace physical sufferings for the good things that come from them. They can enable us to learn and grow, and even give us things to offer others that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Bethany Hamilton said of her lost arm, “I wouldn’t change what happened to me, because then I wouldn’t have this chance, in front of all of you, to embrace more people than I ever could have with two arms.” The Catholic viewpoint also includes more ways in which suffering can become a blessing, to which I will return later.
Mrs. Lanier, however, goes further, asserting that healing a disabled body implies that the person in question is of inferior value. In so doing, she manifests some confusion about where a person’s value is based. Of course a disabled body is something to fix, if possible. If Bethany’s doctors had been able to restore her missing arm, they would hardly have refused to do so lest they insult her one-armed condition. By the same token, other disabilities — such as the inability to walk or use some limb, impediments in speaking or thinking, or being half the size one would normally be — don’t preclude happiness, but they do make life harder. Bodily suffering isn’t the worst circumstance, but is, in itself, a physical evil; and any prevention or cure for it—medical or miraculous—is a blessing. Saying so, however, is no insult. These conditions have nothing to do with a person’s worth.
Where does this worth lie? It is inherent in man’s very nature, such that nothing on earth could ever take it away. I could hardly say it better than the Catechism does: “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC, 1700).
What exactly does that mean? God’s goodness and wisdom are reflected in us, imperfectly but in ways that no other bodily creatures possess. He made human beings with a spiritual, rational nature. He made us to think, to choose, to love—to love and choose the good, which ultimately means loving and choosing Him, the supreme and total good. We cannot, like animals, live only by our instincts and attend only to material concerns (food, sleep, etc.). We feel impelled toward higher things; we are drawn to beauty and truth and virtue, though we may follow that impulse or stifle it. These natural inclinations, aided by the divine revelations that culminate in Jesus, should finally lead us to eternal union with God in Heaven, also called the “Beatific Vision” because this experience will constitute our perfect fulfillment and happiness. Our dignity lies in our capacity for, and calling to, such a sublime existence.
The Quest for Substitutes
Today’s mainstream culture, of course, laughs at this defense of human worth. The laughter quickly subsides, however, when one begins to probe how the modern world does understand the human person. In the context of God’s creation, His image in man, our calling to beatitude, it’s easy to explain why a human being is precious and sacred. In a mentality that reduces everything to the earthly, physical level, it becomes much harder to explain what makes people special. After all, if nothing immaterial exists or is relevant, what makes human collections of cells better than any others? (In fairness to Mrs. Lanier, I don’t know that she would maintain that; but this mentality seems to have influenced how she thinks about her daughter’s condition.)
Naturally, this argument might offend an atheist or agnostic, prompting him to say, “Of course a person is valuable! My worldview doesn’t mean I think of them as just a mass of cells! It’s obvious from knowing them that they have dignity and worth!” Well, yes. Our intuitions tell us so, and you’re right to be indignant at the thought of reducing anyone to his chemical composition. But can we back up that intuition rationally?
Harsh as this question may seem, some do confront it, and quickly run into problems. Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic convert from atheism, told the Coming Home Network, “The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions . . . I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special.”
This is the dilemma that our culture faces. Having rejected, or at least ceased taking seriously, anything it can’t put into a test tube—God, the human soul, eternity—it finds itself in an identity crisis, as people can no longer explain their intuitive sense that they themselves are more than assemblages of organic matter.
How can one respond? Denial only puts off the question. Some, like Mrs. Fulwiler, find their way to faith. Others look for substitutes. This latter tactic has come to dominate the secular culture. No longer able to include God in their basis for self-worth, people have started basing it on anything and everything.
If this sounds crazy, think about the trends of our day. Why is someone immediately up in arms whenever anyone suggests that men are better suited to some things than women? Why have participation awards become so widespread? Why are Catholics called “haters” when they oppose abortion, or when they help someone overcome a same-sex attraction rather than urging him to follow it?
Because people in our culture have lost their sense of identity and security. They can no longer tolerate the suggestion that anything is the least bit “wrong” with anyone, lest such suggestions jeopardize someone’s self-esteem. Pride is always present, but the modern loss of faith has blown it into a tremendous hypersensitivity. No one has a problem; no one is at any disadvantage; no one is any less smart, talented or accomplished than anyone else—so runs the desperate new creed.
Peace in the Truth
A curious paradox now emerges. Obsessed with preserving self-esteem, the world has taken to accusing the Church of “hating” people when she tells them not to do this or that, or of degrading them when she says that God, not self, is rightful Lord of a person’s life. Yet it’s the Church who offers them precisely what their hearts are craving—an unconditional love, a transcendent dignity, a basis for confidence and peace. Individual Catholics may fail to represent this love, but it is nonetheless the attitude that their “Mother” enjoins on them. They are faithful to her insofar as they practice it.
No supposed threat to one’s worth poses any such danger in the Catholic view. Whatever your trouble, be not afraid. If you have a disability, you bear a share in Jesus’ Cross, and you can join your suffering to His, participating in His redeeming work and knowing that you will also share in His glory. If your psyche or personality is fractured, or even if you simply feel yourself lacking in natural gifts, give God your best with all your heart, and know that it will be worth more in His eyes than many impressive feats of those who have it easier.
As C.S. Lewis put it, “You are one of the poor whom He blessed.” If you have fallen low in sin and wonder if you can ever escape the shame, come to Him with contrition and trust, and know that the absolution will wash it all away and give you a chance to start anew. None of these miseries, nor any other, could ever undermine your unspeakable value as God’s beloved child, made in His image, called to be with Him in His joy forever.
Perhaps we Catholics should stress this point more, since the world needs to hear it so badly. Often seen as a “feel-good” theological theme, it’s actually the only context in which we can honestly look at our corrupted, wounded humanity without becoming discouraged. Nobody likes to think about his own sinfulness; confronting the things sin has brought into the world—various forms of suffering—can also be humiliating, because it shows limitation and brokenness in ourselves or those we love. This can be so even when the particular sufferers are not responsible, as Mrs. Lanier’s little girl is obviously not. (To clarify the theological point, usually no one is directly responsible in such cases—cf. John 9:3—but they are still called consequences of sin, because Adam’s fall introduced decay and suffering into the world. Explaining how would be a discussion for another time.)
Many do become discouraged and despise themselves, but discouragement is never from God. We do see sin in our souls and corruption in our bodies; if we are honest, we must acknowledge them. We must not, however, stop there. Nearly all error comes from making part of the truth into the whole. We are fallen and broken, but we are still made in God’s image, made to take part in His life of love. There, undiminished, transcendent, is our dignity.
After all, this message isn’t only for the physically disabled. It’s for everyone. We all have handicaps of some kind. The good news is that we don’t have to stifle that realization or pretend that it doesn’t matter. We have received our dignity, our value, from God Himself, such that nothing can diminish it or take it away. Whatever our handicaps, we can be confident that we are precious. He loves us now in our brokenness, but will also—in this life or the next—heal us of it, if we let Him, because He loves us too much to give us less than the best.
Don’t be afraid to confront what’s broken in you and present it to Him. Whether He immediately fixes it or not, He will transform it into a marvel of His grace, a beauty beyond that of earth.