No taboos

Around 200 experts from the fields of disability aid, theology and social science will meet in Heidelberg starting Thursday for the congress "Disability – Theology – Church". Berlin ethicist Andreas Lob-Hudepohl tells what impulses the expert meeting wants to give for better participation in society and church for people with disabilities.

CBA: What is the goal of the conference jointly organized by the Protestant and Catholic churches??

Lob-Hudepohl: We want to bring the social phenomenon of "disability" more into the focus of theological reflection. Because far too often the focus is limited to medical or bioethical ies alone. In our society, however, dealing with people with disabilities is anything but just a medical problem. For example, we want to make it clear that disability is not simply irrevocable, but that disability means being excluded from the normal life of society as a result of physical or mental limitations. And this exclusion often also includes the ecclesiastical sphere.
CBA: Who is Congress targeting?

Praise-Hudepohl: Most of the 200 or so participants work in institutions for the disabled or are pastors from parishes and associations that are involved in work with people with disabilities. These experienced practitioners then meet with renowned scholars who discuss new approaches and findings with them.
CBA: Why is disability a topic for the churches at all??

Praise-Hudepohl: First of all, the two churches in Germany are by far the largest sponsors of institutions for the disabled: be it kindergartens, schools, training centers and, of course, inpatient facilities. In my view, however, the great task of the churches is to support people with disabilities in their living environment. Enabling them to participate in as many facets of social life as possible.
CBA: What does this mean within the church??

Praise-Hudepohl: Church must also shape its own pastoral care so that people with disabilities are not excluded. So, for example, to include a young person with trisomy 21 as an altar server in normal church life.
CBA: Again and again, however, this claim fails in practice – for example, when a pastor does not want to admit a mentally handicapped child to First Communion…

Lob-Hudepohl: This case is of course a disaster and contradicts the spirit of the gospel. This example, however, reveals an ambivalence in Christian theology in dealing with disability. On the one hand, the church has a tradition of including the marginalized and outcast in church life. Here it is easy to relate to the actions of Jesus in the Gospels, who reached out to those who were marginalized.

On the other hand, we know that at the same time there were ecclesial traditions that promoted exclusion. For example, the idea that an illness or disability is to be seen as a just punishment from God.

CBA: Are these ideas still widespread and effective today?

Lob-Hudepohl: Yes, and they keep coming up. For example, when parents have a handicapped child and then ask themselves: "What have I done that God punishes me so??" The idea that illness or disability has a reason in one's own failure, that is very deeply rooted. By the way, not only in Christianity, but also in other religions. And exactly here to start and to counteract, is today an important task of theology.
CBA: How do churches and church institutions for the disabled deal with the ie of sexuality and disability??

Lob-Hudepohl: Within the institutions, I perceive a very careful and sensitive handling of the questions that arise. Publicly, on the other hand, the topic of sexuality and disability continues to be very taboo. This is also related to a strongly reductionist perception of people with disabilities: They are still perceived far too much as suffering, restricted persons and not as people who are often very active in a great many areas.
CBA: Do disabled people have a right to sexuality?

Lob-Hudepohl: Of course, because sexuality is a basic dimension of human life. Not to allow it is a clear attack on human dignity. Physical communication between people with mental disabilities is very important as a special form of establishing relationships. Conversely, this does not mean that all conceivable forms of sexual activity may or must be supported.
CBA: What about when people with intellectual disabilities want to have children themselves?

Praise-Hudepohl: In principle, they have a right to procreate. Sterilization or forced administration of contraceptives violates German law and the Convention on Human Rights. But in this case, of course, it needs appropriate and careful accompaniment. Incidentally, studies show that when women with disabilities have a child, there are usually far fewer problems than one might fear as an outsider.
CBA: Do the debates about pre-implantation diagnostics or end-of-life care show that the ideal of the healthy, fit and self-determined human being is becoming increasingly influential?

Lob-Hudepohl: Yes, I observe a creeping and increasing devaluation of people with disabilities. Every small deviation from the ideal of health is perceived as deficient. For example, hardly any children with trisomy 21 are still born in Germany. 95 percent of all these children fall victim to abortion because of prenatal tests. On the other hand, our society spends a lot of money and commitment to accompany and support people with disabilities.
CBA: What do you hope the congress will achieve??

Lob-Hudepohl: It would be a success if the participants together felt strengthened for the difficult and yet so important project of enabling people with disabilities to participate more in society. It's about new ideas and concepts for the transformation toward an inclusive church and society.

The interview was conducted by Volker Hasenauer (KNA)

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Christina Cherry
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