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A conversation with Dr. Pia Matthews about sanctity, disability, and the culture of death

Our “societies deny and mock the Cross; they turn their hearts away from the Love inseparable from the Cross. The unspeakable pop culture and the even more noisome elite culture are sedulous in telling our peoples that suffering is an unalloyed evil that must be extirpated at all cost.”

Pope Francis greets a woman while meeting the disabled during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In speaking with Dr. Pia Matthews, the author of God’s Wild Flowers: Saints with Disabilities (Gracewing, 2016), a brilliant meditation on how sanctity and disability intersect in the lives of the Saints, I am struck not only by her good sense and erudition but her passionate care for those amongst us, whether the unborn, the disabled, the old or the infirm, whom the technocrats of the culture of death are intent on killing. For those who may be fuzzy, as I was, about the extent of the crisis of disability that confronts us, I should say that In England and Wales alone in 2014 (the last year for which we have statistics) 3,213 abortions were performed on children with disabilities. I dare say that the figure in the United States is much larger, though exact data is not available there. A recent study from Wayne State University found that 87% of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome were aborted.

When I refer to the sense of deep conviction evident throughout God’s Wildflowers, Dr. Matthews makes no bones about why she has chosen the topic she has chosen. “As far as I am concerned, disability is the underlying issues for most of our bioethical questions from genetic engineering and prenatal testing, to who decides and autonomy, and all the way to end of life decisions, which often discriminate against the elderly, the vulnerable, and people with disabilities.”

Here, blessedly, is not a woman who has a problem calling a spade a spade. “The promotion of assisted dying is a good example of fear about future disability or discriminatory attitudes. It is absolutely vital to have good, positive stories and role models out there to counteract negative stereotypes that simply fuel people’s fears.” Hence, her writing of God’s Wild Flowers, which is full of stories about how the Saints came to a closer understanding and love of God from an acceptance of their own disability and infirmity—from their dependence on God and His love.

In the 20th century, as we all know, Great Britain and America expended a fair amount of blood and treasure, in both the First and Second World Wars, to combat the deified State that the Nazis had set up, a state dedicated to exalting the strong over the weak. In the case of the Nazis, Adolf and his chums systematically murdered those with disabilities to pave the way for the triumph of their darling Aryans. Father Julian Large of the Brompton Oratory might tell us that we are not to refer to Nazis in deploring the policies of our flagitious eugenicists. Nevertheless, however one wishes to regard the slaughter of the innocents that proceeds apace in both Great Britain and America, it is strange that we should have sacrificed so much to defeat the Prussian eugenicists in the 20th century only to turn around in the 21st century and allow our own eugenicists such monstrous sway. What happened to the people of our societies to make this sort of barbarism so increasingly acceptable? Why have we collectively become a people intent not only on dishonoring but actually killing the disabled? Dr. Matthews’ response is instructive.

One of the most influential pieces for the 20th century eugenic movement was written in 1920 and so predates the Nazi regime. In Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living the jurist Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche argued that worthless people (lebensunwerten – people with disabilities and in particular mental disability, old people etc) should be killed to spare society the burden of their care. While many people who advocate euthanasia today do so on the grounds of the burden of care, and people like Mary Warnock speak of a ‘duty to die’ for the elderly who inevitably use up most resources, many more argue that certain people are ‘better off dead’: the (mis)use of compassion seems to distance the argument from that of Binding and Hoche and the Nazis and because of this distance many people would regard it as more palatable. According to this argument, there are worse things than death, notably a life of dependence and disability and ‘we’ want to spare people suffering. In part this is perhaps due to a discriminatory attitude that views people with disabilities (especially intellectual impairment) as less than persons. It is also perhaps down to the fact that people find it hard to deal with or find any meaning in suffering.

To counteract this it is vital to show that people with disabilities do actually live life fully, that dependence is in fact just an aspect of being human, a part of relationships, and not something to be despised or avoided no matter what. The idea that if once I lose my autonomy, control and ability to make choices my life is not worth living and I would be better off dead is, in reality, a tyranny of autonomy because I am ruled by fear: fear that if I lose autonomy I will be treated as less than a person.

In the case of prenatal testing that encourages termination if the child in the womb is at risk of being less than perfect, and abortion on the grounds of disability the answer may lie more in our consumer society. Today we live in a ‘throw away’ culture where something that is broken or not quite right is simply discarded and we just buy a new item. This attitude seems to apply also to human beings. Hence, for many people unborn infants are replaceable – ‘you can always have another one’ or ‘you can try again’ if this one is not quite what you want. The recent discussion in the UK over an un-invasive and accurate test for Down Syndrome was very much along the lines of giving mothers full information and control so that they could make an informed choice and all shocks could be ‘avoided’.

We have forgotten in all of this that children are not the subject of our choices or control. Moreover, all children always surprise us and although they do belong to their parents this is not a relationship of possessor and possession.

On this crucial issue of ‘control,’ Dr. Matthews is incisive. “We always like to think that we are in control of our destiny – we can choose to pray more, or read the Scriptures or give alms to the poor. It is tempting to think that the Saints play the major part in their sainthood by their heroism or selflessness or charitable action or choices.” Yet for Dr. Matthews, “by focusing on those people who appear in the eyes of the world to be weak, to have little, or to have been dealt a poor hand to begin with, we ‘the strong’ are reminded that sanctity is primarily God’s work.” Those of us who have been on the receiving end of personal blessings, whether of talent or gifts, sooner or later come to appreciate how their right exercise is indeed God’s work, not ours. We cooperate with God and his blessings, we do not somehow operate on our own in this always humbling arena. For Dr. Matthews, “what we think are our strong points–whether our autonomy, our reasoning powers, or our social skills–good though they are, can often stand in the way of our growing in sanctity because they tempt us to rely on ourselves. Or to acknowledge only the strong, while overlooking the disabled as somehow inferior to the strong. When we forget to acknowledge the pricelessness and uniqueness of other people, God’s Wild Flowers remind us that God delights in his beautiful and varied creation of human beings.”

In reading these salutary home truths, I was reminded of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote in a piece entitled “Social Reform vs. Birth Control” (1927), which gets to the heart of the ruthlessness of those for whom social control is the great progressive grail.

The Birth-Controller… wants to control… the populace, and he practically says so. He always insists that a workman has no right to have so many children, or that a slum is perilous because it is producing so many children. The question he dreads is “Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?” His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: “You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice, I will deprive myself of your children.”

God’s Wildflowers: Saints with Disabilities is particularly good on the connection between disability and the Cross. After quoting Pope John Paul II, who urged the faithful to appreciate that after Our Lord’s Gethsemane “all human suffering has found itself in a new situation: suffering has been redeemed,” Dr. Matthews adds a useful insight: “Just as the Cross reveals both the great love of the Father and the glory of the Son in overcoming sin and death, so too does a union of suffering with Christ reveal of gift of grace. Indeed, the only place that can deal with the abyss that is soul pain is the profound depth of the Paschal Mystery that leads to the glory of the Resurrection.” This is the essence of why disability is so ineradicable a part of our human destiny. And yet our societies deny and mock the Cross; they turn their hearts away from the Love inseparable from the Cross. The unspeakable pop culture and the even more noisome elite culture are sedulous in telling our peoples that suffering is an unalloyed evil that must be extirpated at all cost.

One way that we can disabuse our contemporaries of this dehumanizing falsehood is to urge them to read God’s Wild Flowers. If you see someone reading The Financial Times, which, as we all know, has taken up the cause of assisted suicide with the most ardent, indeed crusading fervor, slip him a copy of God’s Wild Flowers. (I carry extra copies in my briefcase for just this purpose). Of course, at first, the recipient of your unexpected gift might be baffled but with any luck he will read Dr. Matthew’s brilliant book and, reading it, see, as he has never seen before, the iniquity of knocking off innocent children (or the innocent ancientry, for that matter) to advance or appease the culture of death. Think of the good you will have accomplished: you will have made a convert to the cause of life and you will have struck at least one conscientious soul off the subscription lists of the Financial Times.

If Dr. Matthews agrees with Chesterton about the evils inherent in our desire to control matters over which we are not entitled to any control, she also agrees with his profound appreciation of the wisdom of limitation. What is it that Chesterton says in Orthodoxy(1908)? “The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.” Similarly, Dr. Matthews observes how “The sanctity of life principle, enables us both to cherish life and to recognise its limits. What saints with disabilities show us time and again is precisely this cherishing of life. Of course, life in all its variety is a gift and is good, but we are only stewards of life, it is not under our control to do whatever we like with it.” Here, she echoes Pope John Paul II, who was insistent that “Man’s life comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life; man cannot do with it as he wills.”

For Matthews, “The saints come to accept the limits of their lives often because they have already come to terms with the gradual losses that are often associated with disability. These losses do not diminish the sense of the immeasurable value of life – life is not priceless, it is beyond price – rather these losses allow for these saints to find strength precisely in their weakness, to realise that they do not need to be in control of how things go.”

What is admirable about Dr. Matthews is how clearly she presents disability as a condition not of the disabled, but of all of us, abled and disabled. “Learning to face death well is something we all have to do and accepting our growing dependence is a beginning. Certainly for Christians and the saints we find dependence in other people but more specifically in God. However, those without faith can also learn that dependence on others is not a case of failure or loss of power. Instead it is the recognition of the significance of relationship, of helping ourselves and others grow. It is often said that a particular person is ‘a saint’ when what is meant is nothing at all religious – this person has come to an understanding about his life that has deeply affected others perhaps by patient endurance or building relationships or a way of facing adversity or putting others first or simply by love.”

This nicely reaffirms how the Church’s understanding of disability and sanctity comports with the moral law. And yet Dr. Matthews also appreciates the vital life of these mysteries from personal experience, as she related to me in our wide-ranging conversation. “One of our children has Rett Syndrome, “she tells me.

This syndrome is a complex and multiple disability and none of the saints in the book approach this level of profound disability. However, that is not the point. Certainly, some people do find it helpful to discover a saint who shared similar difficulties. However I am not trying to match one story precisely with another: people and their stories are each unique. What is clear when living with someone who appears to have great difficulties in so many (human) ways is that God’s ways are not our ways. As St Paul tells us, God chooses the weak to shame and challenge the strong. We in the West are so embedded in notions of rationality, freedom and autonomy that anything less is worthless. We have forgotten to live and look with the heart. The stories of saints with disabilities and the way in which people with disabilities do live life fully are signs of hope in a world where power and autonomy, and consequently fear of any loss of these two capacities, dominate. We do not need to be afraid.

On this question of hope, which is so central to her work as an author and practicing bioethicist, Dr. Matthews is wonderfully heartening. Some looking at the crisis of disability in Western society might take a rather saturnine view of our readiness to meet the crisis with any honorable accountability—look at how the French recently disgraced themselves over the banning of that video–and yet Dr. Matthews is the reverse of despairing.

I have hope in people, but more especially in God. Yes we tend towards selfishness, we are myopic about others and we get entrenched in closed in mentalities and attitudes. But most people are also looking for good ways to live, deeper relationships, a sense of belonging and love. It may be that a confrontation with disability (either one’s own or another’s) brings this to the surface and makes us face our fears and shortcomings. Good witness, the stories of people with disabilities and in particular stories of the saints that convey the possibilities of patient endurance, courage, hope, love, service and solidarity with others are powerful contributions to a change in attitudes. Conversion and a change in attitudes require something from the outside – grace first – and God works through people to convey his grace. However, in the last analysis we have hope because the light of truth may be dimmed but it can never be put out. And Jesus promised he would not leave us orphans.

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About Edward Short 31 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. He chose the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

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