“In our society there is a tyrannical dominance of an economic logic that excludes and at times kills, and of which nowadays we find many victims, starting with the elderly.”
These were the words of Pope Francis in his message to the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), which is currently holding its plenary assembly on the theme of “Aging and Disability”.
“Health is without doubt an important value,” the Holy Father continued, “but it does not determine the value of a person. Furthermore, health is not by itself a guarantee of happiness, which may indeed be experienced even by those in a precarious state of health.”
The aim of the four-day gathering, hosted this year at the Augustinianum Institute in Rome, is to explore the role of the Church in helping men and women confront the mental and physical challenges that come with age.
“Coming of age brings new challenges in the area of physical and intellectual abilities,” said PAL president, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula. “These disabilities often alter the lives and autonomy of the human person, increasing the challenges for the individual, their family and all of society. The Church is motivated to contribute a renewed reflection on this reality in order to provide a more noteworthy and leading support.”
Harkening back to the Pope’s words to the assembly, PAL member Bishop Anthony Fisher of Parramata, Australia, told ZENIT: “The most obvious threat is the movement for euthanasia in many parts of the world. It has only grown gradually, much more slowly in fact than abortion: though a number of jurisdictions now allow euthanasia, in one form or another, most countries still do not. And there is a reasonable hope that this will continue to be resisted in many places. The battle against abortion has proven much harder. Now there are many reasons for that, but one might be the love, gratitude or respect for the elderly that most people feel: we’ve known them for a long time. Many people don’t feel the same way about an unborn child they’ve never known. But whatever the drivers behind the push for euthanasia, it’s an obvious threat to the elderly and disabled.
This year’s assembly “poses important questions,” he added. “Sometimes some more concrete, practical proposals comes forward as to what the Church might do or what we individually might do when we get back home to our respective countries.” We’ll see what comes of this week’s very rich discussions.
In an interview with ZENIT, PAL official Fr. Scott Borgman explained that the gathering “is about people at the end of their lives, coming into a new disability, whether that be mental – like dementia or Alzheimer’s – or some kind of physical disability. They want to see how the Church can come and help people who do not grow up and age within a structure, who are already disabled. People who are newly disabled, and how we can serve them.”
Three of the sessions – “Disability and the Human Condition”, “Aging and Disability: Statistics and Concerns”, “Aging and Disability: Ethical Questions and Solutions” – will be open to the public. These will feature experts who will speak about the practical application of the philosophical and theological, scientific and medical, ethical, social and cultural perspectives of this issue.
One of the challenges faced by those aging into disability pertains to modern medical advancement. “Medicine is prolonging our lives so much that at a certain point most of us will come across some kind of disability that we’ll deal with,” he said.
Regarding the care of the elderly, he continued, “there are also a lot of ethical questions: consent, cognitive impairment, who makes decisions for people who have lost their mental capacity. And then, how the health care system needs to come to meet the needs of these disabled people.”
The role of the Church in meeting the needs of those with disabilities is notable, he said, as some 25% of healthcare today comes from Catholic charities and institutions.
Pope Francis, moreover, through his various gestures with regard to the poor and the infirm, “is bringing to the surface the core belief in Catholicism”, he said, and “has definitely raised the level on our reaching out to the poor in general, and also to the aged, which is very close to his heart.”