Recognising persons: the profoundly impaired and Christian anthropology
Comensoli, Peter Andrew
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There are some human beings who live their lives at the extremes of the human condition because of some gross intellectual, cognitive, neurological, or developmental impairment to their human nature. The evidence from practices of care and concern towards such people – the profoundly impaired – suggests that they are acknowledged and respected as moral peers within the human community. Such pre-reflective intuitions and commonplace practices lend credence to the anthropological claim that the profoundly impaired are recognisably persons. Yet what might an argument in support of this intuition look like? How is it that the profoundly impaired are recognisably persons among fellow persons? This thesis is a theological response to that question. The presupposition underpinning the question is that there is something at stake for the humanity of the profoundly impaired in their being the particularly conditioned human beings that they are. There are, however, those who do not allow for the personhood of the profoundly impaired precisely because of the impaired condition in which they live their lives, and there are others who do uphold the personhood of the profoundly impaired precisely by sidelining their impairment. Peter Singer is representative of the first position. Christian theology can and should make an effective response to Singer’s challenge. An emerging field in Christian theology seeks to do so by proposing a distinct theology of disability that re-imagines Christian anthropology. The aim is to secure the humanity of the disabled without the condition of their humanity becoming an obstacle to their moral status within the community of persons. Key to this re-imagining is the adoption of a paradigm of inclusion towards the disabled. However, a critique will be offered of those theological re-imagined Christian anthropologies that centre on a paradigm of inclusion, and on a commitment to separating out the condition of the profoundly impaired from the question of their humanity. The Dutch Protestant theologian Hans Reinders proposes one such re-imagined anthropology in his recent major work, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. His claim is that the humanity of the profoundly disabled cannot be secured by the traditionally held Christian doctrine of the imago Dei because that doctrine treats personhood as something intrinsic to human beings, thereby making it inaccessible to the profoundly disabled who do not have the personalising capacities of reason and will. Instead, he proposes ‘being chosen as a friend’ by God as the only way in which the humanity of the profoundly disabled can be secured, thereby rejecting an immanent reading of the imago Dei in favour of a transcending conception of friendship. This thesis will argue that Reinders’ anthropological project fails because his transcendent concept cannot do for the humanity of the profoundly disabled what it sets out to do. Consequently, a return will be made to that tradition of Christian anthropology centred on the imago Dei to see what may be retrieved from it, such that the condition under which the profoundly impaired live their lives is central to them being recognisably the persons that they are. This is a proposition which says that the personal presence of the profoundly impaired among other persons is not to be denied to them (contra Singer), nor only extended to them as a means of belonging (contra a paradigm of inclusion), nor simply eschewed of them so that they may thereby be included by other means (contra Reinders). In placing the doctrine of the imago Dei at the heart of the creaturely life of human beings, the Catholic Church has made this doctrine the structural centre of any theological account of the personhood of the profoundly impaired. It will be the positive task of this thesis to uncover the theological import of this Catholic anthropological imagination. The two authors most significantly engaged with in undertaking this task will be C S Lewis and Josef Pieper.