In retrospect, I would say that this is more like the draft of an article (in the sense of being overwrought and technical) than it is a suitable blog post. But here you go. You’re welcome, blog world.


Apropos of nothing except my own reading and upcoming reviewing of the recent Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader (Eds. Brian Brock and John Swinton, Eerdmans 2012), I want to pause for a bit and think about the state of a question. I’d like to take stock of where the conversation is regarding theological understandings of people with intellectual disabilities (profound developmental delay and Down Syndrome, for example) and attendant critiques of Roman Catholic theological anthropology’s emphasis on reason and free will (begin invoking Aquinas and Aristotle right now!). I think we need to get clearer on what value (or disvalue) there is in continuing to appeal to a Thomistic account of the human person when we think about the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities. This post isn’t about Aquinas himself so much as it is how he is invoked in this conversation. Notice I’m not laying my cards on the table just yet, perhaps because I don’t know where my cards are to begin with. Anyway, here goes.

As a group, Protestant theologians have for the past couple of decades been more proactive than Catholics in exploring the intersection of disability and theology, though I think that may be changing (shout out here to a colleague in systematics at Notre Dame!). Correlatively, a common target of critique is not only the “secular modern” emphasis on rational autonomy as constitutive of the human person (a bête noire we in theology never get tired of bashing, apparently), but also a Catholic emphasis on the capacities of reason and free will as constitutive. This gets us right to Aquinas’s doorstep.

So, first, I’m going to reprise the main elements of a Protestant critique of Aquinas, as voiced by Hans Reinders in his Receiving the Gift of Friendship (Eerdmans 2008). I have written on Reinders before, though I find myself needing to return to this aspect of his work since a few years have passed and Catholics are beginning to respond to him in a fairly adversarial way, predictably. So, second, I’m going to reprise the main elements of one representative Catholic defense of Aquinas, written by Miguel Romero in a chapter in the aforementioned reader.

Reinders’s Critique

As I have said, Reinders centers his theological anthropology around Kelly, a micro-encephalic woman who is missing part of her brain and thus cannot be said in any conventional sense to think or to understand, let alone to exercise the use of reason and free will. He acknowledges that the elements of Aquinas’s position that still inform Catholic anthropology today do allow the claim that, by origin, Kelly is fully human. (I hedged my bets with that last sentence since Aquinas did not actually think “ensoulment” occurred at conception, but rather, at a later stage, when the fetus was fully formed and could “support” a rational soul. This is clearly different from the official Catholic position today. Anyway!) Aquinas, in line with Augustine, strongly emphasizes that everybody born of human parentage is human, full stop. Reinders acknowledges this point.

However, Reinders argues that continuing to define the human person in terms of the rational soul and the use of reason and free will short circuits Kelly’s full inclusion as a full member of humanity. Basically, if the ultimate human telos is in part about the supernatural perfection of the definitionally human capacities for reason and free will, and Kelly doesn’t possess those capacities, then she is unwittingly excluded from this Christian vision of eschatological perfection.

Reinders knows that defenders of this Thomistic anthropology will reply that Kelly is fully human not only because she is of human parentage, but because, as a human, she simply has a rational soul that is immaterial and is not getting actualized in her “defective” body (which includes her incomplete brain). Reinders argues in reply that, for Aquinas and for Catholics in his wake who do retain the idea that the soul is the form of the body (anima forma corporis), the immaterial soul actually does still need some kind of developed material, biological substratum with which to operate, even if that materiality can remain only in potentia right now, as in the case of people with profound intellectual disabilities. But, Reinders insists, Kelly doesn’t even have the crucial part of her brain that would make this an unproblematic point: her body is not even up to snuff in terms of being in potency toward the act of being that is particular to the human person. Furthermore, I take his more general point to be that conceiving of the proper, meaningfully human life in terms of the actualization and eventual perfection of rational capacities always already sabotages any attempt to speak about Kelly’s life as meaningfully human in the here and now.

He ends this section by admitting his undeniable divergence from Thomistic anthropology: “So the remaining claim is this: when it is not actualization but the potency of actualizing human capacities that matters [in a Thomistic framework], we must face the fact that not all human being seem to have this potency, even when they are of human descent. According to the Catholic tradition, this cannot be true conceptually; that is, to be of human descent is to have the potency of a rational being. Denying this would result in a contradiction in terms: a human being that is not a human being. In my view, however, the contention is empirically true. The lives I have described so far are proof of this claim” (109-110; my emphasis). In other words, Reinders is arguing that the people he knows with various kinds of intellectual disabilities, even and especially Kelly, are already not only sufficiently but meaningfully human. As one can see from the rest of his argument, he grounds this claim in the reality of the offer of prior friendship that God offers all through creation and redemption. The truly human response to this offer is to receive it, and nobody is excluded by this posture by virtue of an intellectual disability. Such reception has nothing to do with the capacity for reason and free will, and to insist on the theological necessity of this capacity is to arrive unintentionally at the uncomfortable conclusion that people with intellectual disabilities must thereby be relegated to the status of “subhuman.”

A Catholic Defense of Aquinas

I’ve been tracking Catholic defenses of Aquinas against Reinders for the past year or so at conferences, and, as I said, I just recently read one in print from the reader by Miguel Romero, entitled “Aquinas on the corporis infirmitas: Broken Flesh and the Grammar of Grace.” He centers this piece around the amens, a person suffering from a kind of “mindlessness” [amentia], which can correlate roughly with, or at least include, Reinders’s focus on profound developmental delay. Romero’s main point seems to be that, for Aquinas, perhaps surprisingly, the amens fully retains her status as created in the image of God, and, correlatively, that she, like every other human being, has an unbreakable relationship with God. Let’s see how this works.

Romero argues explicitly against Reinders that, for Aquinas, to be created in the image of God means that “the human creature has an essential and incorruptible aptitude for knowledge and love of God…Aquinas takes as his own Augustine’s animated insistence that newborns, the comatose, and profoundly demented persons all reflect the dynamic life of the Trinity — always capable of knowing and loving God…For Augustine and Aquinas, it is one thing to have a sense of self (an inner or hidden life) and a wholly other thing to reason discursively about one’s self” (103; my emphasis). Romero thus asserts that to be a human person is to have the capacity to image the triune God, which is activated partially through baptism and then fulfilled perfectly in the eschaton. Without question, this includes people with intellectual disabilities; their “inner life” is just hidden from the scope of outside observation. All of this is entailed in the claim that each individual is human by being born of human parents.

This scheme remains intact even when challenged by the life of a micro-encephalic person such as Kelly. According to Aquinas, though the soul is the form of the body, it has some kind of limited sphere of operation independent of the realm of materiality. In other words, each soul is made specifically for each body but, at the same time, it cannot be reduced to the actual conditions of any given human body. To have an incomplete brain does not affect one’s status as a rational creature possessing a rational immaterial soul, even though this reality is not expressed. This failure of expression, according to Aquinas, is due to the fact that we live in a fallen state and are therefore subject not only to moral and spiritual corruption, but also to physical corruption, which Aquinas has no problem labeling as kind of evil (in the Augustinian sense of a privation of an abiding, existent good), above and beyond the finitude and limitations that naturally characterize all human life (and this kind of finitude would not be considered evil).

To clarify these points further, Romero explains, “When particular operations of the body are hindered or impaired, the cooperation between the soul and those operations is likewise affected. For example, a defect or disorder of a body’s internal sense organ would certainly affect the operation of reason – insofar as the immaterial powers of the soul are configured to cooperate with the internal sense organ in the illumination of the phantasm…However, according to Aquinas, no defect or disorder of the body can ever impair the principle operation and flourishing of the rational soul in its communication with God, which is an immaterial act of the soul” (107). So this is how Aquinas can have it both ways: in a certain respect, the actual condition of the body does affect the soul (in the here and now), but the soul’s connection to God is unbreakable. The person may be suffering an “evil,” but that doesn’t negate her relationship with God, partially in this life and fully in the next. No amount of bodily suffering (even in the brain) can definitively frustrate God’s promise of beatitude; in explaining this point, Romero asserts, “Aquinas’s view is that there are simply some things that the human creature cannot lose” (110; my emphasis). Romero insists on this point repeatedly.

My Own Clarifications and Observations

By bringing together two radically divergent views of Aquinas’s utility when thinking theologically about people with intellectual disabilities, I aim to clarify what the actual points of disagreement are. Even as I still actively sort these issues out, I have a hunch that a lot of the disagreement boils down to theological choice regarding our discourse for “human nature,” for inclusion, for eschatological hope.

Reinders’s allergy to rational-capacities language makes him feel more capable of including people with intellectual disabilities more robustly in an account of what it means to be human, while Romero’s inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in a rational-capacities-based account of what it means to be human allows him to feel more successful at articulating an inclusive anthropology. Furthermore, both insist that God has a perduring relationship with people with profound intellectual disabilities no matter what. Both Reinders and Romero want an inclusive anthropology and insist on the ongoing presence of God to each person. Yet they take radically different paths to achieve these ends. What is going on?

To my mind, the apparent advantages of holding on to a Thomistic anthropology vis-à-vis people with intellectual disabilities are that you still have a relatively coherent way of talking distinctively about the human person (rational soul! reason! free will!), and, concomitantly, you get the contours of a relatively coherent way of talking about part of eschatological healing (the supernatural perfection of these capacities!). Furthermore, the insistence that even a micro-encephalic person such as Kelly is fully human, but just with an immaterial rational soul that is not getting expressed but that will also get supernaturally perfected, at least constitutes some attempt at forging a consistent and inclusive anthropology. (Reinders does gloss over this point, namely, that for Aquinas, Kelly would experience the same kind of eschatological capacity-perfecting that all anticipate, so, in some baseline sense, she’s not excluded in Aquinas’s eschatological vision of the fulfillment of the human telos. I don’t think this would calm him down, though.)

However, Reinders raises some fair points. To my mind, the apparent advantages of Reinders’s non-capacities-centered account is that, with it, he offers a greater possibility of saying that nothing is uniquely wrong with Kelly as she is, and that she meaningfully lives a human life as she is. (This is of course connected to his point about how we all, through our sheer existence, receive God’s gift of friendship, and that is what makes us most fully human.) I think it’s a bit harder to make that statement when your lens as a Thomist, primarily, is that Kelly’s body is failing to express the operations of her immaterial rational soul. That also pretty clearly divides Kelly from people who don’t have intellectual disabilities. Are we content with this?

For Aquinas, she may have that soul, but it’s completely hidden; Romero concedes later in his chapter, “It is unclear what it means in practical terms for someone with amentia to have an infused disposition for moral virtue; nevertheless, Aquinas maintains that ‘half-wits and fools’ receive supernatural wisdom and supernatural prudence when they are baptized” (121-122). I’m not jazzed about the language in that quotation, but I think it’s illustrative. So for all intents and purposes, insisting on the existence of Kelly’s rational soul is doing nothing right now except assuring those of us who possess some kind of use of reason that she is really like us (through the existence of a slightly independent, immaterial, vaguely entitative-sounding thing called the rational soul, sort of hovering around her head). Whew!

–Something about this fixation seems a bit off to me. So I like that Reinders raises the question of why we have to talk at all, for example, about an intellectually disabled person’s ongoing relationship with God in terms of that person’s aptitude for that relationship. Romero insists, in glossing Aquinas, that people with intellectual disabilities do not lose the aptitude to image God and to have a relationship with God, but why do we have to point to embedded capacities (sometimes hidden) within the human person as the primary language that secures her worth as a human being? Why do we have to advert to those capacities (wherever they may be!) to insist on God’s relationship with Kelly? And are our imaginations so limited that we cannot think of more robust ways to talk about what it means to be human that connect up more directly with the lives of intellectually disabled people in the here and now as they are actually living them? (The theologians doing disability work lately have been bursting with ideas on that front, and a lot of that, not surprisingly, lines up with feminist and postmodern attention to vulnerability, limitation, and other categories foregrounding various forms of negativity and porosity, etc. as integral aspects of being human.) As a final point in this line of thought, it is highly contentious to assume that a disability is an “evil,” even if this label refers most directly to some kind of “privation.” I don’t think we can afford to make that categorical assignation anymore.

On the other hand, Reinders seems to disallow any language of eschatological healing at all. At the very end of his book, he writes, “A profoundly disabled person such as Kelly has no relationship with God in the sense of a human act on her part, I have argued, but this does not exclude the possibility that God has a relationship with her. But I don’t know exactly what this means with respect to Kelly…Kelly cannot return gifts of friendship in the sense of a human act. Thus, what we have received is the gift of her presence, not the gift of her response. There is no reason to deny that, in many ways, this is a sad fact about her life ” (377-378). I like his selective agnosticism and his insistence on God’s relationship with Kelly, but I would like to say also, tentatively, that if we can call something “sad,” we may need to see what value judgments are informing that emotional reaction. Perhaps it’s not wrong to hope for some kind of growth in knowledge and love on Kelly’s part, just as we should hope for growth in knowledge and love for all of us. I’m not exactly sure what I’m saying here except that I’m not ready to disallow all tentative conversations about the contours of eschatological fullness, which may include some conception of embodied, including cognitive, healing. I don’t think it’s wrong to desire mutually loving communion with Kelly, though I’m open to revising how I talk about this.

Not that I know exactly where I stand, but…maybe it’s just a Protestant/Catholic thing at the end of the day.

7 thoughts

  1. There is a lot to digest here. So, forgive me if what I’m about to ask doesn’t seem to apply, but how do the two different writers feel about people with mental disabilities such as depression, schizophrenia, etc? Wold Reinders claim that such people don’t have a relationship with God as well?

  2. Hi Diane,

    That’s a good question. I’ll say first that, for sure, both Reinders and any defender of Aquinas would say that God has an ongoing relationship with all people no matter what.

    But anyway, I think your question importantly points to a whole different (but related) set of concerns. I have a hunch that these thinkers would view mental illnesses more in the realm of “disorder,” so I think it would be easier for both of them to articulate some hope for eschatological healing (than it is, at least, for Reinders to want to hope for that in the case of people with Down Syndrome). But there needs to be more explicit theological attention on these kinds of things, in my opinion.

  3. Dear Elizabeth,

    I am grateful for your engagement with my chapter on St. Thomas Aquinas in ‘Disability in the Christian Tradition.’ To add just a touch of dramatic intrigue to your remarks and analysis: Hans and I are getting together for lunch next week when he visits Notre Dame and he will be a guest lecturer in my course on Disability in the Catholic Theological Tradition!

    In fact, our relationship is far from adversarial; rather, at the root of our engagement with one another is a common concern to describe the beauty and goodness that we have each discovered through life-long friendships with individuals who have a profound cognitive impairment. For my own part, I can say that I hold Hans in the highest regard and I am grateful for his friendship.

    The chapter you read was an early study in preparation for my forthcoming book ‘Destiny of the Wounded Creature: St. Thomas Aquinas on Disability.’ With both the chapter and my book, a principal concern is to see that the conceptual and pastoral resources of St. Thomas on the limits and fragility of the human body be made available to the Church, for the benefit of the most vulnerable among us. That is to say, I am eager to hold forth St. Thomas as a trustworthy patron in the practical performance of our preferential option for the poor.

    I would be happy to provide any comments or clarifications that you or your readers might request from me. Again, thank-you for bringing this attention to St. Thomas on the topic of disability. I’m looking forward seeing you the next time you are in South Bend!

    Kind Regards,
    Miguel J. Romero
    Department of Theology
    University of Notre Dame

    1. Hi Miguel,

      Thanks! Would you be willing to send me your syllabus? I would be very interested!

      Thanks, Elizabeth

    2. Hello,
      I don’t know if you read this comment, but I am a PhD-candidate working on disability in the catechism and the catechesis of the Catholic Church, and as such I have written a small chapter on three questions of the Summa. I would be very happy to get in touch with people working on the same subjects. Here in France, there is not much academic reflection going on around theology of disability. You can reach me on :
      Talitha Guittin
      Faculté de theologie catholique
      Strasbourg – France

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