Blessing Kids with Special Needs

The new pope Francis I is eschewing trappings of excess. This strikes me as a both a savvy move and morally good move. (Church officials: if you are interesting in consulting atheist Jewish American soccer moms before making theological and/or PR moves, let’s have lunch!).

He made headlines on Easter when he lifted a boy with cerebral palsy, Dominic Gondreau, out of the crowd in Vatican Square for a special embrace. The world was moved by this. The boy’s father Paul, a professor of theology, definitely was.

As blog denizens are all too aware, I have three sons. My second son, whose blog name is James, has a Ridiculously Rare chromosomal rearrangement. James is three and a half. He cannot speak (he can make a few signs). He cannot walk. He is fed via g-tube. He is somewhat hearing and vision impaired, although we’re not really sure to what degree. He is significantly more medically complex than your average kid. He has severe cognitive impairments, with a couple of striking exceptions. He is the most happy-go-lucky of my kids, but has a stubborn streak. He cracks up when I talk in a funny voice as he holds my nose. He tries to hold strangers’ hands or pat fat people on the belly (may he one day grow out of this habit), and smiles at everyone.

It strikes me as interesting that Dominic’s father and I are two people with apparently similar lots in life. We are both American professors — in some schools we’d be in the same department — and both have sons who have disabilities. Unlike my son, his son has no cognitive disabilities. Yet Dominic’s father and I see our situations, and the pope’s actions, quite differently.

I’m not so much uncomfortable with what the pope did, but how people evaluated it. From the Boston Globe:

Francis “bestowed an extra­ordinary Easter blessing” on Dominic’s Rhode Island family when he hugged the 8-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, following the Easter Mass in St. ­Peter’s Square, Paul Gondreau said. The photo of Francis hugging Dominic has captivated the world, appearing in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and on NBC Nightly News, Fox News, and ABC Nightly News, to name a few.

I must say, I am less impressed. Why is it “extraordinary” to bestow a blessing on a child with disabilities? Of course, one hopes the pope isn’t the type to say, “Ewwwwww, a kid with special needs, gross! Go be special somewhere else!” But isn’t that sort of a low bar? Are mere ordinary popes not expected to be willing to do it? I have to say, I think it should come with the ordinary papal territory. I find the fact that it made headlines actually somewhat disturbing.

Dominic’s father writes:

It is often difficult to try to express to people who do not have special needs children what kind of untold sacrifices are demanded of us each and every day.

Interesting. I find it difficult to express to people who do not have special needs children that my life is going quite well, thank you. They think I must be in miserable service to my son. Being a parent is sometimes, well, aggravating – wiping butts, listening to whining, making sure they don’t do perfectly ridiculously things like swallowing batteries or pretending to be Superman and jumping out a window.  You love your kids to bits, you would throw yourself in front of a bus for any of them. But…aggravating.

As a fellow parent of a child with special needs said to me, “It’s pretty much like having a typical kid, but more so.” Yes. There’s more aggravating crap to do, and I will be doing it for the rest of my life, and I will worry about who will do it after I’m dead. Most parents won’t. But it’s not different in kind from the aggravating crap of typical kids, just in degree. Despite the fact that they cause some aggravation, I count myself lucky to have my typical kids. Despite the fact that he causes some aggravation, I count myself lucky to have James. He’s actually less aggravating in some ways. It’s nice to hang out with James, who just wants me to sing to him over and over, and who will for my whole life be unmitigatedly happy to see me!

Dominic’s father continues:

And as for Dominic, he has already shared in Christ’s Cross more than I have throughout my entire life multiplied a thousand times over. What is the purpose in all this, I ask? Furthermore, I often tend to see my relationship with Dominic in a one-sided manner. Yes, he suffers more than me, but it’s constantly ME who must help HIM. Which is how our culture often looks upon the disabled: as weak, needy individuals who depend so much upon others, and who contribute little, if anything, to those around them.

Pope Francis’ embrace of my son yesterday turns this logic completely on its head and, in its own small yet powerful way, shows once again how the wisdom of the Cross confounds human wisdom. Why is the whole world so moved by images of this embrace? A woman in the Square, moved to tears by the embrace, perhaps answered it best when she said to my wife afterward, “You know, your son is here to show people how to love.” To show people how to love. This remark hit my wife as a gentle heaven-sent confirmation of what she has long suspected: that Dominic’s special vocation in the world is to move people to love, to show people how to love. We human beings are made to love, and we depend upon examples to show us how to do this. (italicized emphases mine).

While there is comfort that many people can find in religion that we atheists lack, there are some comforts we atheists have. Genes mutate. Sometimes mutations give you extra abilities or sex appeal. Natural selection! The vast majority of the time, mutations give you disabilities. I don’t agonize about his reason for existence because I don’t wonder about anyone’s reason for existence. A sperm was in the same place at the same time as an egg; that’s the only reason anyone exists.

James doesn’t exist for the purposes of making other people better and reminding them what’s important. He has his own ends in life.  Of course, we benefit from being parents. But we don’t say of our typical children that their reason for existing is to make us happy or make us better people. People can and should teach us things (and undoubtedly James has, and has taught me different things than his typical brothers have), but that is not their reason for being.

But how can a disabled person show us how to love in a way that only a disabled person can? Because the Cross of Christ is sweet and is of a higher order. Christ’s resurrection from the Cross proclaims that the love he offers us, the love that we, in our turn, are to show others, is the REAL reason he endured the Cross in the first place. Our stony hearts are transformed into this Christ-like love, and thereby empowered to change hatred into love, only through the Cross. And no one shares in the Cross more intimately than the disabled. And so the disabled become our models and our inspiration. Yes, I give much to my son, Dominic. But he gives me more, WAY more. I help him stand and walk, but he shows me how to love. I feed him, but he shows me how to love. I bring him to physical therapy, but he shows me how to love. I stretch his muscles and joke around with him, but he shows me how to love. I lift him in and out of his chair, I wheel him all over the place, but he shows me how to love. I give up my time, so much time, for him, but he shows me how to love.

Okay. Here may be the evidence that I really am an uncharitable shrew.  Gondreau is shoing admirable honesty. It seems really wrong to quibble with a man’s ode to his son, especially when he is attempting to admit his failings. But. So quibble I.

I notice that other than citing repeatedly that Dominic shows him how to love, Gondreau only describes the aggravations of dealing with his son and not the pleasures.

How do people with disabilities show us how to love? That is not specified (well, through the Cross, but how through the Cross?). How can they have a special ability to show us how to love that typical people lack?

There is that line about stony hearts and changing hatred into love. Can saying that people with disabilities show us how to love really mean anything other than that they are harder to love (and easy to hate?!), and so loving them is a special achievement? That sentiment is, frankly, repugnant. I found it significantly harder to bond with James initially, and I imagine I’m not alone. But it didn’t really take that long to fall in love. It didn’t require an extraordinary act of will. David Hume (no believer in Jesus’s sacrifice) assumed that actually it was psychologically quite natural to love one’s child with disabilities. He said, “Parents commonly love that child most whose sickly infirm frame of body has occasioned them the greatest pains, trouble, and anxiety in rearing him. The agreeable sentiment of affection here acquires force from sentiments of uneasiness.” I do not love James the most, but there is something Hume gets right. Basically, it’s this: generally speaking, if you’re the one changing the diapers and wiping the noses, the love eventually happens. My love of James is no credit to me, and no favor to him.

This lesson, to repeat, confounds the wisdom of the world. Heck, it confounds me when I, as his parent, so often fail to see my son’s condition for what it is. The lesson my disabled son gives stands as a powerful testament to the dignity and infinite value of every human person, especially of those the world deems the weakest and most “useless.” Through their sharing in the “folly” of the  Cross, the disabled are, in truth, the most powerful and the most productive among us.

I gather a different lesson on considering people with disabilities. They are — not always, but I will say usually — less productive than typical people. This is not always true — Helen Keller was certainly more productive than my Uncle Arnold is. But on the whole, yes. It also seems obvious to me that less productive people are not less morally valuable than productive people (those who disagree, we can hash it out in a different post).

If people with disabilities are equally valuable and are on the whole less productive, then my conclusion is not that there is some covert way that they are really productive. Rather, it is that the value of human life is not measured in productivity. Were I distributing scarce flu shots during a pandemic, and deciding who should get priority, I think it would be morally wrong to privilege a doctor over a janitor because the doctor is more productive. A person with disabilities who was abandoned by her parents and family, and never had the chance to teach anyone how to love, is not less valuable.

Gondreau ends thusly:

His Easter embrace of my son stands out as a compelling witness to the kind of “poverty” that he urges us to adopt, the poverty that he pointed to in the opening line of his Urbi et Orbi message yesterday: “I would like [the message of Christ’s resurrection] to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest…” Parents of disabled children, stand up and find solace and encouragement in these simple yet profound words.

My home is not where suffering is greatest. Especially if that message is something parents of disabled children, and not the children themselves, have to take to heart. I mean, I’m in a stable marriage, I live with financial security, my job is awesome (if unstable), and I have three awesome kids. I’m not walking around singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” all the time, but certainly there are people who have it much worse than I do.

By “no one shares in the cross more intimately than the disabled,” I assume that Gondreau means people with disabilities suffer the most. Disabilities are, generally speaking, a harm in one’s life. I have no question that my son’s life is not as good as it would be if his brain (and various and sundry other organs) worked properly. Yet I still think there are people in the world with no disabilities who have it worse than he does. My son goes to an wonderful school with teachers who adore him and work their hearts out trying to educate him. He is loved by many, many people, and he loves them back. He experiences more pain and discomfort than most typical kids. But he experiences much pleasure than pain. He loves music, singing, dancing, and mauling our family dog. He has a stable home life and access to great healthcare. There are starved, abused, abandoned, exploited children. Is his suffering worse than theirs?

To sum up an extremely long post, I think this sort of angelicization of children with disabilities actually draws on some morally questionable beliefs: that they are less inherently lovable, that they are valuable only insofar as they are useful. My kid warrants tons of blessings. But not because he has disabilities. Because he is lovable and valuable. Full stop.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I respectfully suggest that you’re missing a few religious cues, especially here:By “no one shares in the cross more intimately than the disabled,” I assume that Gondreau means people with disabilities suffer the most. I don’t think that take is accurate. I think what Gondreau is saying is more like disabled people suffer innocently, through no action or sin of their own, and thus experience suffering like Jesus, sinless but undergoing torture and death for the sins of mankind.

    There are many countries in the world where the birth of a disabled baby would be shattering to a poor family because there is no social infrastructure or healthcare facilities to provide care and help, and a child who cannot contribute to the family’s wellbeing by working on the farm or selling goods in the market or even stealing is a child who is probably not going to see middle age. I think such families and such children need all the blessings they can get.

    • Yes, I assumed I was missing some cues. Thank you for pointing it out. I understand “vocation” has a special meaning, too. That makes sense, but I still have the sense that: a) the attitude suggests our kids are inherently less lovable, and b) the view that their purpose is to make the rest of us better is ultimately a way of saying they are less valuable, not more valuable.

      I agree absolutely that there are people with special needs born into terrible situations. And they need much more than our blessings! I think a disability makes one (generally) worse off, just that (as you rightly note) other things matter. Economic status, physical accommodations, etc. Suffering is not only a matter of disability, and does not *uniquely* qualify one for blessing. SOmeone far less disabled than my son born in worse economic stances is worse off than he is. Indeed, that is part of my point.

      • I think you’re reading way too much into what is standard Catholic terminology about suffering and valuing life. And I’m pretty sure that if they wanted to say the disabled are less valuable, they wouldn’t be comparing the disabled to Jesus himself. It’s the unconditional love thing again – of course we love those who do things for us or can help us, but to really love means to accept wholeheartedly and entirely without considering benefit or gain. And so to love one’s child who is disabled is to experience the love God has for us – for are we not God’s children and are we not disabled in our feeble powers compared to the creator of the universe?

        More prosaically: what’s up with the different size fonts?

        • Huh. I thought I was imagining that (the different size fonts). Will look into it.

          Okay, let’s step back from his language a bit. There’s obviously some private language issues that I don’t understand. And maybe I shouldn’t pick on this poor guy, who is simply trying to admit his failings. He doesn’t really need me to pile on. He happens to have picked at a sore spot of mine, which is that I am at some pains to say my life is not necessarily rendered horrible by my son. One wouldn’t think one needs to be at pains about it, but I do need to.

          But I am bothered by the reaction to the incident. Not by the one guy’s reaction. I’m an atheist Jew married to a lapsed Catholic, and I’m simply never going to feel what this man felt when the pope blessed his child. International headlines touting it. Once I was in a church for a friend’s baptism. A priest walked over and blessed my second son, ignoring my other two. I found it troubling. I have absolutely no beef with Catholicism as such.

          • I really think you’re seeing insult where none exists. Francis has been pope for about 10 minutes and everything he does and says right now (and probably for some time to come) is going to be the focus of intense attention. It’s a photo-op moment and a pretty good one too, and it’s going to get international attention. John Paul II got the same kind of attention in his early days too. As for the priest blessing your middle son, as I said it’s more of a compliment than a patronizing gesture.

          • Maybe I’m misreading Rose, but I don’t think her issue is with the pope in particular, but with the fact that a.) he singled out a disabled child as though there were some reason to single that child out, and b.) people are reacting to it the way they are because the child is disabled, as though being disabled were so bad that it’s either important for the pope or priests to bless them or it’s a really big deal because a pope might just ignore them because they’re disabled. That seems understandable to me: if you want your disabled kid to be treated just like any other kid, then singling out disabled kids in this way sets a pretty bad example.

          • Chris is right. My issue is not with the pope so much. I think his action was well-meant. My problem is the following:
            1) The idea that what the pope did was above and beyond the call. I am disturbed by all the lauding. I understand everyone is focused on him right now. I don’t like that that moment stood out as an instance of kindness. I had kind of thought we were beyond seeing that as a kindness.
            2) I really don’t mean to criticize Catholicism as such. Rather, the idea that people are valuable insofar as they are useful. My kid is valuable whether he teaches people how to love or not. It is especially strange, however, to hear it from a Catholic – whose ideas of moral status are very specifically against the idea of judging human value by utility.

          • And I understand it was intended as a compliment by the priest. I do not take it as such, however. (Think: blacks being called “articulate.”)

  2. I tend to agree with DRS’ response here, but wanted to point something else out where I think you’re misinterpreting him.

    Specifically, you write “Can saying that people with disabilities show us how to love really mean anything other than that they are harder to love (and easy to hate?!), and so loving them is a special achievement?”

    I think the answer here is yes, it can, and in this case it absolutely does. The key to understanding what Gondreau is trying to say is the fact that he is explicitly comparing his son to Jesus in the passage to which you refer. He is not comparing himself, either explicitly or implicitly, to Job, which is what he would effectively need to be doing for your interpretation to be correct.

    Others here can correct this ex-Catholic if I’m wrong, but Jesus isn’t supposed to be difficult to love (God, on the other hand, is a different story); to the contrary, Jesus is supposed to be as close to perfect as any human can be, in no small part because Jesus’ love of others was unconditional. Yet despite this, Jesus’ story is in no small part a story of persecution and scorn, a story of him not being loved by others, essentially for arbitrary reasons.

    What makes Jesus so effective in the Christian tradition as a teacher of love is that his love was unconditional, and his response to this persecution and scorn was only to love more, bearing the suffering cast upon him by that persecution and scorn without complaint.

    Gondreau’s point, I think, is that those with disabilities are not, in fact, loved in the way that they deserve to be loved. Importantly, Gondreau says, in effect, that he himself often does not love his son in the way his son deserves to be loved:

    I often tend to see my relationship with Dominic in a one-sided manner. Yes, he suffers more than me, but it’s constantly ME who must help HIM. Which is how our culture often looks upon the disabled: as weak, needy individuals who depend so much upon others, and who contribute little, if anything, to those around them.

    In other words, society – himself too often included – looks down upon the disabled for arbitrary reasons. Society, he seems to be saying, fails the disabled even though the disabled do not fail society. And yet, in Gondreau’s view, the disabled bear this cross without complaint, responding only with more love. This, I think, is what Gondreau is saying when he writes that his son teaches him to love.

    • This makes sense to me. But then I still think we have the question of whether its their purpose to be such teachers.

      • Here, as you noted in part in the OP, you just can’t get away from the fact that, as a religious person, Gondreau understands everyone in the world as having purpose assigned to them, and you as an atheist understand people to create their own purpose (or not). A great deal of the reason that religious people remain religious is they benefit from feeling that God gives them a purpose for living.

          • As an aside, I know someone who used to work for Despair. They apparently took their philosophy to heart when it came to their work environment.

        • FWIW, I am a sometimes-religious person who generally feels like I’m supposed to figure out and fulfill my own existential purpose, rather than attributing them to God. There’s (sometimes heretical, sometimes orthodox) support for that view within Catholicism as well, generally grounded in taking free will very seriously.

          It’s still *different* than true (atheist) self-reliance, but I just wanted to note that it is quite possible for people to be religious without being especially focused on Providence / “God’s plan” / etc., even within the Christian tradition.

  3. Why is it “extraordinary” to bestow a blessing on a child with disabilities?

    I think it’s “extraordinary” in terms of lifting him up into a close embrace, rather than an “ordinary” blessing that might involved a touch single handed touch. That does still tie in with the theme (compare with your experience of the priest blessing only James out of your children). But it’s probably better than it being “extraordinary” to simply treat a disabled person as a person.

  4. We have to be careful with the word “extraordinary” when we’re talking about Catholic usage. It doesn’t refer to the usual vernacular meaning of “really special” or “out of the norm” or anything like that. It usually refers to a pope’s own blessing, and might be better understood as changing the wording somewhat to reflect a particular situation. Perhaps it’s best understood as saying that Francis personalized the blessing for Gondreau’s son in some way.

    • Okay. But again, this moment made headlines. So people perceived it as extraordinary in the typical sense.

  5. At first blush, I am inclined to agree with Mark’s and DRS’s take, although I can’t sign on fully to what DRS said at 7:35pm.

    Still, I think Rose has a very strong point here, even if her post might not fully acknowledge the religious idiom that Gondreau and the Pope are speaking in. Because however fitting what the pope did and however fitting what Gondrea said was within the Christian/Roman Catholic theological tradition, there are still some Christians who mouth false pieties about how blessed are the meek (or “the lame,” or “the lepers,” or “the poor,” or “the homeless,” or “the blind”). And there’s a condescension there that Rose is right to call out (kind of like she did in this post: ).

    For example, I have a friend who is above-the-knee amputee. One day we were riding a bus together in Chicago, and some lady, as she was getting off the bus, went to him and said, “you are blessed!” and then, evidently satisfied with herself, she exited. My friend took it–and I took it–almost as an insult (and he deals with stuff like that, as well as, shall we say, less “nice” things, every day.)

    I personally find a lot that’s inspiring in the supposedly Christian view* is the notion that caring for others teaches us to love, teaches us to go outside ourselves, which is, incidentally, the lesson I take from Rose’s statement that “Basically, it’s this: generally speaking, if you’re the one changing the diapers and wiping the noses, the love eventually happens. My love of James is no credit to me, and no favor to him.”

    But I think it’s easy for those of us who are inspired by that way of looking at things to fall into the trap of self-complacency and self-satisfaction at our own uprightness. And Rose does a good job of pointing that out, even if the specific example she chose may have been expressed in terms that could be interpreted differently.

    *I do not believe it is uniquely Christian, nor do I believe that it’s uniquely “religious.” I believe a materialist atheist could come up with a similar view and remain consistent with her atheism. But it’s in the Christian tradition that I’ve encountered it.

    • Strangers come up to me and tell me stuff like that all the time about my kid. I am much more okay with it than I am okay with the people who get up and move away from us, or look disgusted. I understand it’s well-meant. They are saying that there are people who do not accept my child, and they wish to say they do accept him. That’s kind. But there are also implications I don’t like about it:

      a) He doesn’t seem very blessed to me. His life is harder. By a blanket statement that he’s blessed, one can simultaneously communicate acceptance while also denying the very real difficulties he faces. The assumption that he MUST be compensated for his troubles in some other way denies the fact that his life is in fact harder.

      b) People tell me he’s a “gift from God.” A gift is a thing that’s for the recipient. He is not a thing, and he is not for my benefit. People say this about all children, but they say it in a special way about children with disabilities. You can tell me I’m taking this phrase too literally. I’m telling you, though, how people say it to me. It as is if God chose me to be a recipient of this gift (“God never gives you anything you can’t handle,” is another phrase that I am told.). And it also bothers me again because it implies that I am receiving some extra compensation for taking care of him. I am not. Nor do I need any.

      c) I don’t want to be reassured that my kid is accepted. I want it assumed that my kid is accepted. I understand that some people are not used to dealing with the disabled. That is something that they ought to work to get over.

      • Thanks for responding to my comment. I pretty much agree with most of what you wrote, perhaps with a pedantic quibble about what a “gift” is. However, that quibble is not very material, and I certainly know the type of “gift from God” people to know what you’re talking about.

        I wonder if part what we’re talking about on this thread–and in your other post I linked to in my original comment–is something like a “tragedy of difference.” Once we–by which I think I mean “society,” but I suppose that set can be smaller–have identified someone as different in the sense of “other,” it is very difficult to interact with that person in a way that doesn’t reinforce that difference or otherness. So that even supposedly well meaning actions have the effect of being marginalizing. I call it a “tragedy” and not a “pathos,” because I do think things can change, at least on an individual level. As you said in your point “c,” above: people (myself included) need to work to get over interacting with people with disabilities.

  6. Rose, I’m a lapsed (variable? heretic? moody?) Catholic myself, and I largely agree with your point here. Actually stuff like this is part of the larger picture that makes me uncomfortable with Catholicism. While I can’t speak for all members of any group I belong to (and especially not disabled folks, since my disability has been made more-or-less obsolete by technological change and barely ever even comes up), I can tell you that the way of parsing disability expressed above – even in Mark’s pretty accurate theological gloss in the comments – drove most of my friends in the disability lab in college up a wall (including some that were practicing Christians), and drives some of my current friends with disabilities nuts as well. So, it’s not just you and me it irks.

    I still remember telling some older friendly acquaintances of ours, who asked about it and just seemed curious rather than sanctifying, that I was in some kind of pain almost every day, and that many of the things I like to do require a decision about how much pain I am willing to put up with (long story, but it’s still true – though MUCH less so now that I have a good doc). I should’ve known better, because as soon as I finished, up onto the pedestal I went, no longer a regular person who was just talking to some friends. How brave I was! How good! How noble! How heroic! To deal with that and still be so sunny and optimistic about life. On and on and on.

    I wanted to walk out on them. I’m just as selfish, and petty, and snarly, and prone to errors, as the rest of the world, thanks anyway. And, HECK YES, still so incredibly much better off than most of that rest of the world, as you say so eloquently. I don’t mind sympathy, or empathy, or even a moderate amount of admiration (because I admire just about everyone I like) – but the overblown social response of OH HOW INSPIRING makes me want to shake people. And as far as I can tell, those with more serious disabilities than I are, on average, even more frustrated by it, because they have to put up with it a lot more, and often in circumstances where they have a lot less choice about the conversation.

    Uh, all of which you probably don’t need me to tell you! But “YES. THIS.” seemed an inadequate response to an insightful post like the one above.

    • > Uh, all of which you probably don’t need me to tell you!

      But I’m glad you did tell it.

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