Disability Debunks the Late Modern Myth of Radical Autonomy

Ontological poverty is a fancy term for a basic reality: every finite being, including each one of us, is a creature. We do not independently possess the “means” to begin to exist or to continue in existence. We are constantly and utterly dependent on God’s creating and conserving power to sustain us.  This is the most fundamental truth about us, the first truth professed in our creed.  I’d like to argue today that it is also the lens through which our response to all forms of poverty must be viewed. In light of this truth, the “poor” can never be the simply “other”—we are all poor. And poverty itself is not something to be eradicated: it is our existential condition—we cannot eradicate it without eradicating ourselves.[1]

This insight is lost once people buy into late modern assumptions about our ability to overcome the limitations inherent to our state as finite beings. Under the influence of what Jacques Maritain calls “demiurgic imperialism,” we lose any sense of the givenness of the world or ourselves and fall into the modern project of mastering the natural world and eliminating all contingency.[2] But the drive to achieve a utopia populated by radically autonomous individuals whose choices are simply unconstrained is on a collision course with reality, and the first to die in the train wreck will be, are, the poorest of the poor.

Any American family that includes a person born in the last 45 years with a serious mental or physical defect has first-hand knowledge of this collision. Having a disabled child has put me in contact with a number of very kind people who are adamant about my daughter’s rights and have worked hard to serve her needs and to assure that she and others like her are no longer warehoused in institutions. But some of these same people also think it would have been perfectly fine for me to have had her killed in utero, and find it disconcerting and distressing that I do not share that belief. When I was pregnant with Rachel and I flunked the triple-screen blood test, the medical professionals around me went crazy trying to convince me and my husband that I should undergo amniocentesis so they could make a definite diagnosis of a chromosomal abnormality. They were shocked, then dismayed, and then condescending in their response to our reasoning that no test result would alter our decisions about how to proceed with the pregnancy so there was no reason to undergo testing which might endanger our child.

One doctor in particular was intent on making sure we knew just how terrible her condition might be, certain that if we just understood that, we would want to have the testing because the results might show that this was a child who should really just not be born. His disappointment in our backwardness was palpable. His parting shot was to assure us that if he were present for her birth and she experienced any difficulties consistent with the syndrome he wanted us to fear she had, he would not assist her medically because that just would not be appropriate for someone with her condition.

Our lived experience both before and since our Rachel’s birth confirms an observation Jason Reimer Greig makes in his book, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability: “At the same time that it offers increasing support and sympathy for . . . people with disabilities, late modern society sends an equally clear message that everyone would be better off if these same persons did not exist.”[3]  The cognitive dissonance of the same person strenuously defending the rights of the disabled while also holding that a disabled person’s own interest might have been best served by having been aborted is, most unfortunately, a dissonance to which many very nice people have grown accustomed. Our natural desire to help the vulnerable is simply made to occupy the same mind as the assumption that science is destined to overcome all vulnerability, that contingency itself is the enemy that science is meant to destroy. And the resulting dissonance makes it all too easy for people to accept the idea that “in the name of sympathy for the sufferer, we must eliminate those who cannot be ‘cured.’”[4] To quote Greig again, “Contingency’s restraining of the utopian impulses of the Baconian project stands not as a boundary to be respected but as a pathology to be aggressively ameliorated.”[5] The goal is no contingency, absolute autonomy.

Any service to the poor is inevitably shaped by our sense of the goal of that service. For those caught up in the myth of the autonomous individual, we serve the poor by empowering them to become independent, and success will be measured by how many people no longer need our service. The canary in the coal mine that gives the lie to this approach is the irreversibly dependent person who has needs that cannot be simply supplied, who is not capable of achieving autonomy. If our natural desire to help the most vulnerable is an accurate response to reality, and the autonomy model fails the most vulnerable, then autonomy is simply inadequate as a goal for our service.

Greig argues that while the disability rights movement and the associated social model of disability have undeniably improved the lot of many physically disabled people, because of its emphasis on personal agency and self-representation, i.e. an underlying assumption of autonomy as an absolute good, this movement has had the unintended consequence of further isolating those with serious cognitive impairments—by insisting on the necessity that each person speak for his or her self, those who cannot speak for themselves are rendered literally voiceless.[6]

The drive to achieve a utopia populated by radically autonomous individuals . . . is on a collision course with reality, and the first to die in the train wreck will be, are, the poorest of the poor.

Part of the appeal of the autonomy model is our cultural assumption in favor of being left alone.  But for people who are unable to initiate and sustain healthy relationships, being left alone means being left literally alone. Another reason the autonomy model is appealing is that it gives the helper a concrete goal: get this person to the point where he or she does not need my help.  Supply this person’s need and then step back and let him or her be on his or her merry autonomous way. Our relationship to the poor remains external: we attempt to fix them from the outside, and are not challenged to change ourselves in any way. Our own autonomy, our pride, our façade of having no need ourselves, can remain intact. An approach to the poor which is narrowly focused on autonomy is too often a lonely, mechanical affair.  This is the situation that Kelly Johnson is challenging when she says, “The opposite of poverty is not plenty, but friendship.”[7]

Helping undertaken in the context of our universal ontological poverty is a much less lonely, clinical affair.  While it attends to material needs and works to supply them, the help of one creature to another is necessarily an exchange that impacts each of them interiorly.  Neither is in the position to simply “fix” the other.  Helping undertaken in the context of our mutual creatureliness is much more adequate to the needs of the most vulnerable, and also more adequate to the needs of those who help!

Many of our contemporaries find talk of creaturehood just plain embarrassing: the creation/evolution debate has made it seem to many that the story of creation is just a superstitious myth which can’t be taken seriously by any intellectually responsible person. But our faith in creation is not a faith in a particular sequence of historical events, rather it is a conviction about reality: that God is and that everything other than God is caused, here and now, by God.  This is a conviction about reality affirmed by scripture and also reachable by reason acting on its own. Neither our faith in scripture nor our metaphysical reasoning commit us to anything that could be contradicted by the fossil record or investigations into mitochondrial DNA. We should not let confusion among non-Catholic Christians and others about interpretation of scripture, or their unfortunate lack of a coherent metaphysics, prevent us from expressing our confidence that we are creatures. Pope Benedict goes so far as to say,“[W]e must not in our own day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true . . . can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings.”[8]

Let me reflect for a few minutes on some aspects of creaturehood, ontological poverty, in order to draw out some principles that should govern our service to our fellow human beings. The first of these aspects is God’s immanence. The fact of creation means that God is very close to us: as our creator and conserver he is present to all things.  As the source of our being he makes us be for as long as we be, not merely affecting us but effecting us at every moment of our existence.

And yet part of what God effects for each creature is its own efficacy—its own ability to make a difference, which is in no way a diminution of God’s efficacy but rather an expression of it.  This is very hard for the modern mind to grasp.  We are used to seeing power as a zero-sum game—there’s a certain amount of energy in the system and I can only gain more if you have less. The more impact you have the less I can have. But this is precisely not the situation of the creature.  The Catechism puts it this way: “God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power.  He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.”[9]  The Catechism immediately goes on to articulate the principle of subsidiarity as one that we are to follow in imitation of God’s respect for secondary causes.

Despite our remarkable efficacy, however, we remain finite beings and cannot act in response to God in a way which is simply reciprocal. This is so fundamental to Christianity—when reciprocal action is required God must himself become man in order to accomplish it. God does not want simple reciprocity from us—but he does want us to be his friends, to share a life of mutuality, of being together, despite our limitations. If we really understand what it means for an infinite being who needs nothing to desire to be in community with puny beings like us even knowing exactly how much trouble we will be, we realize—gosh, he must be really be crazy about us!  He wants us to exist!  Sometimes we can barely put up with each other, but God continuously renews, re-approves, the existence of even the most irritating among us! The approval so many are seeking on Facebook, showing off for their “friends,” is nothing compared to the radical thumbs up, the "man do I like you" manifested by our continued existence.

Acknowledging our own creaturehood allows us to be open and receptive to God, to ourselves and to others.[10]  St. Thomas argues that poverty of spirit is the natural “affective” response to the reality of our ontological poverty,[11] and a person who is poor in spirit “ceases to seek greatness either in himself or in another but seeks it only in God.”[12] Awareness of our own dependency forces us to get over wrongheaded notions of self-sufficiency, and inoculates us against the sort of pride that looks to help the neighbor but refuses to expose any need of our own. In fact, facing our own dependency can help us to understand what we receive from relationships in which we may, at first, think that we are primarily giving. Seeing our fellow human beings as having been deliberately called into existence by God helps us to encounter them in a way that expects them to be gifted in themselves and potentially gifts to us.  If we encounter them expecting only to discover what they are not, we will never appreciate what they are!​

Our relationship to the poor remains external: we attempt to fix them from the outside, and are not challenged to change ourselves in any way.

I have discovered this myself in my relationship with my daughter. When she was diagnosed with Tetrasomy 18p and we knew that her intellectual development would be far from typical, I found myself grieving things that I had had no idea I was expecting: attending her college graduation, helping her choose a wedding dress, sharing my favorite books with her. That last was the most difficult for me to get over for some reason. I came to realize that I had expected her to be like me and that that likeness would mean we would share things that I value. But loving her and living with her these past 18 years has helped me to see that there is so much more to her than not being able to read books, and so much more to me than being able to read them. Loving her has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to realize my own poverty—she has supplied a need that I, in my great competence, had never had to acknowledge.  I have learned much more from her than she from me.

I could go on and on. But let me cut to the chase: What do we learn about care for the poor when we consider God’s care for us? In light of our own ontological poverty, what principles should animate our service to the poor and our reception of others’ service?

We should encounter all human beings with the expectation that they are gifted and that they may well have gifts which we lack. This spirit of humility and receptivity makes it much more likely that our help is not experienced as a humiliation.  It also overcomes simplistic notions of reciprocity and opens up a space for a rich exchange of gifts between people drawing from very different sets of resources.

It is essential that we not see our service as a means of making others like ourselves. It is rather meant to help others to flourish as themselves, and what it looks like for a Muslim woman in India to flourish will not be exactly like a Baptist woman in Indiana. Among the gifts we must be attentive to are the subsidiary structures already in place around the people we want to serve so that we may work in a way that supplements already existing supports rather than replacing them.

Helping undertaken in the context of our universal ontological poverty is a much less lonely, clinical affair.

Finally, it is important that we be “near” to the poor, as God is near to all his creatures. This means that, again, we must be attentive to the subsidiary supports that are nearest to those in need. And while it is not inappropriate to be aware of the more dramatic or acute needs that gain the attention of the media, we must not allow those to distract us from seeing the needs which are immediately around us. Each of us is called to act locally, in our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools, to respond to the various poverties there with the works of mercy that are possible for us. We should never take as our goal “fixing” the other. The opposite of poverty is not plenty—even if we could magically redistribute all the material goods in the world in an equitable way, we would not be able to sit back and just enjoy utopia. Our own inherent selfishness would soon destroy that dream. Earth will never be heaven. But it can be a whole lot more heavenly, and that more lowly goal should animate all we do.


Editorial Note: This essay was originally presented as a paper entitled, "Ontological Poverty and Our Attitude towards the Impoverished, Dependent, and Disabled," at the Catholic Women's Forum 2017 Symposium, on "A Feminine Lens on the Enduring Problem of Poverty." 

[1] On this point, see Cardinal Sarah’s comments in God or Nothing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 140-143. I agree with his observation that it is more apt to speak of combatting “destitution” rather than “poverty.”

[2]Maritain discusses three “moments” in “the dialectic of modern culture,” the second of which is “demiurgic imperialism over material forces. Instead of accepting natural conditions and controlling these by a process that is itself natural and that qualifies the interior life of man, in other words that tends primarily to inner perfection and a certain wisdom of soul and life, civilization sets out to alter the conditions of nature, to rule over it by technical and artificial processes; creating with the aid of the science of mathematical physics according to the promises of Descartes, a material world adapted to the felicity of our earthly life. God becomes an idea” (Freedom in the Modern World,” in The Collected Works of Jacques Maritain, Vol. 11, trans. Otto Bird et al [South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996], 51).

[3] Jason Reimer Greig, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability: L’Arche, Medical Ethics, and Christian Friendship (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015), 71. In this book, Greig takes as his starting point the case of Ashley X, the first child subjected to the medical intervention which is now called the Ashley Treatment or AT. There is an ongoing debate about whether this treatment constitutes a helpful medical intervention or child abuse. Greig notes that Ashley’s parents are clearly motivated to do what is best for Ashley. On that question, see also Eva Feder Kittay, “Forever Small: The Strange Case of Ashley X,” Hypatia 26 (2011) 610-31.

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, “Seeing Peace: L’Arche as a Peace Movement,” in The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and l’Arche Communities from Theology and the Sciences, ed. H. Reinders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 117.

[5] Greig, 56.

[6] See especially his third chapter, “Disability, Society and Theology.” A narrow focus on autonomy not only doesn’t serve these people, it actually makes their situation worse by insisting those who care for them “play the game” of maximizing their choices in artificial ways which have nothing to do with their real needs. For an egregious but completely believable example, see http://www.catholictranscript.org/columns/father-tad-pocholczyk/4746-leaving-our-values-at-the-door-of-the-strip-club.html.

[7] Kelly Johnson, The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 209.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger),“In the Beginning”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 18.

[9] CCC 1884. It cites St. John Paul’s definition of subsidiarity from Centesimus Annus 48: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

[10] Cf. “In the Beginning”, 95.

[11] Thomas connects appreciation of creaturehood and subsequent submission to God’s will with a particular gift of the Holy Spirit, fear of the Lord, which he further connects with the first beatitude. See ST II-II, q. 19. For a discussion of the critical texts in this discussion, see the Chaput Chair Lecture at St. John Vianney (8 March 2017).

[12] ST II-II 19.12.

Featured Image: Joachim Patinir, Landscape with St. Christopher, c. 1522; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Susan Selner-Wright

Susan Selner-Wright is the Archbishop Charles J. Chaput Chair of Philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. She specializes in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, having translated and edited On Creation, a translation of Aquinas’ De potentia Dei, Q. 3.

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