At a Vatican workshop addressing aging and disability, Pope Francis reminded participants that every human being is always dependent on others: a reality that should encourage empathy and inclusion.
“One easily forgets that the relations among human beings are always relations of reciprocal dependence, which manifest themselves according to different degrees throughout the life of a person and become indispensable in situations of old age, illness, disability, and indeed suffering in general,” the Pope said on Feb. 20. to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
“This requires of all of us our efforts of necessary help through interpersonal as well as community relationships, in an attempt to answer the present need of these persons in their respective situations,” he urged.
The two-day workshop on aging and disability was held in order to respond to a culture where “one encounters the tyrannical dominion forced upon us by a logic of economics that discounts, excludes, and at times even kills our elderly,” noted the Pope.
Dr. Robert Buchanan, a Texas-based neurosurgeon and psychiatrist who has been invited to speak at the workshop, told CNA that the plight of the elderly must be considered as our own.
“At some point in the normal aging process we all will have a decline. By decline I mean that we will confront limitations to how we can interact with our society and with others,” said Buchanan, who serves as member of the pontifical acedemy.
“We all age, we all lose mental prowess, cognitive abilities, and we all die, eventually.”
Buchanan was asked to present the “scientific principles” of cognitive decline, or dementia, in order to “provide a framework for the moralists and theologians and the other ethicists here to help put cognitive decline, all the way to the most severe forms of dementia, into a perspective: a moral perspective, (and) a theological perspective.”
In turn, Buchanan hopes that the collaboration between science and ethics on this topic “will help not only academics but then the general population better deal with what is inevitable for all of us.”
“This will hopefully shed some light on the importance of personhood with people who are even the most severely demented people.”
The Pope’s morning address also focused on the importance of recognizing the inherent dignity of the person, regardless of their age or diagnosis.
“Health is certainly an important value, yet it does not determine a person’s value,” underscored the Pontiff. “The gravest deprivation experienced by the aged is not the weakening of one’s physical body, nor the disability that may result from this. Rather, it is the abandonment, exclusion and deprivation of love.”
Buchanan noted that the temptation to such abandonment may increase as the number of elderly with healthy bodies but weak minds grows.
“What we’re going to be confronted with in the future are many people living well into their 100s, with their brains still having similar problems that we have today in 2014. That opens up all of the concerns that are raising their ugly heads,” he remarked.
“There will be a knee-jerk response by some in the media, some in the culture, to say that ‘grandma, grandpa, would be better off dead, wouldn’t they? Because their brains just don’t work and they’ve lost their sense of self, their sense of identity.’”
“We would disagree with that, of course, in the Catholic Church.”
Pope Francis stressed that the antidote to such a response is found in family life.
“The family is the mistress, one might say, of acceptance and warm welcome as well as of solidarity...In the family, one learns that the loss of health can never be a reason for discriminating against human life. The family teaches about not falling into an individualism that weighs oneself against the others,” explained the Pope.
Moreover, the family helps society to recognize the aged person as someone “who has a mission to fulfill, and about whom it is always false to say he or she receives without offering anything in return.”
The Pope closed his remarks by thanking the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life for their work which “mindfully joins together scientific rigor and respect for the human person.”
“I implore you to preserve this same spirit throughout the course of your on-going service to the Church and the entire human family. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady protect you always,” he concluded.