At the Heart of Things: Anguish Transformed by Love
by M. Ellen Roderick
Within a culture that views man’s greatness in terms of his autonomy and freedom, man’s so called “human rights” are respected with the highest esteem. As a society, we have worked at great lengths to articulate man’s freedoms and rights in order that his dignity may be respected. In this human rights culture, marginalized groups have asserted their rights and today, any academic or political discussion about marginalized groups is done within the paradigm of rights assertion. For example, the current discussion regarding the sexuality of the mentally handicapped is approached from the perspective that genital sexual stimulation and marriage are basic human rights to which they must have access.  Both the theory of normalization of the 1960’s and the 1971 document adopted at the United Nations General Assembly that later came to be know as the Bill of Rights of the Mentally Handicapped were catalysts in this view of their sexuality, as well as the contraceptive mentality concurrently growing in the culture at large.  Today in group homes and psychiatric institutions, in academic journals and textbooks, sexual education and activity amongst the mentally disabled is encouraged.  Contraceptives, sterilization, homosexuality, and abortion are common and are to be facilitated by support staff for the mentally handicapped, as they are their “rights”. 
However, it is fair to ask if “rights” is an adequate framework in which to approach the question of the sexuality of the mentally disabled. Sex is something far more personal than say, voting, to which we also have a right. In this paper, I am arguing that a “rights” framework is insufficient to adequately understand man’s sexuality, and I propose the framework of “gift” as an adequate hermeneutic through which we can understand the sexuality of the disabled. Within the hermeneutic of “gift”, I am arguing that a healthy engagement in a community life is intrinsic to the development of an integrated sense of sexuality for the mentally disabled. This is so because within a vibrant community life their human need for intimacy and friendships is fulfilled, and secondly, because they learn chastity predominantly through imitation (mimetically) more so than from dependence on their reason and will. Humanae vitae’s encouragement for the creation of atmospheres or communities conducive to chastity speaks to this dimension of human sexuality being informed by the experiences of one’s environment (HV, n.22).  This has been the experience of the redemption of human sexuality of the mentally disabled members of the L’Arche community, a worldwide movement of communities where the mentally disabled and those who feel called to live with them, share a life based in community on the Beatitudes. 
To argue this I will draw on the teaching of John Paul II (and in particular a 2004 address when he spoke of the sexual and emotional development of the mentally handicapped, as well as the Wednesday Catechesis), Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, as well as the lived experience of L’Arche and the reflections on human sexuality of its founder, Jean Vanier, in light of 20 years of experience in community with them as articulated in his book Man and Woman He Made Them (1984). Psychological reflection in the area of human suffering and sexuality will also be cited to affirm my thesis. I will proceed in the following manner: first, I will briefly develop the background to this predominant view of the sexuality of the mentally disabled (the theory of normalization and the contraceptive mentality); second, I will introduce Jean Vanier’s positive proposal for the redemption of the sexuality of the mentally disabled, and his critique of the implications of the normalization theory; third, Pope John Paul II’s reflections on the sexuality of the disabled will be discussed and the notions of nuptiality and man’s vocation to love will be developed in order to reveal the flaws in the ideology of the “right to sexual pleasure” and specifically how it fails to assist the disabled person in achieving true liberation and thus becoming fully human.
Factors Leading to the Ideology Surrounding the Sexuality of the Mentally Disabled
Two cultural movements have shaped the discussion of the sexuality of the mentally disabled. The first is the “normalization” theory and the later is the contraceptive mentality. The normalization movement that began in the Scandinavian countries in the 1960’s holds that people with disabilities ought to be treated as “normal people” and be given the same rights and experiences as “normal people” in order for them to fully develop their humanity.  It stimulated a movement towards placing the mentally handicapped in small home-like settings instead of large institutions. There was the discovery that disabled people had a capacity to learn new skills and develop their unique gifts. Vanier notes, however, that although the normalization movement asserted that the mentally handicapped had the capacity for relationships and the need for love and friendship, this quickly took the form of the “right to sexual pleasure”.  The right to sexual pleasure includes the right to sexual education, the use of contraceptives, sterilization, and recourse to abortion if a child is conceived who cannot be cared for.
The second movement informing the ideology surrounding the sexuality of the mentally disabled is the contraceptive movement. The winds of the contraceptive mentality blowing in the 1960’s found their way into the debate about the rights of the mentally handicapped and thus a right to sexual pleasure was born. With the acceptance of contraception a notion of the human person that is dualistic, that is, which alienates his capacity for pleasure from his bodily fecundity, became widespread. Contraception continues today as the norm in the discussions of the sexuality of the mentally disabled. 
Vanier is critical of this approach of sexual pleasure being a “right” of the mentally disabled person. This is because he understands the breaking of the bonds between genital sexual expression, a permanent relationship, love, and the capacity for fruitfulness as ultimately alienating to the human person, who is fulfilled only in making a gift of himself to another and, in this way, expressing his fecundity.  Instead of rendering the mentally disabled person more human and more integrated into society, he argues that the promotion of a right to sexual pleasure leads to superficial intimacy and ultimately to a deeper alienation at the core of the person, a contradiction to the initial motivation behind the theory of normalization. 
The Heart’s Desire for Communion
Twenty years of experience living with the mentally handicapped and their assistants culminated in Vanier’s Man and Woman He Made Them, a reflection on the meaning of being created as man and woman, and of human sexuality, from a Christian and a community perspective. Citing Familiaris consortio and the Wednesday Catechesis on Human Love, Vanier incorporates John Paul II’s teaching into his own experience of human sexuality within the L’Arche community. This resulted in the positive proposal that community life is the adequate environment in which the sexuality of the mentally disabled person can be properly integrated and a critique to the dominant ideology flowing from the theory of normalization. Instead of viewing sex as a “right”, Vanier speaks of it as a “gift”. He argues, in light of Christian anthropology, that a desire for love, acceptance, and communion lies at the root of the human heart. At the root of the mentally handicapped persons desire for physical intimacy is a “cry for love” within their heart. They desire true relationships wherein they can live their giftedness in a way that’s proper to the truth of their vocation. In Man and Woman He Made Them Vanier draws a wider parallel to the same desire in every human heart.
A Positive Proposal: Community and the Integration of Sexuality
In his experience of living in L’Arche Vanier has dealt a lot with the anguish, despair and loneliness that people with mental disabilities have felt as a result of being rejected by their families and from society. At a young age many have been put into psychiatric institutions and have had very little healthy interactions with family or friends where they would have been affirmed and loved. Early on, in the years immediately preceding the founding of L’Arche, Vanier was a chaplain at a large psychiatric institution for 36 men. There he saw and experienced the anguish of these men as it revealed itself at times in obsessive masturbation, homosexual acts, exhibitionism, or in a bodily rigidity or coldness expressive of an incapacity for human relationships. He felt helpless in the face of this great anguish. After the institution closed, he welcomed two men to live with him in a small home. Vanier’s experience since the founding of L’Arche taught him that the healing of the disordered manifestations of the sexuality of the mentally handicapped was subsequent to his establishing a place of peace, stability, and order; a home for these men where they could live together and share daily life. It was through this process that these men discovered that they were worthy of being loved and had a capacity to give love. Through the daily rhythms of communal life and with proper education and accompaniment by their assistants, the manifestations of disordered genital sexuality subsided.
At the root of these disordered manifestations of genital sexuality, Vanier argues that there is a wounded heart that is crying out for a relationship. He says that to become fully human many human needs must be fulfilled. Specifically related to sexuality, which is at the core of man’s being, Vanier speaks of the need for friendships, boundaries, and real fecundity in one’s life (not just biological fecundity but, for example, service to others and the sharing and developing of one’s gifts). Other needs integral to the process of integration are a sense of belonging, a meaningful job or daily activity where one can share his gifts, a home to call one’s own, friends to share meals with, a community in which to share the spiritual dimensions of life, and meaningful times of celebration- celebration is at the heart of L’Arche. Fulfillment of these needs correspond to man’s heart in Vanier’s anthropology. Sexuality, for Vanier, has a real depth in man and therefore, many factors are involved in its healing and maturation. Without real friendships or personal projects which challenge the members of L’Arche to grow, Vanier has noticed that “violence erupts, and the desire for genital sexuality is manifested.” 
Vanier’s experience can be affirmed both through personal experience and psychology. For example, it is at times when we feel out of control, lonely, or unsatisfied or frustrated with our lives that we are more prone towards sexual sins. Psychologist Dr. Philip Mango affirms this observation. He says that our experiences of obsessive masturbation, fantasy or other sexual sins are manifestations of a desire for communion, communion first of all with God, but lived in intimacy with a spouse and in friendships.  The prevalence of loneliness and isolation in our society is fertile ground for sexual disintegration. The point here is that community life is integral both to the redemption of sexuality of the mentally handicapped and to all people, as it provides the grounds for the fulfillment of the desires of the human heart. This is affirmed by experience with the handicapped, theology and psychology.
John Paul II on the Redemption of the Sexuality of the Mentally Disabled
It is in light of this understanding of human sexuality and of the desires of the human heart that one can understand what John Paul II was aiming at when he said in a 2004 address that particular attention needs to be paid to the sexual and emotional development of the mentally handicapped. In an address to the participants at a meeting organized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the dignity and rights of the mentally disabled person in January 2004, Pope John Paul II spoke of handicapped people’s need for love to be revealed to them and of their unique capacity to reveal to the world the truth about redemptive, human love. “Particular attention must be given to the emotional and sexual dimensions of disabled persons,” wrote John Paul II. “It is an aspect that is often eliminated or addressed in a superficial and reductive or even ideological way.” “The sexual dimension, is, however,” adds the Pope, “one of the constitutive dimensions of the human person who, insofar as created in the image of God Love, is originally called to manifest itself in encounter and communion.” He goes on to say that if people with mental handicaps are given the proper support through an active and vibrant community life they are able to “increasingly make the most of the talents and respond faithfully to their own human and supernatural vocation.” He wrote that the destiny of the mentally handicapped person was, in their capacity as “living icons of the crucified Son”, to reveal to humanity
Called to Love: the Nuptial Body and a Culture of Life
John Paul II grounded his vision of the disabled person’s dignity in his being created in the imago Dei and in Christ’s redemption. His first encyclical Redemptoris hominis reveals this to us: “Man remains a being incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This […] is why Christ the Redeemer “fully reveals man to himself.” (no.25)
A further insight which allowed John Paul II to speak of the vocation of the mentally disabled in such a way is found in his Encyclical letter Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Here John Paul II spoke of the intrinsic relationship between freedom and truth, a relationship which is often challenged in today’s culture. (VS, 4) On this note David Schindler writes that John Paul II “stressed that, in considering the correct relationship between freedom and truth, or human nature, we need to take account of the place of the body. The body is not “a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design” (VS, 48). On the contrary, we see in the body “the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise design of the Creator” (Ibid.).”  John Paul II affirmed that man’s composition of a body and soul entails “a unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations” (VS, 50).
This is relevant to the topic at hand because the dominant ideology surrounding the sexuality of the mentally disabled proposes that the handicapped person must have genital sexual experiences either of masturbation or fornication in order to be truly human. These are their “rights”. However, true freedom comes only from adhering to the truth of the human person as revealed in Christ. The body, as an embodied soul created by God, reveals, is an “anticipatory sign”, and is called to participate in, a gift of self. Many mentally handicapped people are called to celibacy and John Paul II affirms that true freedom comes when we follow the divine “design” of our being. Anything short of this cannot lead to freedom. Therefore, the intrinsic-ness of the communal dimension in the lives of the mentally disabled in which they can model others who are living celibacy well, as proposed by Vanier and John Paul II, speaks to the truth of the redemption of sexuality of the mentally handicapped person. The fact they do not possess developed reason and will does not mean that they must live in such a way that contradicts the truth of themselves as revealed in their bodies. The experience of L’Arche teaches us that mentally disabled people can live happily and chastely, and this journey to sexual integration can be long and difficult, as it is for all of us.
Why “Gift”? The Nuptial Dimension of the Body and Human Redemption
Perhaps the reasoning why the body, hence sexuality, is central to human redemption has not yet been made clear. Why do we need to be so concerned about what the mentally handicapped persons might do in their bedrooms? I think this is an important question, especially in light if the fact that both Vanier and John Paul II hold that the disabled person has a privileged capacity to teach the world what redemptive love truly is, to reveal that to be human is to be dependent on God, and to be heralds of the culture of life. If these statements are true then their bodies and what they do with them must be a powerful witness to the world. How so?
To answer this we begin by recalling John Paul II’s teaching in the Wednesday Catechesis on Human Love. There he recalls the tryptic understanding of history: man’s original solitude before the Fall, man’s historical state, and man’s calling to fulfillment in the eschatological state, that is, heaven. The “hermeneutics of the gift” refers to man’s being created gratuitously out of love by the Trinitarian God. In the original state, man experienced his body as being a gift from another (from God) and a gift for another (for Eve).It was God’s plan that through the body man and woman could “witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and so witness to love as the source from which this given springs…Such is the meaning with which sex enters the theology of the body”.  Therefore, the “meaning of the body”, in the Wednesday Catechesis, “refers to the capacity of the human body to make present the truth about the human person, namely his origins in Trinitarian love”.  John Paul II calls this “being-for the other nature of personal existence” the nuptial body. While man lives in the present historical state, there remains within him an echo his original solitude. With the coming of Jesus Christ this distant existential echo within man re-awakens and Christ’s death and resurrection make possible to man an existence lived as “an anticipation of the eschatological state of the perfect communion of Love”. Man participates in this anticipation as embodied male or female.
However, man is not forced to receive the invitation extended to him by Jesus. Given the body’s constitution as nuptial, man’s refusal does not erase the original constitution of the body as nuptial. “In fact, in the whole perspective of his own ‘history’, man will not fail to confer a nuptial meaning on his own body. Even if this meaning undergoes and will undergo many distortions, it will always remain at the deepest level, which demands to be revealed in all simplicity and purity, and to be shown in its whole truth, as a sign of the ‘image of God’”.  Citing John Paul II, Lorenzo Albacete succinctly articulates the relationship between redemption, sexuality, and the nuptial body in the following manner.
That is to say, in becoming aware that we are created as body-persons to make a gift of ourselves to another we discover that in the being-gift of our bodies we experience the anticipation of the Kingdom where we will share in the Trinitarian love. Our bodies reveal to us, and have the capacity to teach others, about our origins and our common destiny. Therefore, what we do with our bodies does matter.
Jesus calls people with mental handicaps to this same redemption as everyone else. As Vanier has experienced in the L’Arche community, they, too, have the capacity to discover that the nuptial attribute of the body. That is, after encountering the presence of Christ revealed as love through friendships with those committed to them in community life, they discover that they are unique and loved by God and have gifts which enrich the community in which they live. Life becomes fulfilled when they discover a unique calling and have the support to pursue it. In L’Arche they do not speak of the “nuptial dimension of the body”, as the core members could not understand this. Rather they speak very much of “gift” and affirm each member of L’Arche in their unique and special contributions to the home and the community, be it, for example, the gift of welcome, of sensitivity or of humor. Through the experience of the community life, not only the disabled but also the thousands of young people who come to share life with them, learn about this fundamental fact of our creation- that being is what is important, and that ‘being-is-gift’. 
It is within these parameters of truth, freedom, self-gift, and community of John Paul II’s theological vision, which is the Church’s vision, that he saw the humanity and destiny of persons with mental handicaps. When John Paul II says we must pay attention to the emotional and sexual development of the mentally disabled and when he warns against ideologies which promote a false understanding of sexuality, I think he is aware of the disabled persons capacity to grasp this intuition of their being ( being is gift) and thus their capacity to radiate it at the heart of the world, revealing to the Church what it is to be human; to be dependent on God and on others, and to discover our humanity in, and through, communion with others in the Church. When supported in a loving and challenging community, the mentally handicapped are free to be themselves, to integrate their sexuality, and to develop their unique capacity for relationships. In this sense, as John Paul II said, they become teachers of a redemptive human love and catalysts in the building of a civilization of love.
In closing, we have explored the prevalent thought surrounding the sexuality of the mentally disabled and critiqued the ideas stemming from a “rights” mentality. We contrasted this with a notion of sex as “gift” stemming from the nuptial dimension of the body. The experience of the redemption of sexuality and the liberation of the mentally handicapped in the L’Arche community, the theological underpinnings of this view of man and his sexuality in the thought of John Paul II, and evidence from modern psychology all affirm the supremacy of sexuality understood as “gift” rather than a “right”. Instead of encouraging expressions of genital sexuality of the mentally disabled, Vanier encourages us to seek the roots of their sexual desire, which is a cry for communion at the level of the heart. We have seen that the mentally disabled have the capacity to develop the virtue of chastity and are able to learn how to live the vocation of celibacy through the role modeling of the assistants who joyfully share in this vocation in a vibrant community life. By taking the redemption of the sexuality of the mentally handicapped seriously, both the fulfillment of their personhood within community, as their anguish is transformed by love and their vocation as teachers of true human love are facilitated. And in the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “The vocation of love is what makes Man, essentially, the image of God. Man is the image of God in so far as he is capable of love; and comes to be in God’s likeness in so far as he or she becomes someone who loves.” 
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1. Lynda K. Mitchell, Behavioral Intervention in the Sexual Problems of Mentally Handicapped Individuals (Illinois: Charles C Thomas, 1985) 3-14.
2. Ibid. 4.
3. Felix de la Cruz and Gerald La Veck, Eds. Human Sexuality and the Mentally Retarded (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973), 57ff, 79ff.
4. Currently many governments are proposing that sterilization and abortion for the disabled should be available on demand. For example, the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics recently wrote a critique of a leaflet titled “Making Decisions” produced by the Lord Chancellor’s Department in England, a leaflet which dealt in part with the treatment and care of the mentally disabled. The leaflet suggested that those who are capable of sexual relationships should be facilitated to engage in them by their care givers, and given “contraception and other safeguards”. Dr. Helen Watt, the author of the critique, challenged the pamphlets support of the legalization of abortion and sterilization for the handicapped, arguing that “pregnancy is not a disease, and abortion does not cure, but rather harms, the woman on whom it is performed”. Further, sterilization, as an act of permanent mutilation is not a “health-promoting act.” Watt suggested that the disabled person, instead of being sterilized, should be protected from being taken advantage of sexually. She was very critical of the over-stressing of “autonomy” in making sexual decisions, the dominant view in modern liberal thinking about sexuality which this paper is criticizing.
5. Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical letter Humanae vitae n.22. Translated by Janet E. Smith in her book Humanae Vitae A Generation Later (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America UP, 1991) 289.
6. L’Arche is a movement founded in France in 1963 by Jean Vanier, a French Canadian, which fosters community life with people with mental disabilities. Today L’Arche has grown to some 104 communities in more than 30 countries. Rooted in the Catholic tradition, the mentally disabled persons, called “core members”, and their “assistants”, volunteers who make their home with the handicapped, share a simple life based on the Beatitudes in family-like homes clustered into small communities, where each member, from the least to the most able, is called to recognize and develop their unique gifts within the community.
7. Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985) 4.
8. Ibid., 6.
9. Examples of the pervasiveness of this ideology in the discussions of the sexuality of the mentally handicapped can be seen in de la Cruz’s book, mentioned above (ft.3), which are the proceedings of a conference on human sexuality and the mentally handicapped sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the United Sates Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1973. For a recent example of the continued domination of this ideology see G. Di Giulio, “Sexuality and People Living With Physical or Developmental Disabilities: a Review of Key Issues,” Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality.12 (1), (2003): 53-68.
10. Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985), 121.
11. The mainstream view of sex in our culture is that it is primarily an expression of “love” for another person. One’s genitals are a vehicle of pleasure and they can be aroused either by the self through masturbation or with another person. The relief of “sexual tension” through the experience of an orgasm is seen as a basic human need necessary for healthy development. The capacity of the sexual act to create human life is seen as extrinsic to the act itself, it is an “add on” willed by the partners of the act. At the base of this view of sexuality is a certain anthropology; that is, a certain view of man, his body and his destiny. Paul VI in Humanae vitae (nn.7-9), John Paul II in Familiaris consortio (n.32), and Vanier all affirm the need for a proper anthropology as the basis for discussing and truly understanding human sexuality. On the need for a proper anthropology Vanier writes, “We need also a deep understanding of anthropology, which is the foundation of human and Christian ethics. It is necessary to help others to understand how sexual relations without true commitment are destructive of the human heart and that sexuality must be oriented, elevated and integrated by love, which alone makes it truly human. It is important to learn that this sexuality, prepared by biological and psychic growth, develops harmoniously and is realized in its fullness only by the attainment of emotional maturity, manifested in selfless love and in the gift of self.” (Man and Woman He Made Them p.45)
12. Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985), 101.
13. Dr. Philip Mango, “The Theological and Psychological Dimensions of a Healthy Marriage”. Lecture, <http://www.catholicculture.com/past_discussions.html.>
14. John Paul II, “Message for International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person”, January 5, 2204.<www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=5871>
15. David Schindler, ““I Thank You . . . Amen”: The Theological Vision of John Paul II,” Crisis Magazine, forthcoming.
16. Lorenzo Albacete, Younger Than Sin. EWTN Library. <www.ewtn.com./library/THEOLGY/YOUNGSIN.HTM>
20. If this structure of community life is necessary for the disabled to discover the nuptial dimension of existence, and if as Christians we are called to care for the “little ones”, then Vanier suggests, and I agree, that we must take the formation of small homes and communities, and friendships with the mentally disabled, seriously in order to facilitate their becoming fully human. Further, if the experience of the mentally disabled person’s experience of the integration of their sexuality is a paradigm of what it is truly human, and not just an anomaly, then the process of the redemption of our sexuality, too, will involve deep friendships and life within a community wherein we are called to share our gifts and in which we are challenged to grow.
21. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on Familiaris consortio cited in a memo from L. Melina.
Copyright ©; M. Ellen Roderick
Version: 29th August 2005