ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 2, Spring 2011

My view

Associate Professor Patrick McArdle looks at how theological perspectives on humanity can help us understand healthcare at its most vulnerable point – how we treat people in need.

ACU has been rated ‘above world class’ in the Religion and Religious Studies category of the Federal Government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, with a ranking of four out of five.

This may come as a surprise to some, given theology is often considered an arcane field of academic enquiry – discussions of God, the after-life, the soul and ultimate purpose can seem remote topics to scrutinise.

Yet theology research undoubtedly has a concrete focus and context.

My own research, into practical theology and healthcare, investigates how theological perspectives on humanity can help us understand healthcare at its most vulnerable point – how we treat people in need.

My argument is that we become who we are – psychologically, socially and spiritually – through our relationships with other people. The quality of our relationships determines how our lives unfold.

It is these interpersonal relationships which define what it is to be human – and can influence how we look at other people, for example, those living with disability.

In Western society, people living with disability are often held in much lower regard than the rest of the population. Some question their capacity to have these person-defining relationships, and thus question their worth as humans.

It is a contradiction that while the ‘rights’ discourse in Western society means that people living with disability have been drawn into mainstream society, there are also policies which mean a very limited number of disabled people are actually born.

Government funding for disability services continues to rise, anti-discrimination laws include those with disability and programs to increase workforce participation have become commonplace.

Yet pregnant women aged over 40 are encouraged to test for in-utero disability – with 85 per cent of those who encounter problems choosing to terminate the pregnancy.

While people with disabilities in countries such as Australia have never been more secure, able-minded and able-bodied people are comparatively held in much higher regard, and those with disability continue to be marginalised in practice.

At the heart of these contradictions is the strongly held position in Western society that humans, in their perfection and wholeness, are superior over both the inanimate and animate world. Humanity is able to conquer without restraint and is in fact commanded to do so – ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Genesis 1:28).

Theologically, it is believed that humanity was made in imago dei, or in God’s image – whole, glorified, and without defects of mind and body. This over time has led to the commonly held view that people are best described in terms of their self-reliance, intelligence and independence.

So those with disability, especially profound intellectual disability, are seen to be missing something.

Through my research I am aiming to demonstrate that thinking about humans in terms of their relationships, instead of their intelligence and independence, has the capacity to positively transform how we perceive all types of people – including those living with disability.

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