Valuing Difference in our Churches

How can both the Catholic Church and our local parishes become more inclusive and welcoming to everyone in our communities? Here are some helpful reflections, questions and tools to model dignity among all peoples but especially towards those living with a disability.

‘A Church that values every kind of difference can be a parable of unity’ – Valuing Difference, 1998

At the core of the Catholic message is Christ’s respect for the individual. In Galatians 3:28 Paul tells us that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” We are morally and spiritually equal before God, we all equally need salvation, and we all share in the same means of salvation. This strand draws us to recognise that discrimination and abuse of any kind, are a gross violation of God’s loving purpose in creation.

In living up to this message, our churches act as places of inclusion and welcome to people of all abilities. During this year-long campaign of the God Who Speaks we are called, as Catholics, to use the Bible to help achieve transformation in our hearts and in our communities through the themes of celebrating, living and sharing God’s work.

This finds strong expression in the initiatives made across the church in England and Wales to celebrate faith with people with disability, since ‘We are all part of the body of Christ and that when one part suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Corinthians 12: 24-27)’.

In 1998, the pastoral document Valuing Difference, called on the church, including all clergy and laypersons, to bear witness to exclusion and to commit to changing the culture of society so that it values the dignity of all life (from conception to natural death), including the gifts and talents of people with disability.

The document provided practical advice for promoting access and inclusion in the life and mission of the church and provides a useful parish audit to guide churches in conducting a survey of how inclusive they are for people with disability.

Effective working

Twenty years on, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Department for Social Justice (DSJ) issued their Statement of Principles: Disability to celebrate the anniversary of this document and to encourage continuing effective work alongside people with disabilities. The principles emphasised the importance of “working with”, not “doing for”, encouraging a positive public opinion, and reiterated the importance of mainstreaming disability inclusion, rather than it being a specialised subject.

The DSJ continues to work to support Catholic dioceses and parishes to appoint a dedicated Disability Advisor, source and provide the best resources for inclusive and creative catechesis and liturgy, as well as engage with parliamentarians to ensure disability equality is a priority of the government.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, that made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled persons in connection with, among other things, employment.

Since 2016 the government has committed itself to a 10-year vision of reform, set out in the Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper, that involves enabling people with disability to enter, and stay, in work, and encourage businesses to implement inclusive practices and support health and wellbeing in the workplace. In various dioceses, the Catholic Bishops have been speaking up for members of its dioceses, particularly on life issues that greatly affect people with disability, such as assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The Church, through the example of Jesus, and his teachings that we find in the gospel, offers a countercultural message – one of genuine acceptance and respect for the inviolable right of the individual. In Mark 12:30-31 Jesus invites us “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Disability Theology

The growing field of Disability Theology also offers much for reflection and guidance on the importance and benefits of such an approach to life within the church. Disability Theology speaks to what it means to be human, as well as the fundamental human need to belong and be in community – a powerful message in this age of late modernism and individualism. We can celebrate examples of active participation for people with disability right across England and Wales. This can be seen in the celebration of masses and liturgies that have been developed with an eye to disability inclusion; where priests and lay members actively use Makaton; and where families are supported to embrace members with learning disability in their parishes.

Symbolic catechesis enables those engaged in faith formation and sacramental preparation, including parents, priests, catechists and people with learning disabilities to engage with the Bible and their own personal experience of the spiritual. Diocesan support networks, outreach groups, ecumenical organisations that support Christians with disability and their families, all signal to the word of God being lived out in our churches.

However, this is an ongoing challenge for our parishes – to be inclusive and welcoming to all. Yet inclusion of diversity in the Church is Scriptural. God is, by definition, an expression of three different beings operating together in unity.  And God has designed his people so that we need everyone else in order to understand who he is: “for just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Romans 12:4-5.

Why not plan to focus on valuing difference for one month in your parish. Simple things to get started in your parish to ensure it is inclusive and welcoming to all might be to ask:

  1. Is my parish disability friendly?
  2. Can people with disability get to, and engage with, the Mass? 
  3. Is there a question on my parish census that asks, ‘Do you look after an adult or child with disability?’

If you would like to contribute to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales informal audit of diocesan disability advisors and advocates please contact as your contribution would be greatly appreciated.

Links to some useful resources and websites:

Valuing Difference, 1998: 

St Joseph’s: 

St Joseph’s Centre in London have produced a useful book: “Symbols of Faith” which is a training course for people providing catechesis for young people with learning disabilities. It is available from St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre, St Joseph’s Grove, The Burroughs, Hendon, London NW4 4TY  Tel: 020 8202 3999.

Catholic Disability Fellowship – Portsmouth Diocese:

Supporting People with Additional Needs in the Nottingham Diocese (SPANNED):

Diocese of Hallam, Beyond Words:

Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, Hand in Hand:

Nugent, Liverpool:

Liturgies and Sunday Service Live: 

Inclusive Church, for Something Worth Sharing (booklet):  

The L’Arche communities for people with learning difficulties and their friends and families: