Catholic Social Doctrine Reflects on Aging and Disability 4

Fr. Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD

Aging and Disability was the topic of the 20th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life held on Feb 20-21, 2014 in Rome.

With the advance of medical technology, there is a longer life expectancy worldwide.  Along with increased lifespan, there will also be greater number of elderly with some sort of disability.

Globally speaking, there are actually more people over the age of 60 than under the age of five.  By 2030, there will be more people in the over 60 age group than the under 10 age group.  The WHO estimates about 1 billion individuals are disabled worldwide of which 25% of them are elderly.

Many of the disabilities are also lifestyle related, and with age these are often related to strokes, heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis, dementia and their consequences. Morbidity is related to availability of healthcare and poverty.

As a result of increasing number of elderly and disabled persons, many countries are faced with the problem of rising budget to care for them. Everywhere, concerns regarding allocation, accessibility, quality and financial sustainability are raised.  There is fear that this problem will eventually implode with great social unrest in the near future.

Catholic Social Doctrine can come to the rescue with the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. The former can promote networking with family and kinship as organic social structures as alternative to governmental aid.  Subsidiarity also calls for decentralization and demedicalization of old age and this might offer relief.  Several speakers also mention the need to change the mode of healthcare delivery with a greater emphasis on prevention and education.

Home-Caregiver-with-SeniorThe elderly and disabled are considered weak and vulnerable groups in society.  The modern mindset is faced with two difficult and sometimes contradictory responses.  On the one hand, the emphasis on care, justice and non-discrimination demands a greater attention to those in need.  On the other hand, the hedonistic and utilitarian mentality which exalts perfection and perpetual youthfulness has a difficult time accepting the fragility and dependency of these groups.  The latter emphasize our autonomy and self-fulfillment can lead to a promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide as the solution to their diminished capacity.

This ambivalence is noted in the 2008 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  While there are positive elements that are mentioned in the protection of the disabled, the convention was not signed by the Holy See because it affirms for the first time a fundamental right to abortion.

French ethicist Marie Jo Thiel speaks of the need to have a paradigm shift with regards to people with disabilities, to look of them not only as needful and vulnerable, but also to empower them through human rights and an ethic of care that recognizes them as our fellow brothers and sisters.

Aging is mysterious condition that science is trying to penetrate and perhaps conquer.  The average lifespan worldwide has tripled in the last 100 years. Can we further extend our life anymore? The goal of modern medicine seems to aim at prolonging life without disability. There are many researchers trying to discover the cause of aging in order to stun or reverse it.  Regenerative medicine aims at replacing damaged cells and tissues through stem cell therapy. But we must ask the question: is it worth the while, and at what cost?

CancerCare_ElderlyManDoctorCan life be prolonged indefinitely, and is a disability free existence the ultimate goal of medicine? The Christian faith offers us an alternative about the meaning of immortality. As Pope Francis said in a recent address to the Academy members:

“Health is certainly an important value, yet it does not determine a person’s value…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.”


  1. I would just like to see government get out of the business of aiding the elderly. Do the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity require Big Government? Government at all? At one time, American communities knew how to organize private organizations. We volunteered. Charity is giving from our own pockets, not digging into someone else’s pocket.

    The system we have now is corrupt. Because they vote, the elderly get social security and tax breaks. Just when their children are trying to raise up the next generation, the elderly punish their children with higher taxes. Because that’s what their parents did to them, today’s elderly rob their children to make them to pay for Social Security and Medicare.

    We know why we have an out of control government. When the largest chunks of Federal Spending include Social Security and healthcare costs, the generation I belong to (the baby boomers) has to know. To get what we want, too many of us have accepted the bribe of “other people’s money” from the politicians we elected.

    • Here’s the ironic thing, Citizen Tom. All those high ranking Catholic (nominally Catholic) democrats defend their political position by referencing “Catholic Social Doctrine” (while advocating things like child murder, i.e., abortion, at the same time). If they really were on board with the Church’s social teaching, they would be in agreement with you. Yet we see just the opposite. It’s clear to me that there’s no understanding of subsidiarity or solidarity in anyone’s mind in congress, and I’m not sure anyone really knows what these people actually mean when they use these terms, not even themselves.

  2. This is a wonderful post on the Catholic Church’s discussion on aging and disability.
    (I, myself, am on the cusp of being elderly! At 68, I’m planning for my old age! )

    I’m heartened to see the church is discussing problems with the mounting numbers of elderly living longer and what this means for our societies and our cultures, never mind our governments. I long to see the elderly cared for in bosom of their families. I was raised to this kind of love and responsibility and it would solve much of the problems the elderly face.

    Governments are fully incapable of providing charity, which is a word that emanates from the word love. There is no dignity where the government provides such things. And though there are those who really have no family, churches have always been the way to provide for these people. Yet government provides little tax benefit for churches that do charitable work for those in need. We should be in prayer about these things. As our US government plunges into a socialistic/communistic form of government, the elderly and disabled will be seen more and more as a burden best removed.

    Thanks for reporting on this!

    • Thanks, Tannngl. I’m also glad that the Church is emphasizing this topic more. It is not only becoming increasingly important, it is perennially important. Individuals, not just governments, need to think seriously about care for the elderly as a response to the demands of human dignity at all stages of life. Governments should also take heed in this way, namely, that it should be more concerned about the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in healthcare. The more educated and responsible citizens become in this regard, the healthier and happier the state and it’s citizens will be.

      We will have more articles from Fr Joseph Tham, or Bioethics expert priest, soon. Thanks for your comment!

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