In a set of updated guidelines for catechesis released Thursday, the Vatican weighed in on what has long been a debate among theologians, insisting that the Church’s sacraments are a gift, and as such, they cannot be denied to disabled people.

“People with disabilities are called to the fullness of sacramental life, even in the presence of serious disturbances,” the new guidelines said, insisting that “The sacraments are gifts of God and the liturgy, which even before being understood rationally, ask to be lived: therefore, no one can deny the sacraments to people with disabilities.”

“The community that knows how to discover the beauty and joy of the faith of which these brothers are capable becomes richer,” they said. “This is why pastoral inclusion and involvement in liturgical action, especially Sunday, is important.”

Calling people with disabilities an “opportunity for growth” for the Church, the Vatican said that their presence can help Catholics to “overcome cultural prejudices.”

“Disability, in fact, can create embarrassment because it highlights the difficulty of welcoming diversity; it can also arouse fear, especially if it is marked by a character of permanence, because it is also a reference to the radical situation of fragility of each person, which is suffering and untimely death,” they said.

Stressing that disabled people are witnesses to “the essential truths of human life,” the Vatican said they must be welcomed in ecclesial communities “as a great gift,” and that for local churches the task of not just welcoming the disabled into catechesis courses, but they must take action “for a culture of inclusion against the logic of waste.”

“People with intellectual disabilities live the relationship with God in the immediacy of their situation and it is necessary and dignified to accompany them in the life of faith,” they said, insisting that catechists must find new ways to teach the faith, with distinct language and methods attuned to the needs of the disabled.

Disabled people, the Vatican said, “are not only the recipients of catechesis, but protagonists of evangelization. It is hoped that they themselves can be catechists and, with their testimony, transmit the faith more effectively.”

Published June 25, the new guidelines were approved by Pope Francis in March and build on previous editions issued by Pope Paul VI in 1971 following the Second Vatican Council, and Pope John Paul II in 1997 after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

They have been updated with documents from the magisterium of Pope Francis’s papacy, specifically drawing on his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Addressed specifically to bishops and those involved in teaching catechesis, the guidelines are divided into three parts, focusing on the nature, goal and task of catechesis; the criteria for evangelizing in modern society, as well as criteria for how to do catechesis in different social and cultural contexts.

Large portions of the document are dedicated to the formation of catechists and to the inculturation of faith in local churches with different cultural and traditional backgrounds.

It draws heavily on the discussion from the 2014-2015 Synods of Bishops on family, and the 2018 Synod on young people. The guidelines specifically invite local churches to give greater attention to catechesis not only for people with disabilities, but also migrants, the marginalized and prisoners, as well as the elderly.

They also offer suggestions and criteria for how to evangelize and catechize in a digitized and globalized culture and underline the role of missionaries in evangelization.

The inculturation of faith became a contentious topic during the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, specifically when in reference to evangelizing indigenous communities in the region. Some argued that an encultured faith flirted with paganism, while others insisted that new cultures are better evangelized drawing on elements of their own language and symbols.

According to the guidelines, “the service of the inculturation of the faith to which each particular church is called is a sign of the perennial fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit, which beautifies the universal Church.”

Inculturation, the text says, “cannot be thought of as a mere adaption to a culture. Rather, it is a profound, global and progressive path. It is a slow penetration of the Gospel in the depths of people and peoples.”

“The specific contribution of catechesis to evangelization is the attempt to enter into a relationship with people’s experiences, with their ways of life and processes of personal and community growth. Inculturation, in the end, is aimed at the process of internalization of the experience of the faith,” the guidelines said, and offered a methodology for inculturation of the faith.

The first step in the process, according to the guidelines, is to become deeply knowledgeable of the culture of the people who are being evangelized and to form a relationship that allows them to be open to hearing the Gospel.

Catechists must also be aware that the Gospel has its own culture, “through which it has been inserted over the centuries in different cultures,” they said, adding that catechists must communicate the “true conversion” of the Gospel, which is open to culture, and help people to understand that the Gospel is already present in cultures, yet “transcends them and does not end them.”

The guidelines also urged catechists to be careful to ensure that “the integrity of the contents of the faith” are not diminished in the ways in which the Gospel is being lived in culture that is being evangelized.

In terms of catechesis for migrants, the guidelines note that many migrants abandon their religious traditions or suffer a crisis of belief during their journeys. They encourage catechists to help migrants see their journeys through the eyes of faith.

In host communities, “attention should be paid to motivating the duty of solidarity and combatting negative prejudices,” the guidelines said, insisting that pastoral care for migrants must also respect their cultural and religious backgrounds.

“It would be unfair to add to the uprooting they have already experienced the loss of their rites and religious identity,” they said.

The guidelines also touch on the role that movements and associations play in evangelizing and the importance of popular piety, as well as evangelization in contexts where Christians are a minority.

“For too long catechesis has focused on making the contents of the faith known and on the best pedagogical methods by which to reach this end, omitting the most crucial moment which is the act of deciding for faith and the giving of one’s assent,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for Evangelization.

Cristina Gangemi, Co-director of The Kairos Forum and an expert in pastoral care for people with intellectual disabilities, said her organization has been advocating for full sacramental inclusion for decades.

“Up until now, the perception has always been that if they don’t understand the program of catechesis, then they can’t understand anything about the sacraments, and therefore, they’re not able; because intellectually they’re not able to grasp a program that we’ve written, they’re not able to receive the sacraments,” she said.

“We’ve been arguing that many people, especially people with intellectual disabilities, have an embodied faith where they learn and communicate symbolically,” she told Crux, insisting that “through symbolic catechesis, we are able as catechists pass down the faith to the person we have before us, and as a person, they are able to receive the gift of catechesis.”

Gangemi said the role of a catechist “isn’t about making sure that intellectually someone can follow a book or a program that’s been written, but that we are able to bring each and every person to a personal encounter with Christ, and that that person can express that in a way that’s right for them.”

She said what often happens is that “we disable the person intellectually and physically by not allowing them to express their faith in a way that’s right for who they are and who they’re born to be, as a child of God in the image of God.”

“Any person is able to be in a relationship with God,” Gangemi said.

She said oftentimes a person with disabilities will only receive two sacraments: Baptism “if they’re lucky,” and the Anointing of the Sick when they are dying.

“What does that tell you about the Church?” she said.

“Anyone who is surprised by someone with an intellectual disability being able to manifest God in their lives…is in some way disabled, because it means that they don’t see the fullness of God’s action as a potential in everybody,” Gangemi told Crux, adding, “there’s a bias there.”