There's no denying that ever since he entered the international stage with his assumption to the papacy, Pope Francis has been making waves.
He has washed the feet of prisoners, criticized the Catholic Church for putting moral doctrine over service, hinted at redemption even for atheists (well, kind of) and has chosen to live in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the opulent papal apartments.
His latest newsworthy event occurred last Wednesday, Nov. 6, when, after his general audience at St. Peter's Square, he kissed and blessed a man with what is believed to be neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that, in this case, caused unsightly tumors to grow all over the man's face. It is often accompanied by hearing and vision loss, learning impairment and cardiovascular dysfunction.
The world has responded to the viral photographs with all sorts of praise. People have been "moved to tears." Others allege the Pope is living up to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. For this single gesture, he has received overwhelming amounts of reverent applause.
I think Pope Francis is a pretty cool guy. Though he may not really be as liberal as the media has made him out to be, he appears truly dedicated to what he sees as the mission of the church — humble service to the poor and the marginalized.
This most recent action is consistent with that mission, and this deserves some admiration.
But is it seriously applause-worthy that the leader of the Catholic Church, supposedly the person with the closest human connection to the Christian god, embraced a man with a noncontagious disorder that causes him extreme disfiguration? Is this really how we define mercy now — daring to touch the disabled and the ugly?
Coupled with the ovation for the Pope has been an unspoken message of revulsion towards the man Pope Francis was embracing. We praised the Pope, because his actions were apparently extraordinary — somehow above and beyond what we expect, not just of normal human beings, but even of someone who is purportedly Holy. It appears if we were confronted with someone disfigured and disabled, we would react differently.
This isn't a statement about the depth of the Pope's compassion. It's a statement about the shallowness of ours.
One headline this week shouted, "Pope Francis Embraces a Modern Leper and the World is Drawn to its Knees." This title, albeit accidentally, is entirely too accurate. The disabled, the disfigured, they are our modern lepers—stigmatized and cast off from the rest of society as a burden we do not wish to bear. At least with leprosy we had the excuse of a perceived threat of contagion; the only pretext we have now is our own discomfort.
Pope Francis's actions on Wednesday were only an example of his continued ministry to the marginalized, because we continue to marginalize the disabled and disfigured.
Though the U.S. Department of Education consistently rates disabled workers as average or above average in work performance, quality, quantity, flexibility and attendance, only 65 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed, with approximately one-third of these adults earning an income below the poverty level. Indeed, an individual with a disability is twice as likely to live under the poverty line than an individual without a disability.
The disabled remain the largest minority group that remains acceptable to segregate from the rest of society. We do not like to see them. We do not like to think about them. They are given separate places to sit, separate paths to get there, and separate places to live. Even at UT, not all dorms are wheelchair-accessible. The few rooms that are accessible are usually grouped together, apart from the rest of the students. Students with disabilities are often not even allowed to choose their own roommates.
Last Wednesday, Pope Francis cradled a man. The sickness that day was not in the man's face, it was in the way we responded to it then and in the way we respond to it everyday — by reducing people to nothing more than their disfigurements or disabilities and by discarding them in everyday life, pulling them back in only when they become convenient to use as symbols.
Melissa Lee is a senior in neuroscience. She can be reached at email@example.com.