friendship and community

Can you be friends with the intellectually disabled?

A look back at Notre Dame's Fall Conference.

An interesting disagreement came up at this year’s Fall Conference on friendship at Notre Dame. Alasdair MacIntyre argued during his keynote that friendship requires equality, and that relationships where there is inequality or which are focused on the care of one by the other are more “friendly relations” than true friendships. Later, Stanley Hauerwas spoke on friendships with the intellectually disabled at L’Arche, and someone repeated MacIntyre’s remarks in a question: Given the caregiver role of the “assistants” in the L’Arche communities and the intellectual differences between those with disabilities and those without, can there really be friendships? That is, can those with intellectual disabilities really be friends with those without?

A similar question might be asked about relationships with God. We know that Christ calls us his friends in John 15, but can he really call us so, when the divine nature is so beyond comprehension for mere created beings? How can we really know God, when we are finite beings, and his being stretches into infinity? What could possibly be the basis of equality, which is the basis of friendship?


In Givenness and Revelation, Jean Luc Marion probes this question: How we could possibly know God, given that God infinitely transcends us, given that we could not possibly penetrate God’s being so as to understand Him? Marion frames the question in terms of disclosure. Marion asks what it could mean for us to know God. In the end, Marion seems to frame the answer with God’s humility. God loves humanity such that He discloses himself to us, not in a simple disclosure, but in a way that we can be disclosed to. Even as we go out to God to know him, He must come down to us, such that we cannot force our way in to knowledge of God, but this knowledge comes about through God’s gift of himself to us. Knowledge of God can only come about through God’s disclosure of himself, and this disclosure can only come about in the form of a gift.

Though Marion does not reflect upon the mutuality involved in this gift, we might do so. Marion write that knowledge of God cannot be separated from loving God. But we also find, through the necessity of self-disclosure, that knowledge of God (and also our loving God) cannot be separated from God loving us. We must go in search of God, and God must likewise reveal what it is to know him.

It’s not simply that we don’t know God, but also that we don’t know the way in which we would know him. For this, God must teach us not only to see him but what it is to see him. He must teach us not only through disclosure, but also through a revelation of the mode of disclosure. We must re-learn not only what it means to see God, but also what it means to see, and likewise what it means to love, and likewise what it means to friend. Loving God not only re-constitutes our conceptual understanding of God, but reconstitutes our very selves. Our mode of being and loving is changed in loving God and befriending him. And here we may come to an answer to the question of what it means to friend someone with intellectual disabilities.

A New Being

Just as with God, coming to love another human person requires us coming to know them in the mode in which they are known. It involves our going out in search of them, and also their self-disclosure to us. But self-disclosure is not the same for any two persons. Each person is not only known individually, but must also become known individually. The mode of disclosure for the human person is as diverse and unique as each person. To know me is not the same as to know another, and the way in which you come to know another is not the same way in which you would come to know me.

Thus, loving me involves an entirely new mode of being. As you come to love me, you come to learn to love in ways which are totally new. For this reason, love is an ever expansive activity. It teaches each lover a new way of being. And thus it is ever creative.

And here we also discover the mutuality involved coming to know another, coming to love another, coming to friend another. For you must go out and learn what it means to love me, even while I disclose to you what this means. At times in this process you will also teach me what it means to disclose me. For as I am loved I am also disclosed to myself. And in this way love is an ever expansive and ever transformative activity for both of us.

Finally, we come to the person with intellectual disabilities. To say that there cannot be a mutuality of relationship within, for example, the L’Arche community, would be to say that these persons can never be loved or known. And likewise it would be to say that they can never know or love us. The mutuality required for friendship comes in our willingness to go out to them and in search of them, and their willingness to disclose themselves to us, in whatever way in which their selves are disclosed. It does not necessitate that we come to know them in certain ways in which you might associate the knowing of others, such as through intellectual conversation or certain joint physical pursuits. Rather it requires love and knowing through disclosure. And insofar as we can know and love one another, we can be friends.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

2 comments on “Can you be friends with the intellectually disabled?

  1. Friendship with Christ is necessarily friendship with HIs human nature, not His divine nature.


  2. Totally agree, and I would emphasise that as there is inequality of some kind or another between every 2 individuals, then friendship would be impossible under MacIntyre’s argument in every case. Friendship is often based on intellectual equality though, and what a shame! We lose so much.


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