is the text of an address delivered by Archbishop Charles Chaput of
Denver, Colorado, to the Phoenix Catholic Physicians Guild.
I want to talk
tonight about the kind of people we’re becoming, and what we can do
about it. Especially what you can do about it. But it’s always good
to start with a few facts before offering an opinion. So that’s what
A number of my friends have children with disabilities. Their
problems range from cerebral palsy to Turner’s syndrome to Trisomy
18, which is extremely serious. But I want to focus on one fairly
common genetic disability to make my point. I’m referring to Trisomy
21, or Down syndrome.
Those of us here tonight will already know that Down syndrome is not
a disease. It’s a genetic disorder with a variety of symptoms.
Therapy can ease the burden of those symptoms, but Down syndrome is
permanent. There’s no cure. People with Down syndrome have mild to
moderate developmental delays. They have low to middling cognitive
function. They also tend to have a uniquely Down syndrome “look” – a
flat facial profile, almond-shaped eyes, a small nose, short neck,
thick stature and a small mouth which often causes the tongue to
protrude and interferes with clear speech. People with Down syndrome
also tend to have low muscle tone. This can affect their posture,
breathing and speech.
Currently about 5,000 children with Down syndrome are born in the
United States each year. They join a national Down syndrome
population of roughly 400,000 persons. But that population may soon
dwindle. And the reason why it may decline illustrates, in a vivid
way, a struggle within the American soul. That struggle will shape
the character of our society in the decades to come.
Prenatal testing can now detect up to 95 percent of pregnancies with
a strong risk of Down syndrome. The tests aren’t conclusive. They
can’t give a firm yes or no. But they’re pretty good. And the
results of those tests are brutally practical. Studies show that
more than 80 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome
now get terminated in the womb. They’re killed because of a flaw in
one of their chromosomes – a flaw that’s neither fatal nor
contagious, but merely undesirable.
The older a woman gets, the higher her risk of bearing a child with
Down syndrome. And so, in medical offices around the country,
pregnant women now hear from doctors or genetic counselors that
their baby has “an increased likelihood” of Down syndrome based on
one or more prenatal tests. Some doctors deliver this information
with sensitivity and great support for the woman. But, as my friends
know from experience, too many others seem more concerned about
avoiding lawsuits, or managing costs, or even, in a few ugly cases,
cleaning up the gene pool.
We’re witnessing a kind of schizophrenia in our culture’s
conscience. In Britain, the Guardian newspaper recently ran an
article lamenting the faultiness of some of the prenatal tests that
screen for Down syndrome. Women who receive positive results, the
article noted, often demand an additional test, amniocentesis, which
has a greater risk of miscarriage. Doctors in the story complained
about the high number of false positives for Down syndrome. “The
result of [these false positives] is that babies are dying
completely unnecessarily,” one med school professor said. “It’s
scandalous and disgraceful … and causing the death of normal
babies.” Those words sound almost humane – until we realize that, at
least for the med school professor, killing “abnormal” babies like
those with Down syndrome is perfectly acceptable.
In practice, medical professionals can now steer an expectant mother
toward abortion simply by hinting at a list of the child’s possible
defects. And the most debased thing about that kind of pressure is
that doctors know better than anyone else how vulnerable a woman can
be in hearing potentially tragic news about her unborn baby.
I’m not suggesting that doctors should hold back vital knowledge
from parents. Nor should they paint an implausibly upbeat picture of
life with a child who has a disability. Facts and resources are
crucial in helping adult persons prepare themselves for difficult
challenges. But doctors, genetic counselors, and med school
professors should have on staff – or at least on speed dial –
experts of a different sort.
Parents of children with special needs, special education teachers
and therapists, and pediatricians who have treated children with
disabilities often have a hugely life-affirming perspective. Unlike
prenatal caregivers, these professionals have direct knowledge of
persons with special needs. They know their potential. They’ve seen
their accomplishments. They can testify to the benefits – often
miraculous – of parental love and faith. Expectant parents deserve
to know that a child with Down syndrome can love, laugh, learn,
work, feel hope and excitement, make friends, and create joy for
others. These things are beautiful precisely because they transcend
what we expect. They witness to the truth that every child with
special needs has a value that matters eternally.
Raising a child with Down syndrome can be hard. Parents grow up very
fast. None of my friends who has a daughter or son with a serious
disability is melodramatic, or self-conscious, or even especially
pious about it. They speak about their special child with an
unsentimental realism. It’s a realism flowing out of love – real
love, the kind that courses its way through fear and suffering to a
decision, finally, to surround the child with their heart and trust
in the goodness of God. And that decision to trust, of course,
demands not just real love, but also real courage.
The real choice in accepting or rejecting a child with special needs
is never between some imaginary perfection or imperfection. None of
us is perfect. No child is perfect. The real choice in accepting or
rejecting a child with special needs is between love and unlove;
between courage and cowardice; between trust and fear. That’s the
choice we face when it happens in our personal experience. And
that’s the choice we face as a society in deciding which human lives
we will treat as valuable, and which we will not.
Nearly 50 percent of babies with Down syndrome are born with some
sort of heart defect. Most have a lifelong set of health challenges.
Some of them are serious. Government help is a mixed bag. Public
policy is uneven. Some cities and states, like New York, provide
generous aid to the disabled and their families. In many other
jurisdictions, though, a bad economy has forced budget cuts.
Services for the disabled -- who often lack the resources, voting
power and lobbyists to defend their interests -- have shrunk. In
still other places, the law mandates good support and care, but
lawmakers neglect their funding obligations, and no one holds them
accountable. The vulgar economic fact about the disabled is that, in
purely utilitarian terms, they rarely seem worth the investment.
That’s the bad news. But there’s also good news. Ironically, for
those persons with Down syndrome who do make it out of the womb,
life is better than at any time in our nation’s history. A baby with
Down syndrome born in 1944, the year of my own birth, could expect
to live about 25 years. Many spent their entire lives mothballed in
public institutions. Today, people with Down syndrome routinely
survive into their 50s and 60s. Most can enjoy happy, productive
lives. Most live with their families or share group homes with
modified supervision and some measure of personal autonomy. Many
hold steady jobs in the workplace. Some marry. A few have even
attended college. Federal law mandates a free and appropriate
education for children with special needs through the age of 21.
Social Security provides modest monthly support for persons with
Down syndrome and other severe disabilities from age 18 throughout
their lives. These are huge blessings.
And, just as some people resent the imperfection, the inconvenience
and the expense of persons with disabilities, others see in them an
invitation to be healed of their own sins and failures by learning
how to love.
About 200 families in this country are now waiting to adopt children
with Down syndrome. Many of these families already have, or know, a
child with special needs. They believe in the spirit of these
beautiful children, because they’ve seen it firsthand. A
Maryland-based organization, Reece’s Rainbow, helps arrange
international adoptions of children with Down syndrome. The late
Eunice Shriver spent much of her life working to advance the dignity
of children with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Last
September, the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation committed $34 million
to the University of Colorado to focus on improving the medical
conditions faced by those with Down syndrome. And many businesses,
all over the country, now welcome workers with Down syndrome.
Parents of these special employees say that having a job, however
tedious, and earning a pay check, however small, gives their
children pride and purpose. These things are more precious than
I said at the start of my remarks tonight that I wanted to talk
about the kind of people we’re becoming, and what we can do about
it. And especially what you can do about it, both as medical
professionals and as Catholics who take their faith seriously.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer once wrote that, “A
man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all
life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything
that lives.” Every child with Down syndrome, every adult with
special needs; in fact, every unwanted unborn child, every person
who is poor, weak, abandoned or homeless – each one of these persons
is an icon of God’s face and a vessel of his love. How we treat
these persons – whether we revere them and welcome them, or throw
them away in distaste – shows what we really believe about human
dignity, both as individuals and as a nation.
The American Jesuit scholar Father John Courtney Murray once said
that “Anyone who really believes in God must set God, and the truth
of God, above all other considerations.”
Here’s what that means. Catholic public officials who take God
seriously cannot support laws that attack human dignity without
lying to themselves, misleading others and abusing the faith of
their fellow Catholics. God will demand an accounting. Catholic
doctors who take God seriously cannot do procedures, prescribe drugs
or support health policies that attack the sanctity of unborn
children or the elderly; or that undermine the dignity of human
sexuality and the family. God will demand an accounting. And
Catholic citizens who take God seriously cannot claim to love their
Church, and then ignore her counsel on vital public issues that
shape our nation’s life. God will demand an accounting. As
individuals, we can claim to be or believe whatever we want. We can
posture, and rationalize our choices, and make alibis with each
other all day long -- but no excuse for our lack of honesty and zeal
will work with the God who made us. God knows our hearts better than
we do. If we don’t conform our hearts and actions to the faith we
claim to believe, we’re only fooling ourselves.
We live in a culture where our marketers and entertainment media
compulsively mislead us about the sustainability of youth; the
indignity of old age; the avoidance of suffering; the denial of
death; the meaning of real beauty; the impermanence of every human
love; the dysfunctions of children and family; the silliness of
virtue; and the cynicism of religious faith. It’s a culture of
fantasy, selfishness and illness that we’ve brought upon ourselves.
And we’ve done it by misusing the freedom that other -- and greater
-- generations than our own worked for, bled for and bequeathed to
What have we done with that freedom? In whose service do we use it
John Courtney Murray is most often remembered for his work at
Vatican II on the issue of religious liberty, and for his great
defense of American democracy in his book, We Hold These Truths.
Murray believed deeply in the ideas and moral principles of the
American experiment. He saw in the roots of the American Revolution
the unique conditions for a mature people to exercise their freedom
through intelligent public discourse, mutual cooperation and laws
inspired by right moral character. He argued that -- at its best --
American democracy is not only compatible with the Catholic faith,
but congenial to it.
But he had a caveat. It’s the caveat George Washington implied in
his Farewell Address, and Charles Carroll – the only Catholic signer
of the Declaration of Independence -- mentions in his own writings.
In order to work, America depends as a nation on a moral people
shaped by their religious faith, and in a particular way, by the
Christian faith. Without that living faith, animating its people and
informing its public life, America becomes something alien and
hostile to the very ideals it was founded on.
This is why the same Father Murray who revered the best ideals of
the American experiment could also write that “Our American culture,
as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent
in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be
erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Western culture at
its roots: the denial of metaphysical reality, of the primacy of the
spiritual over the material, [and] of the social over the individual
. . . Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism .
. . It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die
for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a
continent and lost its own soul.”
Each of you here tonight who serves in the medical profession has a
sacred vocation. That vocation of healing comes from Jesus Christ
himself. I don’t mean just curing people’s aches and pains, although
physical healing is so very important. I mean the kind of healing
that comes when a suffering person is understood and loved, and
knows that she’s understood and loved. That requires a different
kind of medicine. The medicine of patience. The medicine of
listening. The medicine of respect.
Over the years, I’ve learned that when God takes something away from
a person, he gives back some other gift that’s equally precious.
Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, is a friend of
mine. Rick has always been Catholic, and always prolife. But it’s
one thing to argue in Congress for the sanctity of life. It’s
another to prove it by your actions under pressure. Last year Rick’s
wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter named Bella. Bella has
Trisomy 18. Against the odds, that little girl is still alive and
still growing. And she’s surrounded by a family devoted to loving
her, 24 hours a day.
Rick and his wife have no illusions about the prospects for their
daughter. No one “recovers” from Trisomy 18. But he said to me once
that each day he has with Bella makes him a little bit more of a
“whole person.” It’s one of God’s ironies that the suffering
imperfection brings, can perfect us in the vocation of love. Rick’s
daughter is an education in the dignity of every human life; a tutor
in the meaning of love – and not just for themselves, but for me as
their friend, and for dozens of other people who encounter the
Santorum family every week. Another friend of mine has a son with
Down syndrome, and she calls him a “sniffer of souls.” He may have
an IQ of 47, and he’ll never read The Brothers Karamazov, but he has
a piercingly quick sense of the heart of the people he meets. He
knows when he’s loved -- and he knows when he’s not. Ultimately,
we’re all like her son. We hunger for people to confirm that we have
meaning by showing us love. We need that love. And we suffer when
that love is withheld.
The task you need to take home with you tonight is this. Be the best
doctors, nurses and medical professionals you can be. Your skill
gives glory to God. But be the best Catholics you can be first. Pour
your love for Jesus Christ into the healing you do for every person
you serve. By your words and by your actions, be a witness to your
colleagues. Speak up for what you believe. Love the Church. Defend
her teaching. Trust in God. Believe in the Gospel. And don’t be
afraid. Fear is beneath your dignity as sons and daughters of the
God of life.
Changing the course of American culture seems like such a huge task;
so far beyond the reach of this little gathering tonight. But St.
Paul felt exactly the same way. Redeeming and converting a
civilization has already been done once. It can be done again. But
we need to understand that God is calling you and me to do it. He
chose us. He calls us. He’s waiting, and now we need to answer him.
Thanks, and God bless you.