Two weeks ago, as fathers have done since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I held my just-born daughter to my chest, closed my eyes, and uttered a prayer of thanksgiving to the God who has blessed me so abundantly. My wife was not recovering from the ordeal of labor as I held our daughter. She was standing next to me, holding my hand. Our daughter is adopted, as is our son.
Our daughter is beautiful. She was born with a shock of black hair and wonderfully expressive eyes. Her beauty is a lasting tribute to the couple who conceived her, and who chose life for her. Our daughter, like our son, was born with trisomy 21—Down syndrome. Since my daughter’s birth, I’ve thought a lot about the thousands of children aborted each year because they share the genetic defect my children have. Statistics tell a sobering story. Children like mine are being culled from our species. They’re quietly going extinct.
Most families of people with Down syndrome will tell you similar stories. Our children develop differently. They see the world differently. But they have access to same range of human emotions and experiences that the rest of us enjoy. They’re capable of experiencing the joy of a life lived fully. People with Down syndrome, or similar intellectual or developmental disabilities, have the same potential we all have—most importantly, they have the capacity for union with God.
Cultural ignorance of this fact hit home for me just the other day. My daughter has some medical complications, and she’s still living in the hospital. I’ve been staying with her. A few days ago, I stopped in the hospital’s chapel and, before I knew it, I was weeping. I was weeping for the children who’ve been on my mind, the ones who fail genetic tests, and are aborted out of a misguided sense of compassion by a culture that has lost its conscience.
A well-meaning hospital chaplain, with whom I’ve struck up a friendship, sat down beside me and tried to offer me some comfort. He assumed I was weeping for my own children, so he reminded me that today people with Down syndrome go to college, work, and live independently. “Kids like yours,” my new friend said, “can still lead useful and happy lives.”
I didn’t explain to him why I was upset. But I’ve thought a lot about his words of comfort. If I had been struggling in the way that he thought, they wouldn’t have done me much good. We’re in a sad state of affairs if the best argument we can make about human potential is that nearly anyone can spend four years paying for classes.
Christians should have more to offer than the material. Our hope should be in something greater.
We’re now celebrating Christmas, a holiday and a season universally celebrated, and almost universally misunderstood. Christmas should be a scandal. The claim of Christmas is that because God became a human being, we can become like God. The scandal of Christmas is the scandal of our own divinization.
Because of Christmas, my children—all children—have a lot more to look forward to than university. Because of Christmas, our hope is that we can share in God’s own life. Because of Christmas, the greatest human potential is not the potential to produce or to comprehend, it is the potential of our baptism—the potential to love as God loves.
We don’t talk about divinization very often. But if we want to talk seriously about human dignity—the dignity of the disabled, the unborn, or the elderly—we need to stop talking about the material. We don’t all experience the same kind of material well-being, and we can’t all lead “useful” lives. But we can all live God’s inner life—we can share in his love, in his goodness, and his redemptive sacrifice on the cross. Because we share in God’s life—because of Christmas—even our suffering has meaning.
If children like mine survive the twenty-first century, it will be through the work of Christians. The same thing is true of the elderly and the disabled. If we’re going to stop the quiet eradication of the socially and economically “useless,” we need compelling arguments for their existence. The potential to love with God’s own love—the potential of Christmas—seems like a very good place to start.
J. D. Flynn is chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver.
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