Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
National conference of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL)
Los Angeles, Calif.,
Aug. 23, 2013
My task today is talking about why faith matters. I’m happy to do that. But I want to begin by posing a question. The question is this: At what point does love become foolish, and unsustainable, and even fruitless?
Here’s the reason I ask. A number of my friends have children with Down syndrome.
Down syndrome is permanent. There’s no cure. People with Down syndrome have mild to serious developmental delays. They have diminished cognitive function. They’re prone to a wide range of health problems. 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 difficulties with clear speech.
Testing can now detect up to 95 percent of pregnancies with a strong risk of Down syndrome. And the results are predictable. More than 80 percent of unborn babies in the United States diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. They’re killed simply because they have an extra chromosome – a flaw that’s neither fatal nor contagious, but merely undesirable.
Ironically, for those persons with Down syndrome who do make it out of the womb, life is better than ever. Today, many people with Down syndrome survive into their 60s and beyond. 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.
New therapies over the next 10 or 15 years may improve the intellectual capacity of persons with Down syndrome by as much as 25 percent. And research at the University of Massachusetts suggests that sometime over the next few decades, chromosomal treatments may be able to “turn off” at least some of the negative effects of the syndrome at the genetic level.[i]
Now I’ve said most of these things about Down syndrome before, in different venues. And of course they’re worth repeating. But that’s not my goal in sharing the information today. My purpose today is adding this one final fact: Last fall the scientific journal Nature reported that “by the age of 30, individuals with Down syndrome invariably develop amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles [in the brain].” As a result, beginning in their 40s, “up to 75 percent of people with Down syndrome develop dementia.”[ii]
In other words, no matter how well they live; no matter how well they’re cared for; no matter how fiercely they’re loved, three out of four persons with Down syndrome will develop a form of Alzheimer’s. Sooner or later a day will come when they no longer recognize the family members who loved them, sacrificed for them, encouraged them, protected them, laughed with them, suffered with them and fought for them.
At some point in the future, doctors may be able to treat or prevent this dementia. But right now, today, the longer a child with Down syndrome lives, the more likely he or she will contract Alzheimer’s. And that brings us back to the question I asked at the start: At what point does love become foolish, and unsustainable, and even fruitless?
The cost-effective answer is simple. The effort involved in loving these children with Down syndrome is too great. Their lives are too expensive. They bring too much heartache and have futures that often seem too bleak. The Catholic answer is also simple. No love is fruitless. No love is wasted. Every life is precious. And every child with Down syndrome brings a joy that outweighs any suffering. We trust in a loving God who is love itself; a God who pours out an unearned, redeeming kind of love on every one of his creatures; a God who became love incarnate to make all things new.
None of my friends who has a daughter or son with Down syndrome 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 works its way through fear and suffering to a decision, finally, to surround the child with their hearts anyway, no matter what the cost, and to trust in the goodness of God.
Of course, that decision to trust demands not just real love, and not just real courage, but also real faith. We can’t trust a God we don’t believe in. Faith matters because hope and love can’t bear the weight of the suffering in the world without it. Faith matters because it reminds us that there’s good in the world, and meaning to every life; and that the things that make us human are worth fighting for. Faith matters because it drives us to do what’s right.
And that leads to four modest points I’d like to share.
Here’s my first point. We have — and we need — heroes for a reason. They remind us that we’re more than the sum of our failures and weaknesses. We remember people like Edith Stein and Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, because they devoted themselves to the good, the true and the service of others. Their lives became a moral witness. But the whole idea of “moral witness” comes from the assumption that good and evil are real, and that certain basic truths about humanity don’t change. These truths are knowable and worth defending. One of these truths is the notion of man’s special dignity as a creature of reason and will. Man is part of nature, but also distinct from it.
The philosopher Hans Jonas once said that three things have distinguished human life from other animal experience since early prehistory: the tool, the image and the grave.[iii] The tool imposes man’s knowledge and will onto nature. The image – man’s paintings and other art – projects his imagination. It implies a sense of beauty and memory, and a desire to express them. But the greatest difference between humans and other animals is the grave. Only man buries his dead. Only man knows his own mortality. And knowing that he will die, only man can ask where he came from, what his life means and what comes after it.
The grave then is an expression of reverence and hope. When Christians talk about “the dignity of the human person” and “the sanctity of human life,” we’re putting into words what all people instinctively know. Unique in nature, and unlike any other creature, something elevated and sacred in men and women demands our special respect. When we violate that human dignity, we do evil. When we serve it, we do good. And therein lies one of many modern ironies. We live in a society that speaks piously about protecting the environment and rescuing species on the brink of extinction. But then it licenses the killing of unborn children and the abuse of human fetal tissue as lab material.
This leads me to my second point. As a people, Americans are pragmatists. We put a premium on material progress and practical results. Science and technology get results. They’ve expanded human horizons and improved human life in vital ways over the last century. But they’ve also, too many times, done the opposite.
There’s a proverb we should remember: “To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.” If modern man is scientific man, technology is his hammer. But every human problem isn’t a nail. Knowledge without the virtues of wisdom, prudence, mercy and, above all, humility to guide it is not just unhelpful. It’s dangerous. We’re never as smart as we think we are, and we humans have an unhappy track record when it comes to preventing the worst abuses of our own best discoveries.
Science involves the study of the material world. But human beings are more than the sum of their material processes. Trying to explain the human person with thinking that excludes the reality of the spiritual, the dignity of the religious and the possibility of God cripples both the scientist and the subject being studied – man himself. To put it another way, we can destroy what we mean by “humanity” while claiming, and even intending, to serve it.
In other words, too many scientists too often work from a divided heart: a sincere desire to serve man’s knowledge, and a sincere disdain for what they see as the moral and religious delusions of real men and women. Both faith and science claim to teach with a special kind of authority. But one of the differences is this. Most religious believers accept, at least in theory, that someday they’ll be judged by the God of justice for their actions. For science, God is absent from the courtroom.
This leads to my third point. The Founders of our country presumed the existence of natural law and natural rights. These rights are inalienable and guaranteed by a Creator; by “nature’s God,” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Such ideas are out of fashion in much of legal and social science theory today. But these same ideas are very much alive in the way we actually reason and behave in our daily lives.
Most of us here today believe that we have basic rights that come with the special dignity of being human. These rights are inherent to human nature. They’re part of who we are. Nobody can take them away. But if there is no Creator, and nothing fundamental and distinct about human nature, and if “nature’s God” is kicked out of the conversation, then our rights become the product of social convention. And social conventions can change. So can the definition of who is and who isn’t “human.”
The irony is that modern liberal democracy needs religion more than religion needs modern liberal democracy. American public life needs a framework friendly to religious belief because it can’t support its moral claims about freedom and rights with rational and secular arguments alone. In fact, to the degree that it encourages a culture of unbelief, liberal democracy undermines its own grounding. It causes its own decline by destroying the public square’s moral coherence.[iv]
That leads to my fourth and final point. In Catholic belief, all human life, no matter how wounded, flawed, young or old, is sacred because it comes from God. And we have an obligation to defend it. The dignity of a human life and its right to exist are guaranteed by God. Catholic teaching on abortion and sexuality is part of the same integral vision of the human person that fuels Catholic teaching on immigration, economic justice, racism, war and peace.
In the American tradition, people have a right to bring their beliefs to bear on every social, economic and political problem facing their community. For Catholics, that’s not just a privilege. It’s not just a right. It’s a demand of the Gospel, and a practical application of Christian faith and love to the realities of daily life. Obviously, we have a duty to treat other people with charity and justice, even when we disagree with them. But that can never be an excuse for our own silence.
Believers can’t be silent in public life and faithful to Jesus Christ at the same time, any more than they can claim to be “Christian” and then kill – or quietly allow others to kill — an unborn child with Down syndrome. Actively witnessing to our convictions and advancing what we believe about key moral issues in public life is not coercion. It’s honesty. It’s an act of truth-telling. It’s vital to the health of every democracy. And again, it’s also a duty — not only of our religious faith, but also of our citizenship.
All law has moral content. It’s an expression of what we “ought” to do. Therefore law teaches as well as regulates. Good laws can help make a nation more human; more just; more noble. But ultimately even good laws are useless if they govern a people who, by their choices, make themselves venal and callous, foolish and self-absorbed.
As I’ve suggested many times before: It’s important for our own integrity and the integrity of our country to fight for our moral convictions in the public square. Anything less is a kind of cowardice. But it’s even more important to live what it means to be genuinely human and “prolife” by our actions. And that requires fidelity to God, love for spouse and children; loyalty to friends; generosity to the poor; honesty and mercy in dealing with others; discipline and humility in demanding the most from ourselves.
We create a culture of life in the measure that we give our lives to others. The deepest kind of revolution never comes from violence. Even politics, important as it is, is a poor tool for changing human hearts. Nations change when people change. And people change through the witness of other people — people like each of you here in this room.
That brings me to the main reason for my comments today. When Archbishop Jose Gomez and I founded CALL eight years ago, our goal was simple. Demography is destiny. The Latino population in the United States is growing very rapidly – more rapidly than any other ethnic group — and transforming the face of our country.
The “next America” will have a spirit infused with Hispanic experience. This should be a good thing. And it is a good thing, because Latin American culture, even today, has a legacy of respect for the family, for community and for the Catholic faith that too many North Americans have traded away, much too cheaply, for the satisfactions of social approval and material success.
The archbishop and I wanted to create a professional organization that would support Hispanic Catholic leaders. We wanted to help those leaders renew the heart of an America that has become more and more confused, and more and more remote from its founding ideals. All of you here today are a testimony to what we hoped to accomplish. I’m very, very grateful to be a part of your work.
But I think Archbishop Jose and I probably underestimated the ability of American culture to digest and redirect any new influence that comes from outside our borders. Latinos in the United States leave the Catholic Church for other churches, or no church at all, at a sobering rate. While nearly 70 percent of foreign born Hispanics are Catholic, that number falls to 40 percent by the third generation. The abortion rate among Latinas is actually higher than the national average. And nothing illustrates the power of relentless mass media pressure and special interest lobbying than this fact: In just six years, between 2006 and 2012, Hispanic support for same-sex “marriage” rose from 31 percent to 52 percent.
In some ways, the Hispanic social and political profile is barely distinguishable from American national trends. The idea that Latinos, simply by their presence, might restore the moral tenor of our public discourse is a delusion. The emulsifying effect of American consumer culture, with all its practical atheism, its ambitions, manufactured appetites, distractions, noise, toys and anesthetics – in other words, all its eager little idolatries – is simply too strong.
In Lumen Fidei, his great encyclical on faith issued earlier this year, Pope Francis reminded us that “Idols exist … as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost [God as] the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires” — an abundance of “paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth” (LF 13).
As a nation, Americans pay lip service to God on our coinage while forcing him out of our public life everywhere else. And in God’s place we’ve created an avalanche of empty choices and phony little godlings that promise to feed our inner hungers and do nothing but starve us instead.
The result of this modern impulse on a global scale, as Pope Francis told the Brazilian bishops during World Youth Day, is “the loss of a sense of life’s meaning; personal dissolution; a loss of the experience of belonging to any ‘nest’ whatsoever; subtle but relentless violence; the inner fragmentation and breakup of families; loneliness and abandonment; divisions and the inability to love, to forgive, to understand; the inner poison which makes life a hell; the need for affection because of feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness; [and] the failed attempt to find an answer in drugs, alcohol and sex, which only become further prisons.”
It’s easy to hear these words in isolation and wonder if the Gospel, after all these centuries, has finally lost its power to touch the human heart. But Pope Francis spoke them in a spirit of confidence and joy. He spoke them as a doctor of the soul, skilled in his craft; a healer who loves his patient as a brother and knows the medicine for his illness because he’s seen it work again and again.
An immense reservoir of goodness and hope still resides in the world. We need to remember that and act on it. Some friends of mine traveled in Latin America this summer, and what moved them most deeply about their experience wasn’t the food or the scenery or the markets or the museums. What moved them most deeply — and what they’ll remember as long as they live — is the extraordinary kindness that ordinary strangers on the street showed to their son, who has Down syndrome; strangers with no motive other than showing spontaneous, unexpected warmth to a special child.
Hispanic culture still has a soul formed by an encounter with Jesus Christ, and the humanity and compassion that flow from it. These things are worth fighting for and sharing with others. Faith matters because it gives meaning to the word “human” in “human beings.” It matters because it makes us children of a loving God.
Speaking to his brother bishops in Brazil, Pope Francis reminded all of us that “in order to transmit a legacy [of faith], one needs to hand it over personally, to touch the one to whom one wants to give, to relay, this inheritance.” The renewal of our country begins with the conversion of our own lives, and then our personal witness to the world around us.
In the Sunday Liturgy earlier this month, a reading from the Letter to the Hebrews said that “there came forth from one man [Abraham], himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and countless as sands on the seashore” (11:11-12). That’s the power of faith. That’s the fertility of personal witness. If CALL helps accomplish that kind of conversion in each of your lives; if CALL helps you strengthen each other in your Catholic faith and in your vocation as Christian leaders; then God will use it, and use you, to bring new life to our nation.
[i] Reliable research, care and advocacy information regarding Down syndrome is available from the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA, Philadelphia, PA. Recent media excitement over a purported “cure” for Down syndrome is heavily overstated.
[ii] Seth Ness and colleagues, “Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease: towards secondary prevention,” Nature, p. 655-656, September 2012
[iii] Hans Jonas, “Tool, Image and Grave: On What is Beyond the Animal in Man,” 1985
[iv] See Colgate University political scientist Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2001; p xii and throughout
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