I’m the parent of a child with Down syndrome. I can tell you from experience that many corners of the world remain less than welcoming to families like mine. I am also a Catholic. It’s been a great comfort to know that my church is a church of life.
Last year, Pope Francis delighted the world when he gave a 17 year-old Italian boy with Down syndrome a ride in the popemobile. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has spoken of a young cousin with Down syndrome who was taken away and murdered by the Nazis. Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz’s late brother Georgie had Down syndrome. “I was greatly influenced by the way people responded to my brother,” Kurtz said in 2007. “It kind of expanded our way of looking at the world and the things we hold as having great value.”
This has been my family’s experience as well. So many Catholic leaders have spoken with elegance about the dignity of life, the value of people with Down syndrome (and other disabilities), and the need to create space for genetic difference in our culture, that it came as an unwelcome shock this week to hear a Catholic bishop sow confusion on the topic.
Here’s what happened. A debate is raging in Ireland over a planned referendum on gay marriage. On Monday morning, Bishop Kevin Doran, of the Diocese of Elphin, which covers the western Irish counties of Roscommon, Sligo, and Galway, sat for a national radio interview with Newstalk Breakfast’s Chris Donoghue. The host was eager to draw Bishop Doran out on what the Church teaches about homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage.
Donoghue: “The reason I was asking about the Church’s belief about where being gay comes from is because, if some people are born and they are straight, and others are born and they are gay, then that’s as God intended.”
Doran: “That would be to suggest that if some people who are born with Down syndrome or spina bifida, that that was what God intended either. I mean, I think the thing about it is, I can’t see into the mind of God.”
Donoghue: “But the things you mentioned, bishop, to be fair, are conditions, they are disabilities. Your sexual orientation is not a disability.”
Doran: “Well, I’m not entering into that. I’m simply saying that it would be wrong to suggest that everything that happens happens because God intended it. If that were the case, we’d be talking about a very different kind of God than the God that Christianity believes in.”
The bishop was in a tough spot on unfriendly ground. Donoghue was trying to corner him into saying that God doesn’t make mistakes, therefore Church teaching on homosexuality is misguided.
Doran ought to have chosen his answers carefully. Unfortunately, he chose poorly.
In Jeremiah, the Lord says: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” — a pretty good indication that God doesn’t make mistakes. But saying God doesn’t make mistakes is not the same as saying that we are born perfect or that Church teaching on homosexuality is wrong.
God’s plans for us don’t always accord with our own plans for ourselves. We have free will.
Now, one might say that the bishop erred by presuming that both Down syndrome and homosexuality are unfortunate burdens that must be struggled with and overcome. Another might say that equating Down syndrome with homosexuality is a mistake because both things are in fact beautiful and completely normal states of being. But each view misses the point.
We are all born broken — some in body, some in soul. We are all tainted by sin. We are all called to holiness.
What troubles me most about the bishop’s comments is the implication that disability and genetic difference are always a catastrophe for all involved. This tragic view of disability is not one I’m used to hearing from the Church. It’s demoralizing. In fact, for many families, including mine — and, it seems, Archbishop Kurtz’s — a child’s disability has enriched faith, deepened friendships, and cultivated a more joyful view of God’s world.
Later in the week, Bishop Doran issued a statement expressing “regret” for any “hurt he may have caused.” That’s pretty weak salsa from someone who ought to know better. If Doran really wants to make this right, he should book a trip to Philadelphia for Saint Patrick’s Day. He could pay a visit to Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has been a particularly compassionate voice for the disabled:
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.
That’s what a church of life believes. We are icons of God’s face and vessels of his love. We are not our imperfections.