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.”
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.
–Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia
Address to the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, August 23, 2013