As you may have noticed, Fr Neil has recently discovered Twitter. He enjoys its format and, in the middle of writing his sermon, will often tweet. Getting his thoughts down to 140 characters helps with the process. He also likes keeping up with a selection of MotoGP riders.

However, this morning Twitter was not interesting and entertaining, for up on his feed popped up an interchange involving Richard Dawkins. As Dawkins is not Catholic nor an incredibly talented motorbike rider, this was unusual. Curiosity turned to horror as Neil read a conversation, in which this New Atheist prophet puts forward the principle that it is immoral not to abort a baby diagnosed in pre-natal tests as having Downs Syndrome. The force of his argument seemed to be around the idea that Downs Syndrome people do not enhance society. In one tweet he says that those on the Autistic spectrum are acceptable to him because they can and do ‘enhance society’ although he doesn’t specify how. I imagine he is talking about those on the ‘higher functioning’ end of the Spectrum.

This is pure eugenics, where an individual’s worth is determined by an arbitrary concept of what it is to ‘enhance’ society. This, of course, is a highly debatable concept but I’m guessing (and I might be wrong here) that Dawkins’ concept revolves round intellectual capacity and the superiority of the intellect. Whatever the prejudice underlying his views, this idea of ‘enhancement’ is highly problematic. Who defines who ‘enhances’ society? How is contribution to be defined? Once you start putting conditions on someone’s worth you stray into dangerous moral territory. Where do you draw the line? If you move away from the standpoint that all human life has utter intrinsic value, you leave the weak and vulnerable in great danger.

The Twitter conversation was in stark contrast to the writing of Henri Nouwen. Last Lent we used his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” as our study book. It is a profound, beautifully written account of Nouwen’s own spiritual life after encountering Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.

In the Epilogue Nouwen writes about his move to a L’Arche Community. Nouwen had spent much of his life in academia, including time at both Yale and Harvard, among some of the most talented of intellectuals.

He writes:
“The L’Arche community gradually became my home. Never in my life did I dream that men and women with mental handicap would be the ones who would put their hands on me in a gesture of blessing and offer me a home. For a long time, I had sought safety and security among the wise and clever, hardly aware that the things of the Kingdom were revealed to “little children”; that God has chosen “those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise.”

But when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about, and experience a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. The embrace of the Father became very real to me in the embraces of the mentally poor.”

Later Nouwen continues:

“Life in community does not keep the darkness away. To the contrary, it seems that the light that attracted me to L’Arche also made me conscious of the darkness in myself. Jealousy, anger, the feeling of being rejected or neglected, the sense of not truly belonging – all of these emerge in the context of a community striving for a life of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Community life has opened me up to the real spiritual combat: the struggle to keep moving towards the light precisely when the darkness is so real…Handicapped people have little to lose. Without guile they show me who they are. They openly express their love as well as their fear, their gentleness as well as their anguish, their generosity as well as their selfishness. By just simply being who they are, they break through my sophisticated defences and demand that I be as open with them as they are with me. Their handicap unveils my own. Their vulnerabilities show me my own. By forcing me to confront the elder son in me, L’Arche opened the way to bring him home. The same handicapped people who welcomed me home and invited me to celebrate also confronted me with my not yet converted self and made me aware that the journey was far from ended.”

As Nouwen lays bear the spiritual experience of his life at L’Arche, we see how this dynamic of welcome and challenge, changed profoundly who he was. His awareness of himself, and of his vocation, deepened because he had to face the darkest parts of his personality and embrace an uncomfortable vulnerability. Something happens to us when we look at our own weakness, our faults and our poverty. It is painful but ultimately transforming to see where we are impatient, selfish, and incompetent and where we hate. For Nouwen this gift did not come from amongst the “clever” or “gifted” at America’s top two universities. It did not happen in the closed world of academia. His life was ‘enhanced’ by those many despise, fear and ignore. The change brought about by this blessed uncomfortable life in community is profound. Through it Nouwen discovers himself. It is a gift that is seen in all its glory as he writes openly and honestly. He passes on what he has received through vulnerability from those with learning difficulties.

Nouwen shows us clearly, what lies in his heart during his own journey. With Dawkins we can only wonder at what goes on inside his heart to reveal how he despises the weak, (you have to despise or hate a group of people if you want them terminated just because they are genetically different.) Is it an engagement with weakness and vulnerability that he fears – doesn’t hatred often come from fear? Is it, like Nouwen, the reluctance to be open to that darker side of jealously, selfishness, arrogance and the fear of not belonging? We may well never know. As long as Dawkins continues to call for those who are weak and lacking ‘normal’ intellect to be aborted he can never respond to the invitation that people with learning difficulties, including those with Downs Syndrome, offer him. All the time he defines people by an arbitrary understanding of “enhancing society” those who offer a homecoming through their poverty can never bless him. We are left asking, who is the truly impoverished one here?