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Honoring Jean Vanier

“It takes a long time to move from violence to tenderness,” Jean Vanier wrote in a letter accepting the $1.7 million 2015 Templeton Prize on March 11. Mr. Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a network of homes for people with disabilities and their caregivers, was speaking about Pauline, a woman who joined his community in 1970. Epileptic, with one leg and one arm paralyzed, Pauline was “filled with violence and rage” when he first met her, but over time her caregivers realized her behavior was a cry for the attention that comes with friendship. Slowly her violence gave way to tenderness as her caregivers spent more time with her and took time to listen to her.

Pauline’s journey from violence to tenderness is one that we are all called to follow as Christians. The genius of Mr. Vanier’s spirituality is that he locates that journey in the encounter between persons. Only when we truly meet another individual will our hearts grow fuller and more loving. People with disabilities offer a special opportunity for such encounters because they “are essentially people of the heart,” Mr. Vanier says.

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In the press conference announcing the Templeton award, Mr. Vanier demonstrated what these encounters look like. When one young man with a disability took the microphone, Mr. Vanier leaned in and focused intently on the questioner, a broad smile on his face. It was as if no one else were in the room. Mr. Vanier hopes the $1.7 million gift will help create more spaces for people to learn from individuals with disabilities. “Our society will really become human as we discover that the strong need the weak,” he says, “just as the weak need the strong.”

From Researchers, Prudence

Leading scientists are seeking to put the brakes on research that could lead down the road to “designer babies,” that boogeyman of reproductive technologies that once seemed far off. Prompted by rumors that laboratories in China have begun using powerful new genome-editing technologies on human embryos, two groups of prominent biologists and bioethicists have called for a moratorium on human germ-line modification. A technique developed in 2012 has made it easier and cheaper to alter human DNA in sperm, eggs and embryos, modifications that would be inherited by children and future generations, with unforeseeable and potentially dangerous consequences.

In an article published online in the journal Science on March 19, one of these groups raised concerns that the gene-editing technique—which can be used to cure genetic disease as well as enhance traits like intelligence or beauty—could be applied before its safety is adequately assessed. The authors support continued laboratory research into the method but draw the line at clinical (that is, human) experimentation, at least until there is “open discussion of the merits and risks of human genome modification” by scientists and the broader public. A group writing in Nature (3/12) goes further, seeking voluntary agreement among scientists to stop all human germ-line research.

The scientific community has sometimes been unfairly characterized in religious circles as being unfettered by ethical constraints or as driven by a desire for progress at any price. But science never operates in a vacuum but rather, as this invitation to dialogue demonstrates, within a web of personal beliefs and societal values. Commending the prudence of these scientists and acknowledging that people of faith do not have a monopoly on morality would be a fruitful way for the church to enter into this vital debate that will affect the future of human life and reproduction.

‘Scraping Old Wounds’

Even though the Civil War ended in 1865, every so often some lingering conflict rises to the surface, demanding to be refought. The most recent battle is the court case of Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, a dispute over whether an application for a state-issued specialty license plate featuring the Confederate flag was unlawfully denied in Texas. The state Department of Motor Vehicles had denied permission in 2011 for such a plate to be issued, saying that it is “offensive.” The Confederate heritage group claims the denial violates the right to free speech; Texas insists that it is not a First Amendment question at all, as the license plate represents government speech.

As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late March, groups on either side of the issue made their cases in the court of public opinion. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the Southern flag a “powerful symbol of the oppression of black people.” Ben Jones, spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a former Democratic congressman from Georgia, claimed the Confederate flag “represents the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are,” and that the group is “not a bunch of racists. It’s a group that longs for reconciliation and progress, but will not forget the past.”

If the goal is “reconciliation and progress,” this is an odd way of going about it. As former Texas Gov. Rick Perry states, “We don’t need to be scraping old wounds.” It would be best if the court heeded that caveat.

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