Jerome Lejeune and the Preeminence of Faith

COMMENTARY: The faith of great men, such as Lejeune, is not something that they possess as much as something that possesses them.

Venerable Jerome Lejeune, former director of the human genetics department at the University of Paris, is shown in 1962. Lejeune, who died in 1994, discovered that Down syndrome was caused by the duplication of Chromosome 21.
Venerable Jerome Lejeune, former director of the human genetics department at the University of Paris, is shown in 1962. Lejeune, who died in 1994, discovered that Down syndrome was caused by the duplication of Chromosome 21. (photo: AFP via Getty Images)

We live in a world that is dominated by science and technology. Hence, the temptation to think that faith is increasingly unnecessary as science continues to push back the curtain of ignorance. The Augustinian notion that faith precedes understanding (credo ut intelligam), therefore, seems antiquated. Faith yields to scientific knowledge, as darkness surrenders to the morning sun.

The truth of the matter, however, is that science depends on faith. There would be no science if scientists did not believe that the world they undertake to explain is rational. For Einstein, what is most incomprehensible is the fact that the world is comprehensible. Science cannot begin to explain why the universe is amenable to scientific understanding in the first place. 

Norbert Wiener, the “father of cybernetics,” enjoins his fellow scientists to have faith that the cosmos is the work of God. “Science,” he avers, “is a way of life which can flourish only when men are free to have faith.” Nathaniel Hawthorne put the matter rather poetically, when he stated that “Christian faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows. Standing without, you can see no glory, nor can imagine any, but standing within every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors.” More tersely, 18th-century English poet John Dryden wrote, “Reason saw not until faith sprung to life.” 

Another remarkable scientist rational enough to understand the value of faith, Jérôme Lejeune(1926-1994) was both a world-class geneticist (he discovered that Down syndrome was caused by the duplication of Chromosome 21) and a man of deep faith. As a result of his discovery, he became a strident opponent of prenatal diagnosis and abortion, which invariably results from such diagnoses via the culture-of-death worldview. 

As his response to his scientific breakthrough indicates, faith was foremost for Lejeune. It was, indeed, preeminent. His scientific knowledge was a distant second. After listening intently to Lejeune speak in defense of life, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York remarked that the faith of this distinguished geneticist “rises like a spire far beyond the results of his meticulous research. In each of his words, in the tone of his voice, we understand that he refuses to take for himself the power of the authority that belongs only to God. ... No doubt whatsoever, what impresses us is the spirit of faith that emanates from each of his thoughts and words. What a gift for the Church, for all society!” Science is impressive, but what is more impressive is the faith that rises above science, without contradicting it. In January, this year, Pope Francis declared the late Lejeune “Venerable.

A noteworthy and beautiful example of Lejeune’s faith is revealed on the occasion when Pope John Paul II invited him to go to Moscow and confer with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev on a crucial moral matter that affected the whole world. It was during the Cold War, and the fear of a nuclear war was a matter of grave concern for everyone. Lejeune fully understood the significance of the meeting and realized how much its success was in the hands of God.

Lejeune arrived at Roissy Airport in Paris. Before going through the checkpoints, he looked for a phone booth in order to make an extremely important call. It was a call to a Carmelite monastery. 

“This is professor Jérôme Lejeune. May I speak to your superior?” he asked the nun who answered the phone. 

Several moments passed before he heard a clear voice say to him, “Good morning, Professor.” 

“Good morning, Reverend Mother,” Lejeune countered. “I am at the airport, about to leave for Moscow to meet Brezhnev at the Holy Father’s request. May I commend this difficult visit to your prayers and those of your whole community?” 

“Certainly,” the mother superior responded, assuring him of the prayers of the community. “May God go with you.”

Lejeune had made this request several times before, whenever he was placed in a difficult situation. He hung up the phone, confident that his trip and meeting with the Russian president was in God’s hands. A man of humility understands that God must be his co-pilot. When we are entirely alone, there is little we can do in critical situations. As Christ has remarked, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

At the meeting, Lejeune said, alluding to the threat of a nuclear war, “We scientists know that, for the first time, humanity finds itself confronted with the fact that its survival depends on the acceptance, by all the nations of the world, of moral precepts that transcend all systems and all speculations.” Science itself might destroy the world. We need moral principles that go beyond science.

Brezhnev emphasized the unusual nature of their meeting and mentioned that it was the first time that he was receiving envoys (Lejeune and Italian chemist Marini Bettolo) from the head of the Catholic Church. Affirming the reasonableness of Lejeune’s remarks, he responded by saying, “It is not impossible that this is connected with the difficult and dangerous times that humanity is going through.” 

At the end of their one-hour meeting, the Russian general secretary expressed his great respect for this step made by the Vatican and acknowledged “a serious moral and political obstacle on the path to unleashing a world war.” Then, surprising all in attendance, Brezhnev announced that it was his birthday and said to Jérôme, “Thanks to God and to my physician, I am in good health,” a remark that left the interpreter gaping.

Science needs faith — and so do we — in order to have some sense of our rightful place in the grand scheme of things. The faith of great men such as Jérôme Lejeune is not something that they possess as much as something that possesses them. In asking the Carmelite nuns to pray for his meeting with a world leader, Lejeune disposed himself to receive God’s guidance. His faith allowed him to rise above the passing waves of discouragement and disappointment.