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John Paul II and Jerome Lejeune

Two Heroes Unite at the International Bioethics Conference

June 8, 2024


Two of my greatest heroes were brought together at the Second Annual International Bioethics Conference organized by the Jerome Lejeune Foundation. The conference was held in Rome on May 17-18, 2024, and drew an international crowd of over 400 people representing 42 institutions from around the globe.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard the name Jerome Lejeune. It was almost twenty-three years ago, and my son had just been born. He was in the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital, and they weren’t sure but suspected that he might have Down syndrome. Even way back in 2001, they had a computer in the parent’s area where parents could do research on their children’s medical conditions. When I searched for information on Down syndrome, Jerome Lejeune’s name was prominent. I honestly didn’t think much about him at the time, and for many years after that, but now I think of him all the time. I was honored to establish the Jerome Lejeune Foundation in the US in 2012, to have many opportunities to visit Paris and the Lejeune Foundation there, and to be able to befriend his widow, Birthe, and their children. 

It’s hard to think or read too much about Jerome Lejeune without soon encountering Pope St. John Paul II. They were good friends. I have two very vivid early memories of him too. The first is from September 1987, just three months before I became a Catholic. The pope was visiting Los Angeles, CA, and I can still see him on the TV processing into St. Vibiana Cathedral, seemingly oblivious to the crowds around him. When he reached the altar, he knelt and immediately fell deeply into prayer as if the only one in the Church was Jesus. The stories I had been told growing up in a fundamentalist church that popes were evil were immediately dispelled. My second memory is the reaction of the crowds at the stadium in Denver during World Youth Day in August 1995. John Paul’s charisma was palpable, and the more I came to know him over the years, the more I came to love him. He was the pope of my conversion to the faith, and because of that, he will forever hold a special place in my heart. 

Respecting human nature does not prevent progress but rather stimulates it.

In 1994, shortly before Lejeune’s death, John Paul II asked Jerome Lejeune to establish the Pontifical Academy for Life to address the growing threats against human life and dignity. Lejeune would die of lung cancer shortly after accepting the appointment, and the only thing he would accomplish for the Academy was to write its bylaws and an Oath of the Servants of Life that all members of the Academy were required to sign upon acceptance of their appointment to serve. 

Lejeune’s oath was a beautiful testimony to his dedication to the cause of life and to orienting the vision of both saintly men for the Academy. It read:

In the name of the Holy Trinity, I, [name], solemnly swear to dedicate myself to the service of life, love, and truth. I promise to defend and promote the value and dignity of human life from its conception to natural death, and to show unconditional love and compassion to all human beings, regardless of their condition, status, or circumstances.

I vow to seek and proclaim the truth about human life, including its origin, nature, and destiny, and to promote a culture of life and love. I commit to work tirelessly to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, especially the unborn, the elderly, and the sick.

May the Holy Spirit guide me in my commitment to this noble cause, and may I always be faithful to the principles of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.

Eight present members of the Academy were speakers at the Lejeune Bioethics Conference, including Jean-Marie Le Mene, who is married to the Lejeune’s daughter, Karin, and the one who has successfully managed the growth of the foundation since its inception not long after Lejeune died in 1994. 

The conference was convened to address pressing contemporary bioethical challenges developing in genetics, biotechnology, and neuroscience from an interdisciplinary perspective. Word on Fire was one of the sponsors of the event, and Bishop Barron provided a video greeting during the opening welcome. Following the pathway of Lejeune’s own life and work, the presentations were rooted in an understanding of human nature and the natural law. 

Jerome Lejeune was a man for whom the defense of life became an apostolate lived in evangelical service to Christ, and to Christ’s little ones.

O. Carter Sneed, Professor of Philosophy of Law at Notre Dame University, gave the first address after Mr. Le Mene’s excellent introduction to the conference. Prof. Sneed joined the conference by video and acknowledged that his inspiration for his talk was this quote of Lejeune: “Respecting human nature does not prevent progress, but rather stimulates it.” His presentation was situated in our now-challenged understanding of human anthropology, and his comments were largely drawn from his 2020 book, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics

Sneed provided an excellent foundation for the discussions on the ten topics that followed, which ranged from gene editing, to the current status of research into genetic intellectual disability, artificial reproductive technologies, transhumanism, euthanasia and palliative care, gender dysphoria in minors, and of course, the historical significance and value of the Venerable Jerome Lejeune in addressing all of these topics. I was honored to have been asked to moderate the panel on genetically based intellectual disability: medical care and research thirty years after Lejeune’s death. 

The conference ended with an excellent lecture by St. John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel. Quoting from the letter sent to Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger from John Paul II the day after Lejeune passed into eternity, Weigel said that “Jerome Lejeune was a man for whom the defense of life became an apostolate lived in evangelical service to Christ, and to Christ’s little ones.”

With its focus on the Venerable Jerome Lejeune, each session began with one of his masterful quotes on the beauty and sanctity of life. The Jerome Lejeune Foundation’s Second Annual International Bioethics Conference shouted in the Eternal City the joy of the Gospel and the beauty and mystery of human life—a belief that was shared by these two remarkable men, Pope St. John Paul II and the Venerable Jerome Lejeune. 

The Third Annual Jerome Lejeune International Bioethics Conference has already been scheduled for May 30-31, 2025, in Rome on the topic of The Splendor of Truth in Science and Bioethics.

“It is not medicine that we must fear, but the madness of mankind. . . . 
We may be more powerful today than we were in the past, but we
Are not wiser: technology is cumulative, wisdom is not.” 

—Jerome Lejeune