ROME — I left the country the other day, and the talk on Facebook ever since I logged on across the pond seems to be the new algorithms that limit the number of people you see on your newsfeed. But, in all due respect to all the people I am missing, I can handle what I've been seeing most: nonstop images, videos and commentaries on the new Gerber baby, Lucas Warren. He has Down syndrome, and with his smiling face, he says more about life and love and hope than any words ever put together.
Lucas, from Georgia, was one of 140,000 entries in a contest to become the new face of the venerable baby food company. His mother, Cortney, told "Today": "He's very outgoing and never meets a stranger ... He loves to play, loves to laugh and loves to make other people laugh.â€
Lucas' smile seems instantaneous and contagious. It's hard not to look at him and think of all the pain that the world might see in store for him, and how his innocent love is only what he has to offer you. It's as if his message to the world is: "Lighten up and love already! That's my approach! I'm enjoying it! You should try it." He has no idea how the world looks on him or that there are countries that would have had him eliminated before having the chance to live.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Patricia Heaton, star of the prime-time sitcom "The Middle," who has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of people with Down syndrome. Speaking in response to a news story about Iceland eliminating Down syndrome, she told me in an interview for Angelus magazine: They are not eliminating Down syndrome; you would have to have some kind of genetic maneuver in order to eliminate Down syndrome. What they are doing is eliminating people who happen to have Down syndrome. It's a very different prospect ... We have to start telling the truth about what is happening, and not try to use semantics to deceive or sugarcoat what's happening.â€
Heaton told me about the first time she was pregnant, when a prenatal blood test showed her firstborn might have Down syndrome. As she faced a wave of emotions, she says that she started thinking about Down syndrome on a spectrum: "When God looks down on all of us, we all fall short of perfection."
Heaton is quick to say we cannot "sugarcoat" the challenges of disabilities, but that we have to start looking at people as people, as creatures of infinite possibility, not liabilities.
As Heaton said to me: "I feel that along with standing up for the right of disabled people to be born, we have to focus also on support for families who have family members with disabilities — whether they're funded by state or federal programs, or whether it's charitable programs, or the community does it ... We need to have more programs ... to integrate people with disabilities into the community, and to make sure ... families get the support that they need, because it is more difficult for some families, depending on the level of disability, and the intensity of the disability ... If we are going to be champions of people with disabilities, we also need to be champions of the support systems that need to be around them and their families."
While the Gerber spokesbaby is a corporate mascot on the surface, the position can mean so much more this year. Looking in the eyes of Lucas, we might see a better way to live. A way free of some of the anxieties that hold us back from freely living and radically loving. I'm not far from Pope Francis here in Rome, and am reminded that he often talks about the need for a "revolution of tenderness." If this isn't what such a revolution looks like, I don't know its face.
(Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at email@example.com.)