The Meaning of Father Damien

O God, the cleanest offering
Of tainted earth below,
Unblushing to thy feet we bring—
“A leper white as snow!”

In September of 1881, while King Kalākaua of Hawaii was away on his world tour, his regent (and sister) Princess Liliʻuokalani visited the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. Its administrator was a Belgian missionary, a Catholic priest named Father Damien De Veuster.

Liliʻuokalani had probably never seen a leper before. That’s the point of a leper colony: it shields the healthy from the suffering of the afflicted. Here on Molokai, however, the Princess was surrounded by six hundred of them. Lepers, you know, are like walking corpses. Their flesh falls off by the handful until they fall down dead.

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Princess Liliʻuokalani was, quite literally, speechless. A royal minister in her entourage had to address the patients on her behalf. As soon as she returned to the capital of Honolulu, though, she named Father Damien to the Royal Order of Kalakaua. After succeeding her brother to the throne, she also became a champion of lepers in her own right, returning to Kalaupapa once more in 1884. Five years later, Father Damien himself succumbed to leprosy and died.

It was the end Father Damien had expected when he arrived at Molokai in 1873. When the local bishop presented the missionary to his new flock, he introduced himself as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”

What could possess a healthy young priest to travel 12,000 miles from home to serve men and women suffering from such a hideous disease? Writing to his brother some years later, he explained: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say ‘we lepers,’ not, ‘my brethren.’ ”

In Luke’s Gospel, we read that Our Lord encountered ten lepers on the road from Samaria to Galilee. He told them to present themselves to the priest; as they left, they were healed. The Evangelist recalls how they “praised God with a loud voice,” though only one returned to give thanks to Christ. “Were not ten cleansed?” Jesus asked him. “Where are the other nine?”

Clearly, they weren’t ungrateful. Perhaps only one understood that Christ was the God whom they praised: God Who took on human flesh, like the lepers’. That’s a constant stumbling-block throughout the Gospels. It even has a name: the scandal of the Incarnation. We find it nearly impossible to grasp that the Creator of the Universe chose to take on the flesh of one Man (not a woman)—a Jew (not a Gentile)—at a single period of human history (not our own).

Yet it is done, and the Incarnation can never be undone. Jesus Christ will always be a male, a Semite, Who was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus and died on a Cross. His Body is everlasting, Wounds and all.

Anyway, the Hawaiian people are not ungrateful. Beginning in 1870, each state in the Union has contributed two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection honoring American heroes who hailed from their state. Hawaii placed theirs in 1961. One is of Kamehameha I, the first King of Hawaii. The other is of Father Damien.

By the by, this was exactly four decades before Pope Benedict XVI canonized Saint Damien of Molokai. You might say that he was a Hawaiian saint before he was a Catholic one.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York City on October 13, 1989. Her parents are both of Puerto Rican extraction; to the best of my knowledge, she does not have any Hawaiian ancestry. While in college, she served as an intern for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. After graduating, she worked briefly as a bartender and waitress before taking a job at a nonprofit called the National Hispanic Institute. Five years after her college graduation, she took a job with Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Two years later, she won a seat in the House of Representatives for New York’s 14th district.

I don’t know if Ms. Ocasio-Cortez goes to Mass. I do know that she wrote an op-ed for America Magazine in 2018 saying that her Catholic faith drives her passion for prison reform. “Discussions of reforming our criminal justice system demand us to ask philosophical and moral questions,” she declared. “What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.”

That’s all true. Yet one can’t help but notice that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has a 100 percent approval rating from National Abortion Rights Action League. Apparently, the philosophical and moral question of whether an unborn child deserves to be murdered in the womb does not tie directly to the heart of our faith.

Heidi Schlumpf, executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a column last week announcing that, “As a young Latina, Ocasio-Cortez represents the demographic future of the Catholic Church. But—if there is to be a future for the Catholic Church in the United States—it must also resemble Ocasio-Cortez in her passion for justice and human dignity, and in her courage and integrity.”

One may question how “courageous” it is for a thirty-year-old to serve in the most powerful legislative body in world history. There are many qualities we may associate with a politician who has action figures made in her image, but “courage” doesn’t leap to my mind. Maybe I don’t read the National Catholic Reporter enough.

And I don’t know if Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has ever kissed a leper, or washed a leper’s wounds, or even met a leper before. Maybe she has. But, this past Friday, she posted a video to her Instagram criticizing the presence of Father Damien’s statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

According to the Congresswoman, “Even when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told—and virtually no one else.”

“This isn’t to litigate each and every individual statue,” she insisted. Rather, she’s only concerned about “patterns” among the “totality” of the Capitol statues, as they honor “virtually all men, all white, and mostly both.”

“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like!” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez declared. “It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture and how it impacts the present day.”

The Congresswoman would rather there be a statue honoring Father Damien’s great admirer, Lili’uokalani, because she was “the only Queen Regnant of Hawaii.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls herself a “democratic socialist.” Historically, socialists have sought to tear down statues of monarchs; she wants to erect new ones. Maybe the Congresswoman would like California to remove its sculpture of Saint Junípero Serra (that other great foe of the modern wokester) and replace it with a bust of the Duchess of Sussex, a.k.a. Meghan Markle, who was born in Los Angeles eight years before Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. Stranger things have happened, and are happening all the time.

Yet, were she alive today, I’m sure Lili’uokalani would insist that Father Damien’s statue stay right where it is.

It’s not an original thought, but it’s one that bears repeating: iconoclasts like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez have a pitifully stunted view of humanity. And I mean that: we should feel pity for them. Imagine looking at an image of someone like Father Damien (or Queen Lili’uokalani, for that matter) and seeing nothing but a demographic: sex and race and nationality. He dedicated his life to providing pastoral and medical care to thousands of souls who suffered from a painful and humiliating disease before finally succumbing to the disease himself. Why can’t Ms. Ocasio-Cortez see that? Because her mind is infected with a very different illness: a poisonous ideology which renders all white men as mere villains in the tragedy of European imperialism.

It isn’t that she fails to honor Father Damien’s sacrifice: she can’t even see it.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not the future of the Catholic Church in America, but she is the future of the Left. It is unhuman; it is anti-human. It’s a reversion to the bad old paganism, which sees the world in purely carnal terms. Where do you come from? What do you look like? What have you got between your legs? Tell me, and I’ll know everything I need to know about you.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is scandalized by another kind of incarnation: that such a selfless, kind, and holy soul could inhabit the body of a white male. It doesn’t line up with her neat ideological categories, where such persons always have been and always will be “oppressors.”

The Congresswoman is wrong, of course, but that hardly matters. Many people have been wrong before. What’s so horrible about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her comrades is that their world seems so dead. They prattle endlessly about “freedom,” and yet they’re chained to this dreary view of the world as a long, slow march of oppression and degradation. They go on and on about “love,” but what do they actually mean? Mere niceness, or lust, or the redistribution of wealth. They’re blind to true love, because it requires commitment, honor, and—above all—sacrifice.

To the Christian, love means giving freely of oneself for the sake of another. To the progressive, it means taking freely of another for the sake of oneself.

I say we should pity them, and I mean it. I’m certainly no icon of charity, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to look upon the kindly face of Father Damien, horribly disfigured by sufferings borne in the service of his fellow man, and see nothing but “white supremacism.”

To be a Christian means to love one’s enemy. What does it say that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez can’t love her friend?

Attorney General Bill Barr once spoke of a worldview called “macro-morality,” which “encourages individuals to ignore strictures on personal conduct and suggests, in effect, that one can find salvation on the picket line, by being involved in the environmental movement, by promoting condom distribution or a host of other causes.” Macro-morality is closely related to telescopic charity: making a big show of loving things that are far away, like African orphans or Japanese whales, because you can’t bring yourself to love the flawed human beings who live next door.

The modern Left are macro-moralists, skilled practitioners of telescopic charity. They think “love” is taking away a job from a poor Texan farmhand and giving it to a poor Mexican immigrant. It’s passing a law saying that two men who have sex with each other are morally identical to a husband and a wife whose union produces new life. It’s the IRS taking an extra two percent in taxes from millionaires to pay for that woman’s abortion if she decides that new life would inconvenience her in some way.

Father Damien was just three years older than Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is today when he arrived at Kalaupapa. Sixteen years later, he was dead. Where will Ms. Ocasio-Cortez be in 2039? In the White House, perhaps, or lecturing at the Kennedy School of Government, or retired on a fat government pension. Maybe she’ll be giving speeches at Goldman Sachs for $200,000 a pop like Hillary Clinton. And maybe she’ll convince herself that she’s doing good for the world.

Maybe she really does see herself as a dutiful public servant: an image of “courage and integrity,” as her hagiographers claim. Maybe she believes herself to be such an exemplar of moral excellence that she has the right to stand in judgment of Father Damien. Maybe she’s so completely animated by this perverse “love” that she may condemn him for the sin of caring for people whose skin (beneath all those putrid sores) was darker than his own.

Another of Father Damien’s many admirers was Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who, after the example of Father Damien, have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”

This is the opposite of macro-morality. It is micro-morality.

The political world that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez occupies—like the journalistic world, my own—does not produce heroes like Father Damien. Queen Lili’uokalani, who was a politician of sorts, saw that very clearly. She couldn’t live as Father Damien lived, and that’s okay: few of us could. But she knew that he deserved every honor we can possibly afford him. The Congresswoman does not.

The Church regards Father Damien as a “martyr of charity.” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a martyr to her own ego: a living pseudo-saint in the Cult of Woke. The Church and that cult can never peacefully coexist. One judges a man by the color of his skin and the content of his trousers. The other holds itself to two great commandments. The first is love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. That is the source of all true heroism.

Father Damien is the very embodiment of love. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t know the meaning of the word.


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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