Three days after the executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “the future of the Catholic Church”—striking language given that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee called her “the future of our party”—the self-described “democratic socialist” congresswoman issued a highly troubling statement against St. Damien Molokai. Her Instagram statement was immediately criticized by Catholics, with the likes of Bishop Robert Barron rightly calling it “crazy and outrageous” and “ridiculous and insulting,” and with Michael Warren Davis responding eloquently at Crisis Magazine.
And yet, what Ocasio-Cortez said reflects some disconcerting deeper issues that go beyond her embarrassingly ignorant statement.
Ocasio-Cortez asked why there aren’t more statues honoring women at the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. To buttress her point, she chose a bad person to pick on: “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,” she protested. “Check out Hawaii’s statue. It’s not Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, the only Queen Regnant of Hawaii, who is immortalized and whose story is told. It is Father Damien.”
Her objection quickly turned into a diatribe:
This isn’t to litigate each and every individual statue, but to point out the patterns that have emerged among the totality of them in who we are taught to deify in our nation’s Capitol: virtually all men, all white, and mostly both. This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like! 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.
This was, directly or indirectly, highly uncharitable toward St. Damien, a non-native Hawaiian who traveled thousands of miles to give his life in service to lepers—to people no one else would go near. Damien thus remains a hero to Hawaiians, and certainly not an image of “white supremacist culture” or “patriarchy” or colonization. “We did not judge him by the color of his skin,” explains Dallas Carter, a native Hawaiian and catechist for the Honolulu diocese. “We judged him by the love that he had for our people.”
Therein is the inherently unfair flaw of Ocasio-Cortez’s assessment. She looked at Damien in a very limited and very negative light: a white male European who took a statue spot that could have been better given to a woman. Sadly, what is happening in our country and culture is a politicization of race whereby progressives—ironically, in the name of “diversity”—judge people by the color of their skin. Ethnicity or place of origin (or gender) is their starting point in so many evaluations. This is the polar opposite of the color-blind society that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many of us have long strived for. Rather than being ignored, race is underscored, and too often in a way that divides rather than unites. Our culture suddenly seems more rather than less racialized.
Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders will rush to parse her words about St. Damien and extend her a charity they would never extend to people they dislike on the conservative side. They will hasten to invoke the reply of her staff, which scrambled to cover for her: “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling,” an Ocasio-Cortez staffer later told the Catholic News Agency. Nonetheless, “It is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”
Again, note the lens: The focus of the congresswoman’s staff, even when defending her, is ethnicity and gender. The reality is the people of Hawaii chose Damien to represent Hawaii in Statuary Hall because of what he did for them, with no concern for his gender, race, or origin. It was his works, his kindness that mattered, not his complexion. But Ocasio-Cortez and her staff—and so many like them—do not think that way. Their priorities are such that the works and kindness are fall secondary to the identity.
Likewise regrettable, what Ocasio-Cortez offered was less a positive statement arguing for more women to be represented than a negative statement about the men represented. It was a negative statement based on negative stereotypes aggressively peddled by today’s cultural progressives.
Alas, from a Catholic perspective, this is not how we, in our universal Church, should look at one another. (This assumes, quite importantly, that Ocasio-Cortez is a practicing Catholic—which I honestly do not know. One of the only semi-acknowledgments we have of her faith is a short piece she wrote on criminal justice reform for America Magazine in June 2018.)
And yet, this disappointing statement comes just as Ocasio-Cortez was curiously hailed as “the future of the Catholic Church” by the executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. In that article, Heidi Schlumpf marveled at a speech that Ocasio-Cortez gave on the House floor: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning speech on the House floor last week has been called ‘a comeback for the ages,’ ‘the most important feminist speech in a generation’ and ‘a lesson in sexism and decency.’ I just call it ‘truth.’”
Schlumpf continued: “As I listened to her 10-minute address on the House floor, I was struck by how often it referenced Catholic values. Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly railed against the ‘dehumanizing’ of others and instead called for treating people with dignity and respect. These are themes often repeated by Pope Francis, who has specifically cautioned about gossip and urged the use of respectful language, saying ‘it is possible to kill someone with the tongue.’”
Francis indeed has repeatedly said just that.
Schlumpf’s appraisal really struck me. It did so because I’ve long been struck by how the progressive left, in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity,” is so quick to dehumanize and cast aside others—and not treat them with dignity and respect—if they come from a certain era or place and have a different skin color. Hence, a European missionary to native peoples is reflexively assumed to be a “colonizer” of ill-will. Look no further than the horrific treatment—the stereotypical assumptions and aspersions—of Saint Junipero Serra throughout California right now.
As for St. Damien, perhaps the best excuse we could make for Ocasio-Cortez is to assume she’s ignorant of him. (Such would not speak well for a person who’s “the future of the Catholic Church.”) To her, “Father Damien” (she may not be aware of his canonization) was assumed to be less deserving right out of the gate because he was a male Christian missionary from Western Europe and not a “native.” St. Damien, in short, found himself disrespected if not dehumanized, not treated with dignity and respect. What Ocasio-Cortez did was reflective of the progressive left’s intolerance and bigotry—yes, bigotry—toward a certain type of person from a certain time and era to whom it tends to ascribe bad motives. It stems from nasty preconceived notions, and sadly, such attitudes are learned and rife among progressives in our universities.
Again, what Heidi Schlumpf said of Pope Francis is fitting, though (ironically) not in her application to Ocasio-Cortez: “Pope Francis … has specifically cautioned about gossip and urged the use of respectful language, saying ‘it is possible to kill someone with the tongue.’”
What has been done to St. Junipero Serra (to be clear, not by Ocasio-Cortez but others) is precisely the murder of a reputation and good name by the tongue, by gossip, by disrespectful language. Let’s hope it doesn’t now spread to St. Damien Molokai.
Unfortunately, one thing painfully evident in the statue craze is how quickly the mob turns. It started with Confederate generals and Jefferson Davis but soon ended up targeting Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and (good grief) even Frederick Douglass. Among Catholics, the mob soon came for Columbus, Saint Louis, Saint Serra, and even the Blessed Mother and Jesus himself. And when there’s no resistance or push back, the other side gets sloppy and reckless with its words and actions. You never know where this leads.
Don’t be surprised to find a statue of St. Damien splashed with red paint soon.
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