The new pope Francis I is eschewing trappings of excess. This strikes me as a both a savvy move and morally good move. (Church officials: if you are interesting in consulting atheist Jewish American soccer moms before making theological and/or PR moves, let’s have lunch!).
He made headlines on Easter when he lifted a boy with cerebral palsy, Dominic Gondreau, out of the crowd in Vatican Square for a special embrace. The world was moved by this. The boy’s father Paul, a professor of theology, definitely was.
As blog denizens are all too aware, I have three sons. My second son, whose blog name is James, has a Ridiculously Rare chromosomal rearrangement. James is three and a half. He cannot speak (he can make a few signs). He cannot walk. He is fed via g-tube. He is somewhat hearing and vision impaired, although we’re not really sure to what degree. He is significantly more medically complex than your average kid. He has severe cognitive impairments, with a couple of striking exceptions. He is the most happy-go-lucky of my kids, but has a stubborn streak. He cracks up when I talk in a funny voice as he holds my nose. He tries to hold strangers’ hands or pat fat people on the belly (may he one day grow out of this habit), and smiles at everyone.
It strikes me as interesting that Dominic’s father and I are two people with apparently similar lots in life. We are both American professors — in some schools we’d be in the same department — and both have sons who have disabilities. Unlike my son, his son has no cognitive disabilities. Yet Dominic’s father and I see our situations, and the pope’s actions, quite differently.
I’m not so much uncomfortable with what the pope did, but how people evaluated it. From the Boston Globe:
Francis “bestowed an extraordinary Easter blessing” on Dominic’s Rhode Island family when he hugged the 8-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, following the Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Paul Gondreau said. The photo of Francis hugging Dominic has captivated the world, appearing in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and on NBC Nightly News, Fox News, and ABC Nightly News, to name a few.
I must say, I am less impressed. Why is it “extraordinary” to bestow a blessing on a child with disabilities? Of course, one hopes the pope isn’t the type to say, “Ewwwwww, a kid with special needs, gross! Go be special somewhere else!” But isn’t that sort of a low bar? Are mere ordinary popes not expected to be willing to do it? I have to say, I think it should come with the ordinary papal territory. I find the fact that it made headlines actually somewhat disturbing.
Dominic’s father writes:
It is often difficult to try to express to people who do not have special needs children what kind of untold sacrifices are demanded of us each and every day.
Interesting. I find it difficult to express to people who do not have special needs children that my life is going quite well, thank you. They think I must be in miserable service to my son. Being a parent is sometimes, well, aggravating – wiping butts, listening to whining, making sure they don’t do perfectly ridiculously things like swallowing batteries or pretending to be Superman and jumping out a window. You love your kids to bits, you would throw yourself in front of a bus for any of them. But…aggravating.
As a fellow parent of a child with special needs said to me, “It’s pretty much like having a typical kid, but more so.” Yes. There’s more aggravating crap to do, and I will be doing it for the rest of my life, and I will worry about who will do it after I’m dead. Most parents won’t. But it’s not different in kind from the aggravating crap of typical kids, just in degree. Despite the fact that they cause some aggravation, I count myself lucky to have my typical kids. Despite the fact that he causes some aggravation, I count myself lucky to have James. He’s actually less aggravating in some ways. It’s nice to hang out with James, who just wants me to sing to him over and over, and who will for my whole life be unmitigatedly happy to see me!
Dominic’s father continues:
And as for Dominic, he has already shared in Christ’s Cross more than I have throughout my entire life multiplied a thousand times over. What is the purpose in all this, I ask? Furthermore, I often tend to see my relationship with Dominic in a one-sided manner. Yes, he suffers more than me, but it’s constantly ME who must help HIM. Which is how our culture often looks upon the disabled: as weak, needy individuals who depend so much upon others, and who contribute little, if anything, to those around them.
Pope Francis’ embrace of my son yesterday turns this logic completely on its head and, in its own small yet powerful way, shows once again how the wisdom of the Cross confounds human wisdom. Why is the whole world so moved by images of this embrace? A woman in the Square, moved to tears by the embrace, perhaps answered it best when she said to my wife afterward, “You know, your son is here to show people how to love.” To show people how to love. This remark hit my wife as a gentle heaven-sent confirmation of what she has long suspected: that Dominic’s special vocation in the world is to move people to love, to show people how to love. We human beings are made to love, and we depend upon examples to show us how to do this. (italicized emphases mine).
While there is comfort that many people can find in religion that we atheists lack, there are some comforts we atheists have. Genes mutate. Sometimes mutations give you extra abilities or sex appeal. Natural selection! The vast majority of the time, mutations give you disabilities. I don’t agonize about his reason for existence because I don’t wonder about anyone’s reason for existence. A sperm was in the same place at the same time as an egg; that’s the only reason anyone exists.
James doesn’t exist for the purposes of making other people better and reminding them what’s important. He has his own ends in life. Of course, we benefit from being parents. But we don’t say of our typical children that their reason for existing is to make us happy or make us better people. People can and should teach us things (and undoubtedly James has, and has taught me different things than his typical brothers have), but that is not their reason for being.
But how can a disabled person show us how to love in a way that only a disabled person can? Because the Cross of Christ is sweet and is of a higher order. Christ’s resurrection from the Cross proclaims that the love he offers us, the love that we, in our turn, are to show others, is the REAL reason he endured the Cross in the first place. Our stony hearts are transformed into this Christ-like love, and thereby empowered to change hatred into love, only through the Cross. And no one shares in the Cross more intimately than the disabled. And so the disabled become our models and our inspiration. Yes, I give much to my son, Dominic. But he gives me more, WAY more. I help him stand and walk, but he shows me how to love. I feed him, but he shows me how to love. I bring him to physical therapy, but he shows me how to love. I stretch his muscles and joke around with him, but he shows me how to love. I lift him in and out of his chair, I wheel him all over the place, but he shows me how to love. I give up my time, so much time, for him, but he shows me how to love.
Okay. Here may be the evidence that I really am an uncharitable shrew. Gondreau is shoing admirable honesty. It seems really wrong to quibble with a man’s ode to his son, especially when he is attempting to admit his failings. But. So quibble I.
I notice that other than citing repeatedly that Dominic shows him how to love, Gondreau only describes the aggravations of dealing with his son and not the pleasures.
How do people with disabilities show us how to love? That is not specified (well, through the Cross, but how through the Cross?). How can they have a special ability to show us how to love that typical people lack?
There is that line about stony hearts and changing hatred into love. Can saying that people with disabilities show us how to love really mean anything other than that they are harder to love (and easy to hate?!), and so loving them is a special achievement? That sentiment is, frankly, repugnant. I found it significantly harder to bond with James initially, and I imagine I’m not alone. But it didn’t really take that long to fall in love. It didn’t require an extraordinary act of will. David Hume (no believer in Jesus’s sacrifice) assumed that actually it was psychologically quite natural to love one’s child with disabilities. He said, “Parents commonly love that child most whose sickly infirm frame of body has occasioned them the greatest pains, trouble, and anxiety in rearing him. The agreeable sentiment of affection here acquires force from sentiments of uneasiness.” I do not love James the most, but there is something Hume gets right. Basically, it’s this: generally speaking, if you’re the one changing the diapers and wiping the noses, the love eventually happens. My love of James is no credit to me, and no favor to him.
This lesson, to repeat, confounds the wisdom of the world. Heck, it confounds me when I, as his parent, so often fail to see my son’s condition for what it is. The lesson my disabled son gives stands as a powerful testament to the dignity and infinite value of every human person, especially of those the world deems the weakest and most “useless.” Through their sharing in the “folly” of the Cross, the disabled are, in truth, the most powerful and the most productive among us.
I gather a different lesson on considering people with disabilities. They are — not always, but I will say usually — less productive than typical people. This is not always true — Helen Keller was certainly more productive than my Uncle Arnold is. But on the whole, yes. It also seems obvious to me that less productive people are not less morally valuable than productive people (those who disagree, we can hash it out in a different post).
If people with disabilities are equally valuable and are on the whole less productive, then my conclusion is not that there is some covert way that they are really productive. Rather, it is that the value of human life is not measured in productivity. Were I distributing scarce flu shots during a pandemic, and deciding who should get priority, I think it would be morally wrong to privilege a doctor over a janitor because the doctor is more productive. A person with disabilities who was abandoned by her parents and family, and never had the chance to teach anyone how to love, is not less valuable.
Gondreau ends thusly:
His Easter embrace of my son stands out as a compelling witness to the kind of “poverty” that he urges us to adopt, the poverty that he pointed to in the opening line of his Urbi et Orbi message yesterday: “I would like [the message of Christ’s resurrection] to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest…” Parents of disabled children, stand up and find solace and encouragement in these simple yet profound words.
My home is not where suffering is greatest. Especially if that message is something parents of disabled children, and not the children themselves, have to take to heart. I mean, I’m in a stable marriage, I live with financial security, my job is awesome (if unstable), and I have three awesome kids. I’m not walking around singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” all the time, but certainly there are people who have it much worse than I do.
By “no one shares in the cross more intimately than the disabled,” I assume that Gondreau means people with disabilities suffer the most. Disabilities are, generally speaking, a harm in one’s life. I have no question that my son’s life is not as good as it would be if his brain (and various and sundry other organs) worked properly. Yet I still think there are people in the world with no disabilities who have it worse than he does. My son goes to an wonderful school with teachers who adore him and work their hearts out trying to educate him. He is loved by many, many people, and he loves them back. He experiences more pain and discomfort than most typical kids. But he experiences much pleasure than pain. He loves music, singing, dancing, and mauling our family dog. He has a stable home life and access to great healthcare. There are starved, abused, abandoned, exploited children. Is his suffering worse than theirs?
To sum up an extremely long post, I think this sort of angelicization of children with disabilities actually draws on some morally questionable beliefs: that they are less inherently lovable, that they are valuable only insofar as they are useful. My kid warrants tons of blessings. But not because he has disabilities. Because he is lovable and valuable. Full stop.