Damien, Stevenson, and Us

At long last, Damien the leper has been canonized as a saint of the Catholic church [1]. Two miracles having been investigated and verified [2], the lonely missionary who exiled himself to the leper colony of Molokai, tended to the needs of the lepers, became one, and died there, will now be officially venerated and have churches named after him.

Obama, with that obtuseness for which he is so justly famous, responded by comparing leprosy to AIDS, thus throwing another sop to his gay supporters [3]. A blogger responded by complaining that sainthood should not be confined to celibates. But this manipulation and misunderstanding of his canonization would not have bothered Damien, who often endured criticism and name-calling.

Shortly after his death, in response to published eulogies, a Honolulu minister, the Reverend C. M. Hyde, wrote a letter to a fellow pastor that started:

In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted...

and continued with a string of lurid accusations:

...He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness...

The letter was printed in a religious publication and eventually came to the attention of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose open letter to Hyde [4] is one of most intense and incisive polemics ever written. It ends:

Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of your own heart? I will try yet once again to make it clearer. You had a father: suppose this tale were about him, and some informant brought it to you, proof in hand: I am not making too high an estimate of your emotional nature when I suppose you would regret the circumstance? that you would feel the tale of frailty the more keenly since it shamed the author of your days? and that the last thing you would do would be to publish it in the religious press? Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, and the father of the man in the Apia bar, and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.

Surprisingly, Hyde, who regarded Stevenson as a 'bohemian', was too obtuse to be ashamed or even perturbed. He seems to have been unaware of how devastatingly Stevenson had exposed his wretched soul.

But God had another purpose in inspiring Stevenson to write that letter. It became famous worldwide and has endured as a classic of our literature. And thus Damien's story, which might have died with him on the lonely and shunned shores of Molokai, was kept alive, came to the attention of the world, and has since inspired countless missionaries and caregivers to similar lives of heroism.

Perhaps Damien's story should be an inspiration to the readers and writers of American Thinker and to conservatives in general. Like Damien, we perceive a disease to be rampant in our society and do what we can to combat it. Like Damien, we often feel that our efforts are ineffectual and unheeded. Nonetheless, like Damien, we should fight on in the hope that God will somehow put our struggles to good use. And perhaps we should occasionally pray to Damien, who may well become the patron of apparently hopeless causes.  

See also: Secular Humanists push back against St Damien


[1]  Catholics revere all the heroes who give their lives to the service of God and (equivalently) their fellow men. Saints are the subset of those heroes whom God has seen fit to call to our attention.

[2]  Requiring miracles before canonizing a saint is not, as it has been called, medieval  hocus-pocus. It is merely the equivalent of a manager in a business getting the concurrence of his boss before announcing a promotion. 

[3]  Obama might better have compared Damien to the heroic healthcare workers all over the world, who risk their lives daily to care for victims of numerous infectious diseases such as Ebola and H1N1. Or more aptly, he might have compared Damien to the men and women in our armed forces who gave their lives for the sake of their country---sacrifices that he seems now to be willing to waste and throw under the bus for the sake of political expediency and the preservation of his image as a peacekeeper.

[4]  The coincidence of the name "Hyde" is disconcerting but accidental. Stevenson did not maliciously name his famous villain after the reverend doctor in Honolulu. He had already published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, four years before the letter.