Father Rick and moral responsibility

Rod Dreher | Posted on 03/02/10

It's not blaming the victim to ask what it is about Haitian culture that keeps its people down

If you haven't read Matt Labash's staggering account of the work missionary priest Father Rick Frechette does among the poor of Haiti, by all means get to it. But prepare yourself; this can be rough going. Haiti really does sound like hell on earth. Here, Labash writes of landing in the Dominican Republic, preparing to drive across the Isle of Hispaniola to Haiti:

We touch down in Santo Domingo, and I take in the Taco Maker fast food, the cerveza signs, and the Ford Sport truck raffle at the airport. The Dominican Republic has all the taken-for-granted decadences of civilization: people holding hands on leisurely strolls down beachfront promenades, bicycling ice cream vendors, sidewalk cafes. The place we're headed just a short while away has none. As a friend said to me before I left, "It's as though God bisected the island of Hispaniola, and said, ‘This side gets the shortstops. This side gets the cholera.' "

Labash's story is not about why Haiti is the way it is, but rather how this brave and tireless missionary priest continues his relief work out of love for them, despite the utter catastrophe that is Haitian society (the earthquake was just one more thing on top of an already wrecked country). You get the sense, as Labash talks to doctors and other earthquake relief workers, that the easier thing is to attend to the wounded from the disaster. The difficult, indeed seemingly impossible thing, would be to fix Haiti.

What I would love to read is a serious, cold-eyed analysis of why Haiti is such a disaster. To be specific, what cultural habits are there among the Haitians that make Haiti so poor and ungovernable? Why is the next-door Dominican Republic, which shares the island with Haiti, doing so much better? Does the voodoo religion, and the habits of thought it ingrains in the minds of its many devotees in Haiti, have anything to do with it? Yes, Haiti has been badly governed and oppressed, first by colonial masters and then by homegrown dictators. But so have many other countries, yet they aren't nearly as miserable and without hope as Haiti.

I know, I know, it's hard to do this kind of analysis without being accused of blaming the victim. Still, if we want to know what has to happen for Haiti to become a remotely normal country, we have to look at its problems with as much unsentimental clarity as possible. Meanwhile, the heroic response of good souls like Father Rick is quite literally a godsend, an example of what the priest calls a "countersign" of hope to those immiserated by the chaos and evil of everyday life in their country.

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