An Icon of God’s Love: Bella Santorum

The elections are over and I for one am relieved that the campaigns are in the rear-view mirror. American political discourse is a patience-testing experience, but I am grateful for and recall fondly one glimmer of love and joy from the political campaigns.

Bella Santorum

Daughter of Senator Rick and Karen Santorum, Bella, who has Trisomy 18, was featured from time to time in news coverage of the Republican primary and in the Senator’s ads. Her presence was a vivid reminder that differences in ability do not define us. Disabilities do not make a person defective, less human, or unworthy of love.

Yet, as so many know from first hand experience, society too often treats the person with a disability unjustly—as a burden or as a barrier to success and happiness. People with disabilities are frequently isolated, ostracized, or even killed solely because they have a disability.

 

Blessed Pope John Paul II often addressed the dominant culture’s opinion of people who are disabled. In Evangelium vitae he wrote that “it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: … A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed.”

In a culture of death, the child with a disability is treated as if she should be (or should have been) eliminated before birth. This mentality has been evident in recent “wrongful birth” lawsuits throughout the “developed” world. This lack of acceptance was starkly noted in a recent article published in Newsweek by a writer whose friend has a child with Autism. She writes that “three generations of lives—I include his own—wrecked, for ever, by his cussed condition.” She explains that nobody will babysit except for one grandmother, the couple feels like they can’t have other children, they are running out of money and vacations and holidays are ruined. She writes of the couples “life sentence” and the plans for their future which “turn[ed] to dust.”

She then goes on to state: “But looking on, as a relatively dispassionate observer; looking at the damage done, the absence of hope and the anguish of the poor child himself, do I think that everyone concerned would be better off if Tom’s had been a life unlived? Unequivocally, yes.”

It is in a cultural milieu that assumes people are better off dead than disabled that so many will learn of their child’s disability or try to raise their child with disabilities.

Society’s failure to embrace such people is why Bella’s beautiful presence in the campaign was so refreshing. One ad featured scenes of Bella with her family as Senator Santorum reflected upon how they have come to understand her presence in their lives: “Bella is an icon of God’s face, and is filled with his love as he reveals himself through her and all people with disabilities. Bella is a teacher of unconditional love, an education in the dignity of every person.”

Would that more people were able to see and embrace the inherent dignity and “icon of God’s face” that is the child who is disabled. Or, as scripture attests, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child in her womb?” (Isaiah 49:15) Undoubtedly, raising children or taking care of the needs of adults with disabilities can be very demanding. It often involves suffering and sacrifice, but as the former senator from Pennsylvania emphatically wrote in A Special Mother is Born, “she is worth every tear.”

The now-common and expected response to prenatal diagnosis of disability, disposing of the disabled child in the womb through abortion, is a false and wrong headed “solution” to disability. Abortion cures nobody. It only victimizes a person with disabilities and treats him or her as unworthy of life and love. Self-sacrificing love is the only legitimate solution and worthy response.

Upon learning of the Santorums’ story, I was prompted to read Karen Santorum’s book about the son that they lost two hours after birth, Gabriel Michael. In Letters to Gabriel, Karen writes to her deceased son, “You made me realize that we should never be stingy with our love. In a very personal way, you brought home to Daddy and me the truth that love, by its very definition, can never be conditional… I have come to believe that we lose so much when we start to be selective with our acceptance and our love, both as individuals and as a society. Children are always a burden in one way or another. What happens when we start to believe that we can choose whether or not to accept the particular burdens a child brings into our lives?”

Bella Santorum, and the open-hearted embrace she receives from her family, are a moving reminder that every human being is deserving of love, and that no one is disposable, but is rather an icon of and encounter with the God who Himself is Love.

Arland K. Nichols

By

Arland K. Nichols is the founding President of the John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU