In 2001, when chairman Leon Kass was organizing the President’s Council on Bioethics (which was recently and foolishly disbanded by President Obama), he sent the Council members some interesting homework to read before their first discussion in 2001: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” which doesn’t figure in too many high school American literature anthologies these days. Dr. Kass knew precisely what he was doing, however: he was asking those charged with advising the President of the United States about the management of humanity’s new genetic knowledge to think about today’s challenges through the prism of a story about beauty, hubris, and the lethal dangers of the Promethean quest for human perfection.
In Hawthorne’s tale, Aylmer, a scientist, has married an exceptionally beautiful woman named Georgiana, whose face is marred (in Aylmer’s view) by a birthmark. Eventually convinced by Aylmer that the birthmark should be removed, Georgiana submits to a procedure, designed by Aylmer, that is supposed to eliminate what her husband regards as a blemish on her beauty. The birthmark disappears but Georgiana dies. Aylmer’s quest to make his wife perfect, as he understands perfection, has killed the women he sought to perfect.
I’d known about Kass’s striking assignment to the Bioethics Council for years. But it was only recently that his effort to get America thinking seriously about the moral and human costs of striving for physical perfection brought to mind another member of the Hawthorne clan — Rose Hawthorne, the author’s youngest child, whose cause for beatification is now underway.
Born in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1851, Rose Hawthorne spent her childhood years in Liverpool, England (where her father was U.S. consul), and Italy before coming home to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1860. At age twenty, Rose married George Parsons Lathrop and the couple eventually settled in Boston, where Lathrop worked at the Atlantic Monthly and Rose established her own reputation as a writer, publishing short stories and poems. After five years of marriage, a son, Francis Hawthorne Lathrop, was born; but the lad succumbed to diphtheria when just five years old. Rose and George Lathrop were both received into the Catholic Church in 1891, ten years after their son’s death. But their marriage became impossible; George Lathrop had problems with “intemperance” (as the New Catholic Encyclopedia delicately puts it), which led to his inability to keep a job. With her confessor’s permission, Rose began to live alone and, after taking appropriate training, started work with patients suffering from incurable cancer — a heart-breaking ministry of charity to which she devoted the rest of her life.
After George Lathrop’s death in 1898, Rose Hawthorne became a Dominican sister, establishing the Dominican Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, also known as the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. A center for cancer patients was established in Hawthorne, New York, where Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P., as Rose was known in religion, spent out her years, dying there in 1926.
As Father Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P., the postulator for her beatification, once wrote, “service to Christ’s poor did not simply mean that this lady of culture, education, and social status would put on an apron and offer gifts from her abundance. She decided to live among the poor, to beg for them as they did for themselves, and to establish a home where they could live in dignity, cleanliness, and ease as they faced their final days on earth…There was to be no class system, no ‘upstairs/downstairs’ for her residents. She and her religious sisters would be the servants. The residents would be the object of all their care and concern.” Rose Hawthorne saw in disfigured men and women suffering from horrible cancers what Aylmer could not see in the near-perfection of the beautiful Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story: the face of Christ.
The Rose Hawthorne Guild (600 Linda Avenue, Hawthorne, NY 10532) promotes the cause of Rose Hawthorne; a prayer asking cures and other favors through her intercession is available at http://www.hawthorne-dominicans.org/guild/nl_gld.3.htm. It would not be misplaced to add a prayer for any future President’s Council on Bioethics in such intercessions.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.