My Patheos colleague, Father Matthew Schneider, is an autistic priest. This summer he wrote a post about a priest in India, Father Dominic Valanmanal, who had preached some unbelievably disgusting lies about autism and how a person happens to be born that way. I’m shocked and appalled that anyone would have to refute a position as nutty as Father Valanmanal’s– Father Valanmanal was preaching that children are born autistic because their parents masturbate, consume pornography or engage in “homosexuality” and that children with autism are “like animals;” he also claims to have “cured” autism by reciting a “prayer of banishment.” But Father Schneider did refute him, eloquently, and I hoped that would be that.
Of course it wasn’t. Today, Father Schneider had to write about Father Valanmanal again. It seems that Father Valanmanal has arranged some extremely suspicious “prayer meets” for families of a child with autism. This “prayer meet” will involve two days of mandatory counseling for the parents at a retreat center, followed by a prayer ceremony which the autistic child is not allowed to not attend. Remember, this is from a person who has not apologized for or retracted his statements about autistic people; he’s only said he was “misrepresented and misunderstood,” that he loves them as children of God, and that he’s sorry that “people were wounded” by his words. A priest who gave a classic “I’m sorry you felt that way” victim-blaming non-apology for saying autism was a punishment and autistic people were like animals, is going to hold a retreat and prayer meeting to fix autistic children.
I’m angry, on behalf of Father Schneider for having to wade into this mess again, and on behalf of my friends who are autistic and who have autistic children, and on behalf of everyone the ridiculous Father Valamanal is fleecing with his bigotry. No one should have to defend their own humanity and the fact that they’re not a punishment, least of all to someone posing as a man of God.
I often think about the time Christ’s disciples pointed to a blind man and asked Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That person was a pariah that everyone in society hated. And here were the followers of Jesus Christ, talking about him right in front of him and making him a spectacle. Maybe they would have liked Father V.
Christ shut them down immediately. “Neither him nor his parents, but so that the Son of Man may be glorified.” and then He spoke with the person, ignoring the gawkers around him, and healed his blindness. And the story goes on to say that the whole community turned on the man who had been blind and threw him away as they eventually did to Jesus– because when someone is bigoted toward a different or disabled person, it’s not really about their disability or difference. It’s about being a bigot who thinks that some people aren’t worthy of respect. Christ not only opened the eyes of that blind man; He opened the eyes of society, until they couldn’t ignore that they were bigots, and what they did after that was up to them. And He opened the eyes of His followers, so that they would know that people are born so that the Son of Man may be glorified.
That’s what a human person is. It’s someone who is born so that the Son of Man may be glorified in their lives, and not for another reason. Not as a punishment or a reward, not so that they can make their parents’ lives easier, not to continue somebody else’s legacy, not to get good grades, not so that they can pay their taxes, but so that the Son of Man may be glorified in them. A human person exists as an icon of God, so that we can glorify God in them, so that they can glorify God, so that God can glorify Himself and that person by drawing that person up into the eternal life of the Trinity which is Heaven. That’s why people exist.
People who are different from us also exist so that the Son of Man may be glorified. That’s what autism is, strictly speaking: not a disability or a disease or a tragedy but a different way of experiencing the world that some people are born with. Some of these people prefer to call themselves “autistic people” and some prefer to call themselves “people with autism,” and there are people in either group who will be offended if you use the other term, so the best thing to do is ask what they prefer to be called; I’m going to alternate the terms here because I didn’t want to pick one at random. There is a huge spectrum of diverse abilities and traits that fall under the category of “autism.” Some people with autism seem neurotypical and you wouldn’t know that they were different just by talking to them. Some need help, to varying degrees, to be able to communicate and to understand when other people communicate with them. Some autistic people are disabled. Some have high IQ’s and some have intellectual disabilities, and some are of average intellect. Some people with autism act in a way that looks eccentric and some don’t. Everyone who was born with autism is born so that the Son of Many may be glorified.
It’s not wrong to pray to God that our sufferings be healed– Christ healed that man’s blindness, after all. It’s not wrong to work to heal things that cause suffering, and some of the symptoms of autism can certainly cause suffering. No one is saying parents of an autistic child who has trouble speaking intelligibly shouldn’t take the child to speech therapy or give them a touchscreen speech device, or both. If a parent with an autistic child is having trouble keeping their child from wandering off, that’s a real struggle and they’re not required to pretend it’s a good thing or not take steps to keep it from happening. If a person with autism who is having a lot of social anxiety due to their way of seeing the world wants to go to a counselor or psychiatrist to get help with the anxiety, they should go. If an autistic person finds that their tendency to experience “sensory overload” makes it difficult to go to school and they need some kind of help academically, they should get that help. If a person with autism is self-injuring or hurting other people when they experience a meltdown, they should definitely get some kind of help to cope differently. If they want to take these intentions in prayer to their community and get prayed over for healing or being better able to cope, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s good. We should all pray for healing and for the grace to persevere with whatever crosses we carry, and I wish we all belonged to communities that joined us in our prayer and helped us to cope however they could.
But that is an enormously different thing than parents dragging their child to a retreat and prayer meeting to try and make the autism go away. Especially if the retreat is run by a kook like Father Valanmanal. Lord only knows what he’s telling them in those “counseling” sessions.
Having a child who is different neurologically from other people’s children can be difficult and stressful for parents, and some of those parents will go to a priest for support and counsel. I don’t blame them for that; that’s often a good idea. The priest might then ask to bring the child in to be prayed over, which is a huge red flag for me. I wouldn’t recommend bringing a child with autism to be prayed over by a priest, except under an extremely narrow set of circumstances. If everyone in the room– the priest, the parents and especially the child herself–understood that they were praying to glorify God for the gift of that unique child and to ask for God’s help raising that child to reach her own full potential, that could be a good thing. If they were praying about this or that symptom that caused the child suffering, that might be able to be done in a helpful way as well. Otherwise, as Father Matthew points out, you’re just telling your child that their personality and whole way of seeing the world is radically disordered and needs to be changed– that THEY need to be changed.
A priest who has said horrifically bigoted things about autistic people– that they’re the result of masturbation and homosexual intercourse, that they behave like animals– shouldn’t be allowed near any children, let alone a child with autism. This is a person who fundamentally misunderstands what a child is. If you believe a child could ever be a punishment, you’re a bad priest. If you believe that differences and the challenges and disabilities that can come with them are punishments, you’re a bad priest. You don’t understand that children are born so that the Son of Man may be glorified. Praying over a child whose very existence you’ve misrepresented and disparaged, so that that child will turn into someone you prefer, is spiritual abuse.
Father Valanmanal’s “ministry” needs to be shut down entirely– at this point, I’d say whether or not he apologizes. Making that big of a gaffe, not walking it back with a humble apology when called out, and then offering your services to pray over somebody’s children to change their personality, is not something we can tolerate.
Unlike being autistic, this kind of behavior actually does make you a bad person.
(image via Pixabay)
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