By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When he was a boy, growing up in Puyallup, Eduardo Peñalver’s parents took him to protest the nuclear submarines at Bangor Naval Base following the lead of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Even today, his father still goes to mass every day—he lives directly across from All Saints Church.
So when Peñalver went to college at Cornell, he was disappointed to find it was the only Ivy League School without a divinity school. But when he applied for a Rhodes Scholarship—a professor had recommended him—planning to study theology, he almost didn’t get it because the interviewer asked him a question he didn’t know how to answer.
“He asked me, ‘What is the hypostatic union?’” said Peñalver, in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly. “And when I didn’t know, he said, ‘I thought you wanted to study theology.’”
Peñalver responded, “Well, I want to study it, it doesn’t mean I know a lot about it.”
(The hypostatic union, he would later learn, means the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ.)
Thus began a lifelong quest to find a union of a different kind, between religion and law, academics and the legal profession, the present and the past, loss and the recognition that something positive may come of that loss.
He got the scholarship. Apparently the interviewer was impressed by his candor, and he went to Oxford to study the philosophy of religion and other related subjects in a school that, up until a few decades earlier, had not admitted Catholics.
Later, after attending Yale Law School and achieving clerkships with some of the highest judges in the land, his mother would ask if that was a good thing—was that why he went to law school?
“We hadn’t had any lawyers in our immediate family,” he said, although his father was a pediatrician and his mother a school nurse.
It wasn’t until much later, when he became a law professor and started writing about the law and the losses it could acknowledge and if not rectify then perhaps justify, that he addressed his family’s loss.
His grandmother, attached to the former regime in Cuba, had fled in 1961, two years after the revolution. His father, a student activist, had fled the following year for a different reason.
A student in the Franciscan seminary in Havana, he chose to leave after it was shut down after the Bay of Pigs.
The policy, for anyone leaving Cuba at the time, was to allow those departing to take only what he or she could carry and one bag, said Peñalver.
“Cubans say they arrived in the United States with one hand in front, one hand behind,” he said.
All else—land, home, business, property, even the photographs they couldn’t carry—was left behind and ultimately confiscated and nationalized by the state.
“So growing up in that house, my grandmother was scarred by the loss,” said Peñalver, who wears a short beard that he held with one hand when he recounted his family’s loss.
“Cubans kept track of what they left behind and had this hope of coming back to Cuba and getting it.”
It was in law school, however, that he first began to cope with and analyze that loss. His first published paper was about Cuban revolutionary land law—the law which had disenfranchised his parents and grandparents.
“My grandmother and father used to have epic political arguments when I was growing up,” he said.
With his father, for the first time in the 1990s, he visited the family’s home in Cuba, lost now forever.
When his family fled, they left it in the care of a housekeeper who lived in it for many years as her own. Eventually, when the house became too much for her, she swapped it for a smaller apartment and perhaps an illegal payment since selling houses was forbidden under Cuban property law.
Thus began Peñalver’s interest in property law and property rights.
His first book, “Property Outlaws,” almost seems a justification of the Cuban Revolution, since it argues that people who unlawfully appropriate property in some cases communicate important information about broader problems plaguing society.
Today, he says that the book’s argument is most applicable to homelessness.
“It went beyond traditional theories of civil disobedience because it included things like non-violent theft, like shoplifting, or the theft of intellectual property, and also squatting, and when I look around, the example that is most squarely engaged by our book is the homeless encampments around Seattle which are formally illegal but reflect and reveal real imbalances in our housing market,” he said.
A Catholic view of property informs his book, which in the end argues that those breaking property law sometimes help to advance the development of law by shedding light on those kinds of imbalances or inefficiencies. Sometimes, the law’s response is to double down on enforcement. But, historically, at times the state has also responded by changing the law. Examples include the Homestead Act of 1862 and the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said Peñalver.
“If you want to summarize the Catholic view of property, it is that there is a right to private property, that the ability to plan and control and invest is part of human flourishing, but that also means that because it is a human right, everyone is entitled to some ownership,” he said.
Peñalver, who speaks with a calm intensity, gave the example of a famous Texas economist who advanced a similar view.
“He was accused of being a socialist, but he said, ‘I believe in private ownership—in fact, I think it’s so great, everyone should have some.’”
Peñalver, when asked for a thread that defined his life, said, after some reflection, things had often happened because of serendipity—or accident, even.
He went to Cornell without ever visiting. He thought the Rhodes Scholarship was something that was just given out, like a Pulitzer. He was uncertain about his next step while wanting to leave his law firm when the dean of Yale Law School called him and interested him in teaching.
He had been looking to return to the Pacific Northwest for 30 years and had given up when he was contacted about the Seattle University presidency opening up and invited to apply.
His wife, Sital Kalantry, who was profiled by this newspaper last month, teaches at the law school.
“If there’s a theme, it’s a little bit of an accidental career path,” he said. “I’m not a big believer in very linear careers and I always counsel students not to be too strategic if you don’t know where you’re going to be in five years––the key thing is to be enjoying what you’re doing and have it be meaningful to you at every stage, then you never have any regrets about your grand plan not working out.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.