Recently, as readers of Crisis may have heard, our administration at Providence College retracted an invitation to a Professor John Corvino, who afterwards said in disgruntlement that he’d been looking forward to speaking at a Catholic college like ours, to persuade young people that the homosexual life was good for the individual and for the society. The specific topic was same-sex pseudogamy, mock-marriage for people whose unchosen inclinations or indulged compulsions or disdain or fear of the opposite sex may render them incapable of marrying and begetting children after the ordinary way of nature.
We’ll now host a debate in the spring between Mr. Corvino and the redoubtable Sherif Girgis, co-author with Robert George and Ryan Anderson of What Is Marriage? The title of their book places the question where it ought to be. Before we ask whether a man and a man may mate, we must notice that in fact a man and a man are incapable of mating. There has never been such a thing as a man marrying a man, and there never will be. There can only be the pretense, just as a man in drag can only pretend to be a woman. At base, there is nothing at all to debate. What is up for debate is whether we should pretend that something exists which not only does not exist but can never exist, and whether this act of make-believe will conduce to the common good—to stronger marriages, families richer in children, fewer divorces, fewer births out of wedlock, fewer abortions, a more wholesome public square, the withering of pornography, more harmony between men and women, more understanding between the generations, children who retain their innocence till the threshold of adulthood; fuller churches, men and women motivated less by pleasure than by what is good and noble; a world in which a young person would be ashamed for the shameless, and in which there need be no laws against public filth, because custom alone would more than suffice.
Put it that way, and the game’s up. Put it that way, and you achieve complete separation. The world which a Dan Savage chooses for a sleazy paradise, and which the cleaner-mouthed John Corvino is pleased to dwell in, is just this side of Hell, and the bright world I’ve described would fill them with loathing. That doesn’t surprise me. What does make me wonder a little is why homo academicus would choose the former and not the latter.
When our provost announced his decision, many secular professors cried foul. “It’s an affront to academic freedom!” they shouted. “The chill is in the air,” they shivered, sunning themselves on the beach at Nassau, sipping whisky on the rocks. A chill in the air, is it? Are you sure it’s not from your own ice machine? I could tell them a few Tales from the Tundra and not leave Providence College for my material. But homo academicus is not known for constancy.
What are we professors known for? Not faith, but fideism; not constancy, but conformity; not courage, but comfort-seeking. Having turned from the Lord whom alone we must love with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, we turn to “isms,” waste and void; if we cannot be saved by God, we must be saved by feminism or environmentalism or socialism or libertarianism or humanism or transhumanism. And when those stark staring idols disappoint, when the kewpie dolls and stone demons fail to deliver, we accuse the ignorance of ordinary people. It’s a weary and overcast life we lead, with never a real celebration, never a chance to find ourselves by forgetting ourselves in faith and hope and love. Everything is political, and yet our own polity, over which we tenured faculty have almost complete control, is a sandbox filled with spoiled and squabbling children, or a kennel of small snarling terriers, with plenty of food and water but all baring their teeth to snatch one ragged rawhide toy.
Nevertheless, canis academicus looks in the mirror and sees a mastiff, or very much wants to see one, so we’re easy pickings for bigshot hucksters of bad ideas that could not possibly work in a world of farmers, carpenters, masons, miners, truckers, and others whose foolishness is checked by an immediate rebuff from reality. Felis academicus makes a show of bravery when espousing ideas au courant at the wine and cheese bar, but the fur stands on end if anybody should subject those ideas to scrutiny or satire.
So it doesn’t surprise me, their antipathy to the same Catholic Church that has hired them, tenured them, promoted them, and honored them. For the Church both invites and threatens, and she threatens because she invites. The chapel is there for anyone to enter; the priests are there to talk to; and plenty of students wear the cross around their necks. That’s the trouble. It’s not that the Church considers sexual relations between unmarried people to be a grave evil, while they themselves are fearless fighters for the freedom to fornicate. They’re not really any such thing—they are better than that. The trouble is that there’s a Church at all, which assigns a necessarily subordinate place to us and what we do—to us teachers of science, philosophy, art, history, business, or poetry.
And here is the question which both parties must face honestly. Catholic professors and administrators would like to believe that they can hire professors who are not Catholics specifically or people of strong religious faith more generally, while maintaining both academic excellence and their Catholic or Christian witness to their students, the other members of the college community, and the world. Professors who are not Catholic or who do not practice any religious faith but who feel no particular hostility to the Church would like to believe that they can contribute to the college to the best of their abilities, without hindering or undermining its broader mission.
It is not clear to me that this is the case. It might have been so, once, when almost everyone accepted the ordinary residually Christian view of the world. Within living memory, after all, even those who did not grace the churches with their presence did not exactly think that intercourse between unmarried people was a great social good or a civil right to be defended or celebrated. Even that was an unreliable foundation to build upon. It was sand packed tight and feeling firm, but in the end it was just sand, and the tempests have come and washed the sand away.
It’s not comfortable for anybody to acknowledge that his employer has had to exercise some tolerance—some sufferance of a less than ideal condition—to hire him. It’s perhaps less comfortable for the employer to make that exercise of tolerance known. But I do not see how any accommodation can be arrived at without candor on the part of the employer and grateful tact on the part of the employee. It’s no more than what I’d expect if a yeshiva were to hire me, a Catholic, to teach English literature.
But if candor and tact are wanting, and if, moreover, secular professors will not admit the legitimacy of the Catholic view of education—if secular professors believe it is their duty to undermine that view, then only two routes remain open. The first is the broad high way, and many they are that have already traveled thereon. On that way, the schools become secular in all but name; but in that case it is hard to see how more than the few and the wealthy will survive when the higher education train goes off the rails. The second way is difficult and narrow, and few have taken it. The schools must recruit Catholic (or other Christian or observant Jewish professors), and if the departments balk, the responsibility for hiring must be taken out of their hands. If the Catholic mission is non-negotiable, and if secular professors cannot be relied on to refrain from undermining it, if they cannot accord it the respect it deserves, then the discussion is over, and we shake hands and part company.