St. Louis Expels De Smet from Campus

American universities have long been citadels of political correctness but, in the past year, the noose has gotten even tighter. In many places, classic literature and great books have been banished or at least subjected to the prior censorship of “trigger warnings,” lest their content prove discomforting to some students. “Microaggressions” are practically universal. “Speech codes” and faculty guidance on what can and cannot be said which, if imposed elsewhere would bring Planned Parenthood and the ACLU out in force, quietly gag campus discussion. Speakers who might challenge the regnant orthodoxies of the ever so-intolerant heralds of “tolerance” are either not invited, disinvited or, if they ever reach campus, find their speech interfered with. George Will properly characterized the silly season on American campuses as “sinister childishness.”

The latest concession to the politically correct crowd seems to be Jesuit St. Louis University.

The school had a statue, “Where the Waters Meet,” of the Reverend Pierre-Jean De Smet, SJ (1801-1873) on its main campus. “Had,” until recently, when the statue was removed from campus to a museum, to be placed in “historical context.” St. Louis University admits that some students and faculty disapproved of the statue because they claimed it “symbolized white supremacy, racism, and colonialism.” It supposedly did this by depicting De Smet standing over kneeling Indians, cross in hand, blessing them.

For those ignorant of De Smet’s contributions to American history, the Belgian Jesuit volunteered to work among Indians of the Great Plains and Rockies, evangelizing tribes in the areas of present-day Wyoming, Idaho, Alberta, and British Columbia. He also convinced Sitting Bull to sign the Treaty of Fort Laramie with the United States.

Providence College English professor Anthony Esolen penned a perceptive essay in the March 2015 Magnificat extolling De Smet’s work. He pointed out what a great friend of the Indian that De Smet was, “their advocate before God and man.” Free of the prejudices many of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans harbored towards Indians, De Smet was seen as a fair broker. In the vein of “what might have been,” Esolen poignantly observes: “Had America followed his lead, great good would have come of it and many evils—war, the theft of Indian lands, perfidy, mutual hatred, and the moral collapse that awaits a defeated people under patronage—might never have been.”

But that would require knowing something about De Smet, and thinking is oh, so painful compared to the ease of callow repetition of politically correct orthodoxies. Writing in the campus newspaper, Ryan McKinley writes off the boring task of research to … scholars. “Whether the historical De Smet was a genuine friend of American Indians or a willing cog sent to convince the Lakota to sign the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty, a treaty which the U.S. government had no intention of fulfilling, is a debate beyond my research; hopefully scholars at SLU can illuminate his past.” But deferring action while awaiting historical judgment is sooooooo mauvaise foi. Anyway, history is not about facts (are there any objective ones?) but perceptions: “Nonetheless, if De Smet was a friend of the Indians, then this is surely not what is depicted by this statue.”

Why? Because De Smet evangelized and converted them? For McKinley, the cross-wielding De Smet says: “You do not belong here if you do not submit to our culture and our religion.”

Have Catholic Jesuit universities so lost their identity compass that their graduates believe that the work of evangelization represented an imposition on its recipients? Nineteenth-century Jesuit Pierre-Jean De Smet converted Indians to Catholicism. If De Smet was a twenty-first-century Jesuit, would we expect him to bring them the “Jesuit tradition” instead, while joining in a spirit dance?

There is something profoundly disturbing when a student at a Catholic Jesuit university can dispense himself of the hard work of historical investigation in order to seize on perceptions … and then use those perceptions as the justification for erasing people from history. Moving a statue that has stood for decades because it offends some contemporary sensibilities is not “truth.” It has as much in common with veracity as did the censors of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia who, acutely attuned to the grimaces of those in power in the Kremlin, could make entries (and people) disappear, non-pages in history. De Smet deserves better.

There has already been an undercurrent of grousing, ahead of the Junipero Serra canonization, that the Franciscan who was architect of the great chain of California missions was perhaps not the friend of the Indian some say.  When John Tracy Ellis wrote about American Catholic history, he abandoned the Anglophile orientation that jumped from Columbus to the Pilgrims, erasing the century-plus contributions of French and Spanish explorers—including Catholic priests—to what would be America. That approach, however, suggests that the colonial era was not all bad, something anathema to the orthodoxies of contemporary political correctness. So even though Serra’s mission system put Indians in a better situation than they had before (or in which the Spanish conquistadores might have placed them but for the Church’s intervention) that does not necessarily fit the preferred narrative of “racism, oppression,” etc. etc. … so maybe we had just better leave Serra to obscurity.

American history is littered with priests who worked to evangelize the Indians. Jean-Baptiste Lamy (of Willa Cather Death Comes to the Archbishop fame) and Frederic Baraga are two bishops figuring prominently in the evangelization of Indians.

The Society of Jesus especially has to contend with lots of other confrères whose work among the North American Indian tribes remains insufficiently known and praised, but which might not fit the categories of political correctness of today’s “friends of Native Americans.” In addition to De Smet, those Jesuits include Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brébeuf and companions, Eusebio Kiño, Père Marquette (should the University rename itself?), the founders of Red Cloud School in South Dakota, et al.

After all, de Brébeuf came from a literate family (his uncle was a poet) and taught in Rouen. I remember hearing a sermon on his feast day from another now deceased Jesuit, Fordham’s Robert O’Connell, who read an extract of how Brébeuf was culturally off put by the dwellings of the Indians, which he deemed primitive and smelly. But whatever cultural inequalities he might have felt, they did not interfere with his real and deep love of his fellow man that, after his first return to France brought him back again to Canada, to smelly dwellings … and to martyrdom.

St. Louis University’s puerile shunting off of its Jesuit heritage to a museum, to be “contextualized” out of sight and then hopefully out of mind, sets a poor precedent. If Jesuits seem a bit off-put by their own heritage, who will defend the Church’s contribution to the evangelization of the continent? The “Jesuit tradition” as a politically correct mimicry of the larger preoccupations of liberalism festooned with some Christian language, can apparently displace real Jesuit and Catholic heritage, even at Jesuit and Catholic universities. Of course, they’ll find a Jesuitical way of explaining (away) what they did.

Reminds me of a conversation I once had at my alma mater, Fordham. Back in the 1960s, New York’s Jesuit university had been in the forefront of accommodation to get government money, readily removing crosses from its classrooms when that was taken to be the price of obtaining those funds. I recall, during my graduate days there in 1981-85, that a story appeared in the press about the defeat of efforts by the Communist regime in martial law Poland’s to force removal of crucifixes from a Polish school. One of my Jesuit professors who had invited me to lunch knew I was a Polish American and congratulated me that, back in the old country, we had stood up for the faith. I replied half jokingly: “Look, they only had to contend with Muscovite Communists. Put them face to face with some New York Jesuits and you’d have seen how quick those crosses disappear.”

Little could I have surmised that, three decades later, even Jesuits would be “contextualized” off the public square … at a Jesuit university.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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