The Providence College Mob Comes for Anthony Esolen

Those who doubt that orthodox Christians risk persecution should consider the case of Anthony Esolen. A prominent scholar of Renaissance literature, Esolen authored a widely used translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He writes books and essays incessantly, contributing to Magnificat, Crisis magazine, and other publications and online outlets that take seriously Christianity and human excellence. Perhaps the best description of his writing is “luminous.” In other words, he is exactly the type of person the totalitarian Left wants to silence.

Esolen is under fire for being Catholic and not having the sense to keep quiet about it. The particular objects of the current Jacobin outrage are two articles Esolen wrote for Crisis—one discussing campus movements for “diversity” and how they unfold at a Catholic college, and the other challenging faithful Catholics and other Christians to consider how they’ll respond when (as the headline-writer put it) persecution comes. For Esolen, that time is now.

In an interview with Rod Dreher for The American Conservative, Esolen related how this tempest came to be. His Crisis articles, he explained, were written in response to the mistreatment of five of his Catholic colleagues at the hands of secular professors and the college’s “Bias Response” Star Chamber. In the articles he stated explicitly that he welcomed students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but suggested “that there was something narcissistic in the common insistence that people should study THEMSELVES rather than people who lived long ago and in cultures far removed from ours … and that there was something totalitarian in the impulse of the secular left, to attempt to subject our curriculum to the demands of a current political aim.”

A group of students accused him of racism. His attempts to discuss the issues with them were rebuffed. A band of students instead held a demonstration led by a bullhorn-wielding woman demanding “inclusion” and attention to a list of other demands to remake the university according to adolescent utopian ideals.

 

The band of students did meet with the president of the college, Fr. Brian Shanley. Sadly, Fr. Shanley followed the template of invertebrate college administrators everywhere: He weakly defended Esolen’s academic freedom but—and there’s always a “but”—rebuked him for causing “pain” to the protesting students. Shanley then suggested that Esolen’s truth-telling had violated “our fundamental imperative on a Catholic campus: to be charitable to one another.”

Several questions come to mind. First, did Shanley bother to read Esolen’s essay on diversity? It is truly inclusive, in the genuine meaning of that word. It focuses on what a Catholic college is supposed to be about—imparting the truth about God and his creation, where all are “truly at one with each other” when they “behold the same object of wonder, and lose themselves in that wonder.”

It rests on a central teaching of Christianity: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he create him, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). As explained by St. Catherine of Siena and incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, man “alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.” This sources the dignity of each individual in the Almighty—all-powerful, all-loving, and infinite. That is the most profound starting point for the relationship between one individual and another, between an individual and an institution, and between one community and another. There is nothing more loving than to so treat another.

Esolen’s offense seems to lie in his taking this teaching seriously. As his essay makes clear, he sees an individual first and foremost not as a member of a group, but as a human person created in the image of God. Esolen also notes the paradox that the campus diversity movement results in enforced sameness, not the true diversity of the Church—“a political movement which is, for all its talk, a push for homogeneity, so that all the world will look not like the many-cultured Church, but rather like the monotone non-culture of western cities that have lost their faith in the transcendent and unifying God.”

A second question is whether Shanley understands the Christian concept of charity, as opposed to the superficial relativistic, post-Christian version. True charity isn’t accepting everything a person says and celebrating everything he does for fear of hurting his feelings (see 2 Cor. 7:8-9). The Catechism defines charity as the theological virtue “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Defending the truth, and helping others come to know it, is truly loving others “for the love of God.”

And what is charitable about a Catholic college’s abandonment of a Catholic professor for expressing his Catholic beliefs? Shanley is clearly grieved that Esolen is protected by those uncharitable concepts of academic freedom and freedom of speech. “He certainly does not speak for me,” Shanley intoned, eager to avoid association with a man who speaks truth that irritates the mob.

Shanley, though, may be in a pickle of his own making. Under his leadership, Providence enforces a speech code that, while giving a nod to “freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas,” warns students and staff against “bias.” It defines a “bias incident” as “verbal, written, graphic, and/or physical conduct” that expresses “bias on the basis of … gender, race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, age, or veteran status.” Note that this definition elucidates the term by referencing the term itself. “Bias means bias” is not a definition at all, but rather an acknowledgement that the college will engage in arbitrary suppression of speech. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, when a college diversity commissar uses the word, it will mean just what he chooses it to mean—neither more nor less.

As myriad authors and commentators—for example, John Winthrop, John Locke, and Franz Kafka—have noted, and history has affirmed, arbitrary rule leads to tyranny and oppression. Locke observed that arbitrariness puts people “into a worse condition than the state of Nature.” Arbitrary rule fears rational inquiry, the pursuit of truth, and genuine discourse. Lacking a reasonable basis, it fears, too, the arbitrary power of others—something Robespierre perhaps understood as he was laid out, without trial, under the guillotine. If for no reason other than fear, arbitrary rule eventually responds to feelings—the feelings of the despot, the administrator, or the mob.

To compound the problem of its arbitrary speech code, the august Dominican college provides links to “resources” to illustrate what may be deemed verboten. Among these resources—presumably meant to illuminate the mind of the Providence community—are the “Teaching Tolerance” program of the radical leftist Southern Poverty Law Center; a site offering psychological testing to see if the test-taker suffers from “implicit bias”; and a site, funded by National Science Foundation and McGraw-Hill Higher Education, that provides resources on various categories of prejudice including an appendix on “animals as a target of prejudice.” “Bias” means, apparently, anything the creators of these programs disagree with. Or anything the mob says it is.

Bias means bias.

The mob must be pacified, and if that means a Catholic college deserts the Church’s most devout servants at the hour of attack, so be it.

In Anthony Esolen, Providence has a man of the Church and a pearl of great price. Pray they don’t throw it away.

By

Emmett McGroarty, Esq. and Jane Robbins, Esq. are Senior Fellows at the American Principles Project. Their new book, Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty, will be released later this year.

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