The Persecution of Professor Esolen

(Image courtesy of Province of Saint Joseph via Flickr)

Professor Anthony Esolen is a bright jewel in the crown of Catholic higher education in the United States, a scholar whose brilliant translation of, and commentary on, Dante’s Divine Comedy is appreciated far beyond the boundaries of Catholic literary and intellectual life. Tony Esolen is also a wonderful man, a scintillating spiritual writer, and a teacher who takes character formation as seriously as intellectual formation because he wants his students to be virtuous and happy, not just smart and employable. If I were drafting a university-level Dream Team of instructors for my grandchildren, Tony Esolen would be a very high first-round pick.

So why is Professor Esolen being persecuted at the school where he’s taught for twenty-five years, Providence College?

Because he spoke his mind plainly on questions of great consequence for the future of Catholic higher learning and got the PC Stormtroopers into an uproar. To make matters worse, the college’s administration has shown more sympathy to those determined to bully Esolen into silence than to one of Providence’s star professors.

The offenses? Two articles that Professor Esolen wrote, which proposed that “diversity” (which the professor welcomed) be located within a biblical vision of the ultimate unity of all humanity in God: a vision that would, he suggested, deepen Providence College’s Catholic identity and distinguish it from competitors. Absent that purifying vision, he warned, making a fetish of diversity risks creating a coercive campus ethos inimical to true learning.

Anyone paying attention to campus life in recent years knows that America’s colleges and universities are filled with pampered millennials who require “trigger warnings” if their tender sensibilities might be offended by this, that, or the other idea or text. Well, Tony Esolen provided no trigger warning, only robust and bracing argument. And certain students and faculty at Providence College reacted with fits of rage more befitting a day-care center than an institution of higher education. Which, of course, perfectly illustrated one point Esolen made in his articles.

This is sad beyond words. I’ve long been happy to point parents, students, and donors to Providence College as a school that takes the classic liberal arts tradition seriously, and does so with a distinctively Catholic flavor. It will be much harder to do that in the future unless the college administration reverses its present course, calls the faculty and students who have been brutalizing Professor Esolen to order, and reaffirms Providence College’s commitment to genuine academic freedom and to a Catholic vision of the human person that challenges the tribalism and identity politics eroding our culture and our politics.

As for that erosion, recent data from the World Values Survey tells us that only 30% of U.S. millennials (i.e., those born after 1980) think it “essential” to live in a democracy; 24% of those same millennials think democracy a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country; and only 19% judge it “illegitimate” for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job. Those numbers might seem appalling. But what should we expect when other survey data tells us that something like 50 percent of recent colleges graduates are historical illiterates who (as George Will recently pointed out) don’t know that George Washington led the Continental Army at Yorktown, or that Theodore Roosevelt had a role in building the Panama Canal, or that FDR designed the New Deal? When almost half of recent college graduates don’t know the length of terms served by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, is it really surprising that so many in their age cohort claim to value efficient autocracy over the often-messy business of democratic self-governance?

Catholic higher education is uniquely positioned to do something about these twinned problems of historical amnesia and political-cultural corruption. The Church invented the university and its ethos of open inquiry, which was rooted in the conviction that human beings can, with effort, get at the truth of things. Anthony Esolen stands firmly in that great Catholic tradition of liberal learning. A college whose leadership is committed to that tradition, and to Catholic leadership in the reform of an increasingly incoherent and authoritarian American intellectual and educational culture, would celebrate Tony Esolen’s contributions. It certainly wouldn’t coddle his persecutors.

COMING UP: Books for Christmas

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The flurry of instabooks published shortly after the election of Pope Francis didn’t shed much light on the formation, character and interests of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or the likely trajectory of his pontificate. Now comes something serious and useful: “Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend – Personal Recollections About the Man Who Became Pope,” edited by Alejandro Bermúdez and published by Ignatius Press. In 20 interviews, longtime friends and associates of the pope “from the ends of the earth” give readers real insight into the radical Christian disciple who is leading the Church “into the deep” of the new evangelization, following the call of John Paul II in 2001.

This coming July, the world will mark the centenary of the First World War, the seismic calamity that began the 20th century as an epoch and that, in another hundred years, may well be regarded as the sanguinary first act in the end of Europe as “Europe” had been known for over a millennium. Three new books try to explain how this civilizational disaster happened. Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914: Countdown to War” (Basic Books) lays primary blame on Austria-Hungary; Christopher Clarke’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (Harper) and Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” (Knopf) spread the responsibility around, with both Clarke and Hastings assigning Wilhelmine Germany the decisive role amidst a desperately inept performance by the Great Powers. All three books are helpful antidotes to the confusions created by Barbara Tuchman’s eminently readable, but dubiously argued, 1960s bestseller “The Guns of August.”

Evelyn Waugh was one of the supreme English prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his novels are profoundly Catholic without being pious, cloying, or sentimental – literary gems shaped by a Catholic sacramental imagination that is both unyielding and redemptive. Waugh fans have long indulged friendly arguments about the master’s greatest work; a recent re-reading of “The Sword of Honour Trilogy” (Everyman’s Library) persuaded me (again) that these three books easily stand with “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” at the summit of Waugh’s achievement, even as they brilliantly lay bare the European cultural crisis that was vastly accelerated by World War I.

The finest piece of biblical exposition I’ve read recently is C. Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age” (Oxford University Press). This is theological exegesis at its finest: informed by historical-critical scholarship, but going far beyond the biblical dissecting room to show how the experience of the Risen Christ both formed the Church and impelled it into mission. Rowe, a Duke Divinity School professor of New Testament who is not a Catholic, thus makes an important contribution to the evangelical Catholicism of the future by reinforcing the biblical foundations of the new evangelization.

On several previous occasions I’ve noted that my friend Rémi Brague, who teaches at the Sorbonne and at the University of Munich, is one of the smartest (and funniest) Catholics in the world – his brilliance being recently recognized by the award of the Ratzinger Prize. In his most recently translated book, “On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others),” published by St. Augustine Press, Brague explores the God who is Father but not male, the God whose way of being One is to be Trinity, the God who doesn’t bestow goodness but who is the Good, the God who respects human freedom while inviting humanity into the tangled journey of a salvation history in which God himself is an actor.

Francis Rooney’s “The Global Vatican” (Rowman & Littlefield) is a timely reminder of the Holy See’s important roles in world politics

And perhaps I may be permitted to note two recent books of my own: “Roman Pilgrimage: The Stations Churches” (Basic Books), co-authored with Elizabeth Lev and my son Stephen, and “Practicing Catholic: Essays Historical, Literary, Sporting, and Elegiac” (Crossroad). I’ve never recommended an eBook before, but I’ll happily note that the glorious color in the eBook edition of “Roman Pilgrimage” may yet convert me to reading-(at-least-some-books)-on-a-tablet, a confession this veteran paper guy never expected to make.