Anthony Esolen, the prolific Catholic scholar and author known for his distinctly Catholic worldview and translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, has accepted a teaching position at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, severing his ties with Providence College, where he held a tenured professorship and waged a long battle for its Catholic identity.
The move marks the end of an increasingly tempestuous showdown between Esolen and Providence over the Dominican-run institution’s direction and the beginning of a new chapter for the Catholic scholar. Esolen will begin teaching courses at the New Hampshire Catholic liberal arts college starting with the fall semester. He will also begin work on Thomas More’s new Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture.
William Fahey, president of Thomas More, told the National Catholic Register that Esolen and the college have a long-established relationship. Esolen spoke recently at Thomas More’s President’s Council Dinner, addressed students at commencement, and gave a keynote address at the annual Catholic Literature Conference in Concord, New Hampshire, co-hosted by Thomas More.
Fahey said he also has had a long personal relationship with Esolen and admires his “educational vision, his love of the Church, his engagement in the political and cultural arena.”
“And like Thomas More, he has made tremendous sacrifices and suffered for holding to his convictions,” the college president added.
Esolen’s hiring by Thomas More, Fahey said, demonstrates both the college’s commitment to “excellence in teaching” and that “a small Catholic ‘Great Books’ college can continue to attract world-class faculty.”
Esolen’s additional work on the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture, Fahey added, highlights the college’s mission “to wed virtue and scholarship, contemplation with cultural engagement.”
“We are following the lead of our spiritual patron, St. Thomas More,” he said. “We can engage the world, hold firmly to our faith, and retire for learned and merry conversations among friends.”
The Perils of Providence
For more than a year, Esolen had been engaged in an acrimonious and rather public debate about the true nature of diversity at Providence College, which became known as “the Esolen Affair.” Esolen had vocally criticized “diversity” being used by students and some faculty on campus to push a political agenda rooted in current events, as opposed to his support for a “cultural diversity” that also treasures the best of Western civilization.
But the public battle came to a head after Providence’s administration publicly distanced itself from Esolen, who had written an essay for Crisis Magazine entitled, “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult” (a title that Esolen said he did not write).
The administration’s public repudiation of Esolen followed upon a protest march by Providence students and a faculty petition that alleged Esolen’s articles contained “racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic and religiously chauvinist statements.”
Esolen told the National Catholic Register that the turning point for him came after Providence’s president, Dominican Father Brian Shanley, allegedly refused to meet with a small group of Catholic professors intent on resolving the conflict and persuaded the Dominican provincial not to meet with them either.
Esolen explained that he could have lived with a “somewhat Catholic school that was really committed to the humanities” or “an unreservedly Catholic school where the humanities needed shoring up.” However, he concluded Providence offered neither of these options: The campus had become “highly politicized,” and the administrative decisions, to him, appeared “basically secular in their inspiration and their aim.”
“That is not to say that Providence College is lost,” he said. “There are still many excellent people there, Catholics and others who are friendly to the faith, even when they do not share it, and friendly to the humanities. But saving the school is no longer my battle.”
The public clash between Esolen’s “strong Catholic convictions” and the direction that Providence was going prompted Thomas More’s president and several trustees to meet with Esolen at a fundraising event and discuss the possibility of him leaving his tenured position to join Thomas More College.
“It was rather remarkable,” Fahey said. “After about an hour of conversation, we were all wondering why it had taken so long to come to the conclusion that Esolen’s scholarship, understanding of an integrated Catholic education, and love of traditional Catholic culture were a magnificent fit with the mission of Thomas More College.”
‘Good Cheer’ at Thomas More
In contrast to the exhaustion and isolation he experienced at Providence College, Esolen said a recent visit to Thomas More left him “full of good cheer and energy.”
“For somebody who isn’t getting younger, those can take you a long way,” he said. “They can add many years to your life as a teacher, whereas discouragement and disappointment lead to exhaustion.”
Having a community “filled with the faith,” Esolen said, strengthens his own faith. He finds it a “considerable advantage” that Thomas More has daily Mass offered outside of the class schedule, followed by lunch, “when you have a chance of sitting with anybody and everybody.”
He felt drawn to Thomas More College because the students are meant to be “surrounded by beauty and sanity,” where young men and women falling in love and getting married is celebrated – not the “rat poison of the sexual revolution, the ‘Lonely Revolution.’” He admires how the education focuses on the “whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him,” making it the kind of environment that can produce “leaders in thought, art, public affairs and the Church.”
Esolen said Thomas More College’s Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture is a “great opportunity” for him and his family.
“It is as if they had read my mind or I had read their minds when I wrote my book Out of the Ashes: Restoring American Culture,” he said.
The Catholic scholar said he is looking forward to helping introduce freshmen to the ancient world and “how to write like human beings and not machines.”
He said he will also be focusing on producing other poetic works other than translation. One such project is tentatively called “Centuries of Grace.”
But Esolen said he intends to bring to Thomas More what he sought to bring to the students of Providence – “a love for art and poetry and the best of human wisdom, and the trust that such things can bring us into the precincts of the divine.”
He added, “Not into the sanctuary itself, but into the neighborhood. And that is no small thing that they can do.”
(This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.)
Related at CWR:
• “The Persecution of Professor Esolen” (Dec 14, 2016) by George Weigel
• Providence College and Dr. Anthony Esolen: An Alumnus Speaks Out (Nov 28, 2016) by Dr. Michael J. Rubin
• Where is Professor Anthony Esolen’s “safe space”? ” (Nov 17, 2016) by Dr. Randall B. Smith
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