“That a good many Christians today kneel before the world,” Jacques Maritain observed in The Peasant of the Garonne, “is a fact perfectly clear.” Taking aim at the “new philosophy” he detected weaving its way into the Church, Maritain made this uncharacteristically blunt remark in 1966. The pointedness of his reflections in The Peasant of Garonne surprised, even shocked, many of his faithful readers and admirers—a young Michael Novak, in a contemporary review in Commentary, even went so far as to characterize the thought and tone of the book as “wistful” and lacking “serenity.” The sophisticated and celebrated French Catholic thinker, who had done so much in the earlier part of the twentieth century to place Thomism in serious dialogue with the thought and action of the modern world, now sounded cautionary notes: Catholic spiritual and intellectual categories risked radical transformation if mindlessly filtered through stylish philosophical and cultural ideas. At particular risk was the religion’s traditional understandings of the primacy of the kingdom of God, the centrality of grace and the way of the Cross, and the call to sanctity. The willingness to displace Catholicism’s revealed claims about God, the person, and the world in the hope of being intellectually and culturally relevant was the source of much of the “Christian tomfoolery” Maritain saw taking root half a century ago.
Maritain’s phrase “kneel before the world” came to mind on hearing of Loyola University Maryland’s “cancelling” of Flannery O’Connor. Confronted with a signed, two-sentence petition from students that referred to “recent letters and postcards written by Flannery O’Connor” containing “strong racist sentiments and hate speech,” the university’s president, Brian F. Linnane, S.J., announced that the Flannery O’Connor Residence Hall would be renamed for Sister Thea Bowman. Many of the students who signed the petition demanding Loyola remove her name from the hall did not know who the author of the “recent letters and postcards” was or that the author died in 1964 or even that Flannery O’Connor was a woman.
The precipitating cause of the student petition was an essay published in The New Yorker by Paul Elie in mid-June, titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” Cherry-picking from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Radical Ambivalence, Elie’s piece credits its author with discovering and bravely bringing forth allegedly damning new evidence of the principled integrationist’s own personal struggles with the race question and her use of unflattering racial language in some of her personal writings. (Of particular concern to Elie is a 1964 letter in which a 39-year-old O’Connor states, “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing, prophesying, pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind . . . My question is usually would this person be endurable if white”).
Despite Elie’s hyperbolic claims to the contrary, his essay does not reveal anything substantially new—either in terms of factual information or moral and spiritual truth—about O’Connor. The fact that she occasionally referred to black people using language that we find not just indelicate but morally offensive has been known by professional and amateur readers of O’Connor since the first volumes of her letters were published back in the 1970s. The deeper point is that Elie’s sensationalist charge of racism, leveled weeks after the killing of George Floyd, is both unfair and untrue (and exploits both Floyd’s death and O’Connor’s character to tap into a cultural moment). Poring over her private correspondences and her published stories, one finds no evidence that she classified people, who she profoundly believed were made in the image of God and saved in Jesus Christ, by their race or evaluated the dignity of an individual based on his skin color. Even the remark about James Baldwin that Elie tries to make great hay out of, shows just the opposite is true. Her objection to Baldwin is that he is a blusterer, that he opines freely on subjects on which he can make no special claim to knowledge—by contrast, in the same letter, she speaks respectfully about Martin Luther King, Jr. and, believe it or not, admiringly of Cassius Clay. If anything, her remarks about Baldwin reveal a woman who was at times difficult to be around—setting the bar at whether a “person” is “endurable” does not expect too much from human beings.
In the immediate wake of the residence hall’s name change, a number of Catholic commentators remarked that unfortunately Loyola let a teachable moment slip away. However, this claim misses the mark. Presented with the unexpected chance to introduce contemporary students—English, Chemistry, Philosophy, and Business majors alike—to the untimely and thus challenging thought of a female author whose art powerfully brings together Catholic wisdom and a discerning eye for the messiness and possibilities inherent in fallen human life, the university chose to blink. For what one imagines are a mix of branding, economic, and ideological reasons, Loyola wasted little time signaling it is in-step with the ethos of America’s current cultural climate. It is ironic that in its rush to embrace the best practices of today’s fashionable institutions of higher learning, the Jesuit university brushed aside a thinker who believed that faith in Christ requires Catholics to push “as hard at the age that pushes against you.”
Taken as a whole, it is difficult not to see Loyola’s choice as a choice not to teach its students about the greatest 20th century, American Catholic writer of fiction and the Church’s understanding of the mysterious relation of sin, grace, and redemption. And there is the rub. Catholic universities as Catholic universities ought to embrace the fact that they have something distinctive to teach their students. Articulating the essence and intellectual challenge posed by Catholicism’s claims about God, the human person, and the world, should be part of the lifeblood of a Catholic university. The Catholic university is that place where the dialectical juxtaposition of Christian revelation and human wisdom come together on a regular basis to challenge, influence, and inform each other. This kind of education is necessarily broader and deeper than the impartation of “Jesuit values,” no matter how laudable the articulation of those values may be.
The unanticipated, if frequently violent, collision of nature and grace in human life (and the opening towards the Good that such divine action mysteriously affords) is a running theme in O’Conner’s writings. Capturing fallen creatures’ faltering movements towards the Good—in thought or speech or the written word—is no mean task. Indeed, seeing what the Good actually is and appreciating the form that it takes in persons created in God’s image and redeemed by Jesus Christ defies any straightforward or ideological articulation. By bringing such philosophical and theological questions to life, O’Connor’s short stories and novels artfully give students the chance to wrestle with enduring, and perhaps even unsettling, truths about themselves and their place in the world. In this respect, her stories are the polar opposite of contemporary cancel culture, which makes no real demands on its proponent, never questions their settled opinions, and certainly does not challenge them to turn their swords inward rather than outward.
O’Conner credited Thomas Aquinas, by way of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, with liberating her from the modern writer’s professional obligation to view herself, not the world she sees around her, as the subject of her art. “For the writer of fiction,” O’Connor maintained, “everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” To see her personal history, prejudices, and beliefs—including her personal beliefs about race—as the interpretive key to her carefully crafted stories is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. O’Connor also believed that her Catholic faith expanded the view of the world that she saw out of her window in Milledgeville, Georgia. As she put it, “the writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”
O’Connor studs her stories with memorable portraits of imperfect, broken men and woman who are painfully unaware of their brokenness—the zealous modern atheist and murderer Hazel Motes, the puffed-up Grandmother, the semi-soft nihilist with a Ph.D. in Philosophy Hulga Joy Hopewell, and the humanitarian but humanly-blind social worker Sheppard. Yet insofar as “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” as the Misfit declares in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” none of these characters can be written out of the human race or banished to the realm of non-persons. Paying attention to the carefully chosen words she often jarringly places in front of her readers, we learn something about the mysterious operations of sin, repentance, grace, and redemption in the soul. Students at Catholic universities like Loyola should learn that the timeless stories this self-proclaimed “Hillbilly Thomist” crafted speak very much to our current moment. Among other things, her writings can teach us about the soul-crushing pride that informs authoritative statements that someone’s words or thoughts—whether carefully weighed or unreflectively parroted—irrevocably place them beyond the pale. And her short stories, which tend to worm their way into us, prod us to wonder why exactly Christianity’s claim about the fragility of goodness in a fallen world and our standing need for God’s redemptive grace resonate so forcefully in in the human heart.
O’Connor and cancel culture thus operate in radically different intellectual and spiritual worlds. Contemporary cancel culture rests on an implicit metaphysics that rejects any notion that the Good remains a work in progress in human beings. Painting a picture of a Manichean world, it only recognizes morally pure posturing saints and unfathomably guilty irredeemable sinners. There is something fundamentally misleading about the oft-heard comparison of cancel culture ideologues to the Puritans of old. Whatever their characteristic vices, the Puritans had a profound sense of the pervasiveness and inescapability of original sin and human failing. Cancel culture replaces the playing out of the diverse tension-ridden movements of good and evil, sanctity and sin, in the soul with an ontologically static view of the human person and human life. Refusing to take the full measure of a person’s life, it implicitly rejects the possibility that today’s saints may one day become sinners or that tomorrow’s sinners may one day become saints and rules out the possibility of conversion. It substitutes a loosely defined compassionate fellow feeling for nameless “Others” for the concrete demands of justice and charity that Catholicism teaches we owe God and each unique person made in His image.
In her “Introduction to a Memoir of Mary Ann,” O’Connor pointedly states, “[m]ost of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look at it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.” Assistance in thinking through the implications of Catholicism’s claim that the good in us is something constantly under construction is something Catholic universities justly owe their students. Taking up that charge would be far more helpful to students wrestling with the questions of race raised over the long, hot spring and summer of 2020 than the myriad of ponderous-sounding “University Statements on Racism” or Town Hall sessions on “What Comes Next?” that most Catholic universities have reflexively lined up for their students.
Here too O’Connor’s writings can assist us. Stories like “Judgement Day,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” offer vivid depictions of fractured, prideful, and morally self-delusional people examining and reexamining their place in the universe God created and redeemed. None of O’Connor’s characters does this more memorably than Mrs. Ruby Turpin (the reluctant target of grace in “Revelation”). Equally disdainful of blacks and “white trash,” the large Southern woman sits in her doctor’s office alongside a young, precocious Wellesley student named Mary Grace. After secretly appreciating that she was not born black or to a white trash family or ugly, Mrs. Turpin loudly proclaims, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is.” Pouncing on Mrs. Turpin, after throwing a book at her that hits her in the eye, Mary Grace quietly but intensely tells the woman to go “back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”
Later standing in front of her pigpen, an unusually self-reflective Mrs. Turpin asks, “How am I a hog and me both?” Playing the part of Job, she yells to the heavens, “Who do you think you are?” The story ends with Mrs. Turpin receiving a vision as the sun sets on the horizon. Mirroring the New Testament claim that in the Kingdom of God the first shall be last and the last shall be first, she sees blacks and white trash proceeding towards heaven, while she and her husband Claud straggle on near the back of the throng.
In his New Yorker essay, Elie notes (but does not actually know what to make of) the fact that as she struggled with lupus during her final summer, O’Connor joked that she would sign herself into the hospital under the name “Mrs. Turpin.” Such soul-searching reflection, including reflection on one’s own personal struggles with questions of race, in the face of death demands a strength of mind, will, and faith that students at Catholic universities deserve to be presented with. Our students should also be led to wonder about why the thoughts and actions of a Mrs. Turpin at her pigpen or a Flannery O’Connor at the end of her life seem so different from the sentiments, thoughts, and actions that mainstream academia typically props up and puts on display today.
Let us hope that amidst the growing cries for them to “kneel before the world,” Catholic universities (including the Catholic university that just cancelled her) possess the will and intellectual ability to articulate and defend the kind of intellectual, moral, and spiritual engagements with the world that have long been the hallmark of Catholic liberal education. In other words, let us hope that those laboring at Catholic universities are still capable of recognizing enough of Mrs. Turpin in themselves and enough eternal wisdom in the faith to see why untimely authors like Flannery O’Connor should always find a home on our campuses.
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