Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Charlie Camosy’s Interview with Holly Taylor Coolman and the Controversy Over Diversity and Mission at Providence College

Fordham theology professor Charlie Camosy recently posted an interview (here) on the Crux website with fellow theologian and Providence College faculty member Holly Taylor Coolman. The interview addresses the recent controversy swirling at Providence College concerning Catholic identity, mission, and diversity.

As the editor’s note to the interview explains, Anthony Esolen, a professor of literature at Providence College, recently published a pair of essays in Crisis Magazine (here and here), in which he argued:

that the college’s understanding of “diversity”’ is more rooted in secular political ideology and contemporary gender theory than in a distinctly Catholic worldview. A faculty petition described his position as based on “racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinist statements,” and an email from Providence College President Father Brian Shanley disassociated the administration from Esolen’s views.

In the interview, Professor Coolman says that the current controversy on campus represents the inevitable collision of two groups.

One group is composed of Catholic faculty members who believe that Providence College’s “Catholic identity should be at the center of everything we do, and they look to the long history of Catholic tradition, including recent documents like Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as crucial.” They seek to avoid the fate of many American colleges and universities, once founded under Protestant auspices, but that are now thoroughly secular. This first group supports diversity, but they believe that it should be understood and rooted in the College’s Catholic identity.

The second group is made up of “people who tend to fall on the margins in our community, and also those supporting them.” They see “systemic forms of exclusion” in the wider society, and in Providence College, in particular, whose 100 year history “includes almost nothing of the African-American experience, or of Hispanic culture and tradition.” They support Providence College’s efforts to “recruit more students, faculty, and staff from underrepresented groups.” Coolman says, however, that this group is not composed of secularists as “some of these folks would also note that their concerns [about diversity] are prompted by Catholic commitments, beginning with a recognition of the dignity of every human being.”

Let me offer two observations with respect to the two groups that Coolman describes, some version of which can be found on the campus of virtually every Catholic college and university in the United States.

With respect to the second group that Coolman identifies (and here I speak of Catholic campuses in general, though I suspect it may also be true of Providence College ), it should be admitted that there is substantial contingent who are in fact hostile to any meaningful expression Catholic identity and mission. Sometimes this hostility is on display for all to see. Sometimes faculty are genuinely embarrassed to be affiliated with an institution that identifies with being “Catholic” because they associate this identity with being misogynist, patriarchal, homophobic, and anti-choice. Although Pope Francis’s popularity and his championing of certain acceptable causes (immigration, the environment, chief among them) may have made this affiliation slightly more palatable, this contingent would happily jettison the unwelcome baggage of Catholic identity if given the opportunity. As one Loyola colleague remarked upon learning that the University can make use of Loyola’s Catholic and Jesuit identity in reviewing proposed faculty hires, “Let’s secede!”

More often than not, however, opposition to Catholic mission and identity is not overt. On the contrary, those hostile to this mission and identity are happy to appropriate its language. They cloak themselves in the words of the institution’s mission statement – the pursuit of “social justice,” being “a man or woman for others,” “care for the whole person,” and of “finding God in all things.” Regardless of whether they are Catholic, practitioners of another faith, or are non-religious, they openly profess their enthusiasm for the school’s mission. And they can do so in good faith because “social justice” is what they define it to be, and not as the term is used and understood by the Church’s magisterium and in the wider Catholic intellectual tradition. That is to say, they can support a mission dedicated to “social justice” because the “social justice” they have in mind exactly coincides with how the term is understood in the wider, secular academy.

It must be admitted, that many of these individuals came to the Catholic college or university where they now teach or study not knowing much about the school’s professed identity. And what they did observe upon their arrival, they were told was “nothing to worry about. ” These telltale signs of Catholic identity could be safely ignored. The signs of a Catholic presence on campus – the crucifixes on the wall, the grotto dedicated to Mary, the picture of Pedro Arrupe or Vincent DePaul, and the talk of Dominican, Jesuit, Franciscan, Benedictine or some other “charism” – were all for private consumption by willing customers. After all, religion and spirituality in American life in general is thought to be a purely private affair that can be taken up or put down as one chooses. Thus, these students and faculty often inferred (and sometimes were expressly told) that these signs of identity were merely ornamental or ceremonial – that they did not reflect a genuine commitment meant to influence the intellectual life of the school. Thus, any move by the school to realize a more robust identity gives rise to a sense of betrayal – the rules of the game have been changed in mid-contest. These students and faculty thought they were a part of a secular university that enjoyed the trappings of religiosity as a matter of nostalgia, or to please older and more wealthy alumni. But the quixotic pursuit of Catholic identity in the academic work of the institution is, at worst, offensive, and at best a serious impediment to the achievement of genuine excellence, and the recognition of that achievement by secular peers. As such, it is something to be opposed, albeit often under the pretense of upholding the mission.

The second observation relates to the first. Prof. Coolman says that many in the second group she identifies cite to Catholic premises as a basis for their support for diversity on college campuses, “beginning with a recognition of the dignity of every human being.” No doubt many who oppose the “longstanding exclusion and unjust mistreatment of marginalized people” are sincere in their opposition. And they are correct in pointing to the Catholic tradition as sharing in the condemnation of such mistreatment. But their invocation of the specifically Catholic premise of human dignity is often incomplete and sometimes incoherent.

Thus, for example, the Catholic concept of human dignity (like any number of its secular counterparts) insists that gays and lesbians “must be treated with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “[e]very sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catchism §2358). But the Catholic concept of human dignity does not require the state to grant legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples in the form of civil unions or same-sex marriage. Similarly, some of the same people who argue for inclusion of the “marginalized” (meaning, among others, racial minorities, members of the LGBT community, and adherents of religions other than Christianity) would exclude unborn children from their rightful place in the human family and under the protection of the law. While, one might argue for the right to abortion based on some secular notion of human dignity, faithful recourse to the Catholic understanding of human dignity precludes such a move.

A third and final comment on Prof. Coolman’s interview. She says that what has been lacking at Providence College is leadership that sufficiently nourishes the College’s mission through a “clear articulation of things like the college’s history, the Catholic tradition, and the Dominican tradition” as well as “an invitation across campus to collaborate to share in working out that mission on campus.” She says that Providence College lacks “both of these elements, but especially the second.”

I believe that what Coolman says of PC is true of many Catholic colleges and universities.

Of course the invitation to collaborate – to share in the work of a common mission – will be an empty one if the substance of what one is being invited to share in isn’t clearly set forth. While the main problem at Providence College may be the absence of an invitation to collaborate and live out the College’s mission, I believe that the bigger problem at most Catholic institutions is a clear articulation of the institution’s identity. This failure is not due to a lack of time and effort spent word-smithing mission statements. Rather, it is due to a lack of courage in having the willingness to plainly say what needs to be said, to draw boundaries, to acknowledge that not everyone will find this vision of education attractive, to explain in concrete terms what this identity affirmatively demands and what it precludes. Coolman notes that at Providence College “engagement with the mission in faculty hiring processes has also been seriously inadequate.” It is no exaggeration to say that faculty hiring is the most important way in which a school’s mission is operationalized. As such, a clear articulation of the criteria to be used in “hiring for mission” is indispensable if Catholic colleges and universities are to have any hope of maintaining their identity and genuinely offering the distinctive kind of education they now claim to provide.


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