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Cancelling Flannery O’Connor

Over at The Catholic Thing this morning, Randall Smith has an delightfully scathing piece entitled “The Artificial Jesuit” (a reference to one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories). Smith tackles the decision made by Fr. Brian F. Linnane, S.J., president of Loyola University Maryland, to strike the late (but widely beloved) Southern Catholic writer’s name from one one of the university dorms — all in the name of “Jesuit Values” — an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. This decision was made, unsurprisingly, following the recent revelation that certain “personal writings” of O’Connor “reflected a racist perspective.”

The dorm is being renamed for Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman. Linnane describes her as both “the granddaughter of slaves” and an “African American activist” who “inspired people to work to eliminate racism and work for justice.”

In other words: the renaming is an act rich with the kind of empty symbolism the progressive Left favors these days, often in the hopes that when the mob comes, they will be eaten last. (I should note that I know nothing of Thea Bowman, but even if she is a saint of the highest caliber, she is being used to make a vacuous political statement in this instance.)

Of the university’s decision to cancel O’Connor, Smith pointedly asks:

Would those be the “Jesuit values” that in 1838 allowed the Maryland Jesuits to sell 272 slaves – men, women, and children – to Louisiana’s ex-governor, Henry Johnson, whose son was a Georgetown student, for $115,000, equivalent to $2,761,078 in 2019?

The sale paid off the debts that Fr. Thomas Mulledy, the Jesuit provincial superior (who orchestrated the sale), had accrued when he was president of Georgetown. Would these be the “Jesuit values” that failed to ensure that all the terms of sale were met, terms that included there be no familial separation and that the religious practice of the enslaved people be supported?


[I]t is an act of rank hypocrisy – and is there anything Christ condemned more vigorously than hypocrisy? – to condemn Flannery O’Connor for being “racist” when the Maryland Jesuits have the history of slave-owning and slave-selling.  How about the Maryland Jesuits selling off the building and property of Georgetown University and donating those proceeds to every surviving relative of those slaves that can be found?  How about the Maryland Jesuits getting the plank out of their own eye before they gesticulate wildly at the relatively minor splinter in Flannery O’Connor’s private correspondence?

You can hear the plaintive cries now: “But we couldn’t afford to pay all those reparations to the children of those slaves.”  No, I don’t suppose they could – not and keep the billions of dollars in endowments they possess or the well-appointed administrative offices.  They could, of course, embrace humility, give up all their prestige mongering, and re-embrace their mission of providing a simple, traditional Jesuit education in logic, literature, basic science, and Thomistic philosophy and theology.

No new fancy buildings, no more expensive programs with no students and no professors doing little or no teaching.  But who could even imagine such a thing?  Not a modern Jesuit university administrator, obviously.

Smith also makes the important case that correspondence without context is always a dangerous thing to read. “Think about the things you may have said in unguarded moments with close friends on the Internet,” he writes. “I like to make jokes and tease my friends, both in person and in writing. If someone who didn’t know us read some of my comments, I have no doubt they would take me for a despicable person. Now granted, I am a despicable person, but I don’t think you could show this simply by quoting a few comments out of context from several of my emails.”

It’s a sentiment I certainly identify with. I feel safe in the assumption that many of you probably do, too.

Smith states unflinchingly what so many know, but so few have dared to say aloud: that cancel culture is “coward culture”:

Why would I call the act cowardice rather than a bold move to rectify a past mistake?  First, this act costs them nothing. They have given up nothing. It is a meaningless gesture, not a personal sacrifice or penitential act. It is the equivalent of throwing a man overboard in an attempt to quiet the wrath of the storm gods.

He also points out, and rightly so, that it would be almost unthinkable for a Jesuit institution to take “the name off of a dorm or a building because they discovered the donor or namesake had paid for numerous abortions” – making this act transparently nothing more than politically correct virtue signaling.

There’s a bit of less egregious virtue signaling in a piece on the same topic by University of South Carolina philosophy professor Jennifer A. Frey at First Things. Frey, who finds certain things written by O’Connor to have been “cringeworthy,” nevertheless argues against her cancellation, offering observations that bear reflection on the larger issue not just with O’Connor’s legacy, but of cancel culture as a whole. Frey notes that the Loyola Maryland issue represents

an opportunity for Catholics to address the contemporary demand that those we honor be perfect and free from the stain of sin—especially the sin of racism. We should resist this impossible demand. We need moral exemplars to provide models for our own lives, but we must accept that those exemplars will inevitably be wounded by sin—original, personal, and structural. We need to see those we honor in their wounded humanity, or we will never be able to see ourselves in them at all.

And ultimately, this is one of the most dangerous things about the new wholesale societal rejection of imperfect historical figures: if this is a road you’re really going to go down, not a single statue can be salvaged from the scrap heap of political incorrectness; not a single figure has enough virtue not to be sacrificed on the altar of wokeness.

I have often responded in bemusement when some anti-Christian with an axe to grind has leveled the charge of hypocrisy against the followers of Our Lord. “Why is it you think we believe He came?” I ask them. “Because we were already perfect? Or because we are sinners who cannot reform our lives on our own? Ours is a religion not for perfect beings, but for fallen men seeking redemption.”

The custodians of our artificial mores have no use for redemption. Those deemed unworthy will be subjected to damnatio memoriae.

A godless, atheistic wind is blowing in the world now, unmoored from divine or natural law or even an internally-consistent moral code. The goalposts of goodthink are buffeted endlessly in such a zeitgeist, remaining only just stable enough to condemn whatever is currently out of fashion before the standard arbitrarily changes once again.

I think often these days of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the story of an old Bolshevik revolutionary named Rubashov who is arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by the younger generation of revolutionaries who come after him. It should never be forgotten that Robespierre, architect of the Reign of Terror, was executed by the very guillotine with which he so enthusiastically separated tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen from their heads.

O’Connor’s cancellation is, in this regard, just another unsurprising step in our culture’s race to embrace madness. But she won’t be the last. Soon enough, they will run out of symbols to destroy, and will be forced to turn on each other. If history has taught us nothing else, we can be assured that this kind always ends up eating their own.

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