by Dr. Jennifer Illuzzi
I very much appreciate that you took the time to interview Dr. Esolen about the controversy concerning the articles published in Crisis Magazine. I feel quite moved to respond to the articles. As someone who is a Catholic who tries, and often struggles, each day to practice her faith, and simultaneously falls on the left of the political spectrum, I found myself agreeing with many of the points Dr. Esolen made in the interview: I certainly have experienced skepticism on the part of secular liberal colleagues, particularly at my graduate institution, when they realized that I practiced the Catholic faith, and I have also experienced skepticism of some of my views from various conservative and observant Catholics in my life. I do sometimes feel caught in the middle of politics and religion. One of the reasons that I very much appreciate teaching at Providence College is the fact that I feel that I can openly talk about the struggles between faith and politics, and engage with faith in an academic way at all. I have never felt stymied in expressing my faith here at Providence College, and that welcoming spirit has led me back to my faith, and to a new embrace of the spirit of challenge and questioning that is so much a part of Thomas Aquinas’ legacy to us as a college. I strongly agree with Dr. Esolen that one of our foremost missions at the College is to re-integrate ourselves with our surrounding neighborhood and to open our doors to the youth of Smith Hill as we did historically. Moreover, I agree with Dr. Esolen that we must have a campus dialogue about what precisely diversity means for us, as an institution and a community. That work has begun through the Difficult Dialogues series, and I know it will continue.
It is from this spirit that I feel I must challenge what seems to me to be an unjust dichotomy and a problematic framing of Dr. Esolen’s arguments. Dr. Esolen seems to posit a split between faculty who are Catholic and agree with DWC as it has historically been taught, and a secular faculty who seek only to destroy the program and disparage people of faith. In Dr. Esolen’s interview, he states, “The tremendous irony of it all is that the Catholic Church, which is now 2,000 years old, is the most multi-cultural institution in the world right now, and it has always been that way….But there’s this tremendous irony that that is what the Church is [an institution that values diverse cultures], that’s what the Church has been, but people who are not part of that have no idea.” I felt very perturbed by that statement, and I feel that, as a Catholic of a different perspective, I must respond.
One of the things I have tried to convey in my DWC classes (and elsewhere) is that, like so many other historical institutions, the members and representatives of the Catholic church have acted in liberatory and oppressive ways. Dr. Esolen’s portrayal of the Catholic church quite literally whitewashes a problematic history: without understanding the history of the Catholic church, in all its complexities, how can we Catholics, as a Church, make it better? Gustavo Gutierrez, among others, has been struggling and fighting for that work for much of his life in his quest for a theology of liberation that has begun to transform and strengthen the Church in the world. For many centuries, many members of the Catholic church stood on the side of the powerful, and aligned themselves with forces of oppression. Certainly not all members of the church, but from the eyes of our Jewish brothers and sisters in history, the Church did not represent multiculturalism, but oppression and marginalization. Our Muslim brothers and sisters would have stories to tell of a Catholicism that was concerned more about political power and wealth than the poor and those who suffered. Our Catholic sisters and brothers in Latin America and in many parts of Africa may recall a time when “Christian and black are juxtaposed – the one overcoming the other” (Jennings, 2010, 23). Oscar Romero stood on the side of the poor and against a powerful institutional church that stood with those who oppressed the poor and indigenes. There is a missionary tradition within Catholicism that “stands conceptually in one place and demands that ‘the barbarians’ move toward [it.]” (Jennings, 2010, 105). These actions distorted the reality of Jesus, and as a Church, our job is to try to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Certainly, dissenting voices opposed these problematic developments at every turn, but to claim that the Church has always been a “multicultural” institution is to fail to grasp the complexity of its institutional history.
It also, I believe, oversimplifies and underestimates the student, faculty, and staff members of the campus community by presenting a reductionist view of Church history. As a Catholic myself, I resent being imbricated in a narrative of Catholicism that rejects a coming to grips with problematic historical approaches to humanity and its differences, or an alternate narrative that posits I am but a secular liberal fighting for the end of culture. It is this piece of the interview that continues to trouble me, as a person of faith. I do not want our students who choose to call themselves constituent parts of the body of Christ to think that Dr. Esolen’s failure to acknowledge the problematic pieces of the institutional Church means that they too must defend Catholicism without admitting its flaws. His position does not represent mine, and I suspect I am not alone in this feeling. I hope that more of us can continue to build a narrative and a dialogue around a complex view of Catholicism and its history to build a stronger community here at PC—one that includes and reaches out to everyone who is willing to listen.