August 23, 2017

Room for Critique

by Dr. Christopher Arroyo

To the editors:

Over the past few weeks, some members of the Providence College community (alumni, faculty, staff, and student alike) have sought ways to respond to Prof. Anthony Esolen’s essay in the Sept. 26 issue of Crisis Magazine.  Many of these people took offense to what Prof. Esolen wrote, and understandably so.  Without rehearsing criticisms others have made, I’d like to offer a few observations, ones that I have not seen made publicly.

The first is that, whatever you think of Prof. Esolen’s opinion of the term “diversity,” he raises some important questions for those of us who think that diversity is a meaningful, valuable concept.  For example, he asks, “What is diversity as opposed to divergence? What is diversity as opposed to mere variety?  What goods, precisely, is diversity supposed to deliver?”  For those of us who think that Providence College is intellectually and morally richer for having members of our community who are not men, not white, not straight, and/or not cisgender, these are questions we should be prepared to answer.

My second observation is that Prof. Esolen’s piece is in some respects at odds with Catholic values and pastoral teaching, at least as they are propounded and defended in this country.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) maintains a Committee of Cultural Diversity in the Church (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/). The charge of the Committee and the documents it produces show that the USCCB conceives of diversity as integral to the contemporary Catholic Church.  It is not, then, merely a sign of weakness on the part of the administration of Providence College that it makes diversity a central feature of our Catholic mission.  Indeed, our Catholic identity calls us to be sensitive to the ways in which some people have been and continue to be objects of derision and persecution and to work against this.

Perhaps, though, Prof. Esolen thinks that the culture of diversity that he criticizes in his piece is different from the diversity valorized by the USCCB.  Or perhaps he thinks that the USCCB, too, has succumbed to the pressures of cultural totalitarianism. Or perhaps he would argue for a different point altogether.  Whatever his view of the USCCB’s position on diversity, Prof. Esolen can, in good faith as a Catholic, criticize it, which is my final observation.  The Catholic Church’s teaching on cultural diversity, like all of its ethical teachings (including those on sexual morality) are ones that it offers to the world as reasonable.  In other words, the Catholic Church makes its case for its ethical teachings on the basis of premises available, it thinks, to all human beings, regardless of their belief in God (or lack thereof).  A Catholic understanding of faith and reason entails that one can disagree with a particular ethical teaching of the Catholic Church without thereby rejecting anything essential to Catholic faith.

The Catholic intellectual tradition is built on arguments and criticism, which is integral to Providence College’s identity as a Catholic college.  This intellectual tradition entails that when we disagree with views such as the ones Professor Esolen defends, we can (and, I think, should) criticize them, and we can (and, I think, should) do so because we are Catholic.

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