Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor is seen in a Sept. 22, 1959, photo, sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Ga. (CNS photo/Floyd Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constition, via AP)

Did Loyola University Maryland “cancel” renowned Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor on account of her racism? Some luminaries of the literary world, including Alice Walker, Mary Gordon, and Ron Hansen say yes—and they signed a petition drafted by Fordham’s Angela Alaimo O’Donnell urging Loyola to reconsider a decision described as removing O’Connor from “the pantheon of Catholic writers and intellectuals” honored on the university’s campus. But they are ignoring several key aspects of the situation.

What happened? Moved by student protests and after consulting a committee, Loyola’s president, Rev. Brian Linnane, SJ, recently announced that a student dormitory named after O’Connor about a decade ago had been renamed after Thea Bowman, an African-American religious sister who is now on the official path to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

What prompted the renaming? O’Connor’s sentiments on race have long been known to historians and literary scholars. But a recent article in the New Yorker by Paul Elie brought them to wider public attention. Some are hard to read. In 1964, in the heat of America’s battle over the Civil Rights Act, O’Connor wrote to a friend: “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.” These were not the words of a naïve girl unfamiliar with the brutalities of Jim Crow or the arguments against racism in both secular society and the Catholic Church. She wrote them in her late thirties, just before she died of lupus.

While generally well-received on campus, Linnane’s decision prompted howls of outrage from other quarters. Some accused him of giving aid and comfort to progressive “cancel” culture run amok. Others defended O’Connor’s status as a Catholic moral icon, arguing that her personal papers show moral development in her attitudes toward people of color, and that her public stories expose the moral ugliness of racism. A third strand of criticism focused on preserving the independent integrity of artistic work, claiming that the literary value of O’Connor’s stories does not depend on the moral probity of their author.

Who could blame Loyola’s students for not wanting to live in a dorm named after someone who said “I don’t like negroes” just before she died?

In my view, all of these criticisms miss the mark because they fail to consider the particularities of the decision made by Linnane, and the reasons he offered for making it. Linnane is not a progressive culture-warrior, an O’Connor hater, or a moralistic opponent of great literature. He is the president of a Jesuit Catholic institution of higher learning. His decision was motivated by his central fiduciary obligation: cura personalis, care for the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the students who live and study at Loyola. His decision was a pastoral decision.

We’re talking about naming—or renaming—a building, which is a matter of prudence, not principle. Slippery-slope arguments against cancel culture are fair to consider but should not necessarily be decisive. Facts and circumstances matter. When they’re carefully considered in this case, the decision bears little resemblance to the petition’s wild suggestion that it “effectively banishes” O’Connor from the university, and that Dante and Shakespeare might be next.

Loyola decided to take O’Connor’s name off a dormitory—not a classroom building or a library wing. “A residence hall is supposed to be the students’ home,” Linnane said. “If some of the students who live in that building find it to be unwelcoming and unsettling, that has to be taken seriously.” And who could blame Loyola’s students for not wanting to live in a dorm named after someone who said “I don’t like negroes” just before she died.

The background and context of a decision also matter. Loyola is run by the Jesuits, an order that has publicly committed itself to critically examining its own complicity in slavery and systemic structures of racism. Moreover, like many East Coast Jesuit institutions, its student body is largely white and economically privileged. Those of us who teach at similar institutions increasingly recognize that we have not risen to the challenges of welcoming students of color as full and equal participants in our communities. Finally, Loyola is located in Baltimore, a city long riven by inequality and violence. Just five years ago, riots erupted after the death of Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old African American who sustained mortal injuries to his neck and spine while being transported in a police vehicle after arrest.

For all these reasons, Loyola University Maryland took Flannery O’Connor’s name off a dormitory. But it did not cancel her. Her portrait was not defaced, her books were not banned or burned, and professors were not prohibited from teaching her writings in class. Quite the contrary, as Linnane emphasized. 

The petition signed by Walker, Gordon, Hansen, and others floats free of these particularities that motivated Linnane’s decision. It mentions taking O’Connor’s name off a “building” at Loyola, not a dormitory. It talks about the South, not Baltimore. It also glides past the remarks O’Connor actually made about race, vaguely referring to them as “some racially insensitive statements in her private correspondence.” That allows the petitioners to focus on the sensibilities of O’Connor’s readers, not the vulnerabilities of Loyola’s students. Not one line in the petition empathizes with the Black students who actually have to live in that dorm.

This dependence on hazy references and alarmist rhetoric contrasts sharply with Linnane’s explanation of Loyola’s decision. A Yale-trained ethicist, Linnane recognizes the counterarguments to his position. He takes care to note O’Connor’s growth as a person who wrestled with her sins, as well as the salubrious effect of some of her stories. But he finally decided the needs of his students meant taking her name off of a dormitory—an example of the careful sifting of O’Connor’s life and work that her readers should welcome.

Published in the September 2020 issue: View Contents

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

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