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.