From a Catholic
Who Cannot Be Hired at Your School
a reflection on
American Protestant Anti-Catholicism,
Political Correctness, and
Comfortable People Fiddling
while the World Burns
below is a real letter sent to a real college that really does not hire Catholics…the name of the professor, the school, and of a few others have been replaced with pseudonyms
Dear Prof. Nilson:
I have received your letter informing me that, as a Catholic, I cannot be employed at your "Christian" college.
The job announcement to which I responded was for a scholar who can teach women's and world literature, and film studies. Often a job applicant must reinvent herself in order to fit a want-ad; here my skills and your needs meshed; the most joyful highlights of my professional life constituted the high points of my application letter.
You expressed interest and invited me to "learn more by visiting our website." In disciplined doses, I imagined myself teaching at Dimmesdale. I, mentally, mounted a balloon ride out of the slum where I now live to join the throng gathered 'neath the lit Christmas tree on Dimmesdale's homepage. Cinnamon bun smiles greeted me. There was a heartbreaking snapshot of a professor meeting with a student in front of a fireplace in a cozy room. I never wanted to leave.
I responded to you, eagerly. I added that, though I would feel no need to act on my convictions in a way that might cause problems for my employer, I hold the conviction of the full, not the lesser, humanity of homosexuals. This had come up before in my applications to Christian schools; it had been a deal breaker. I mentioned, as an afterthought, that I am Catholic.
As I waited – ten full days – I was counting them – for your reply, I pondered how I would answer when asked my approach to the work of Greta Garbo, the quintessential movie star, James Whale, the director of "Frankenstein," George Cukor, director of Tracy-Hepburn movies, Cole Porter, lyricist and composer, Vincent Minnelli's musicals, Rock Hudson's romantic comedies, and W. Somerset Maugham – they say more movies have been based on his works than on any other writers'. All of these artists were gay. I like a challenge, especially one related to teaching. I was chomping at the bit.
When I read your letter denying me employment on the basis of my Catholicism, I was nauseated and experienced that sudden inability to breathe that accompanies a sharp, unexpected blow to the gut. A pigtailed girl's urge to burst into tears scrunched up my eyes. This wasn't the first time, of course.
In Berkeley, the world capital of political correctness, at a party, I met an academic to whom, months before, I had sent my CV in the hopes that I might work as her teaching assistant. Breezy, open, she announced "As soon as I saw your name on top of your CV, I just threw it away. 'Danusha Goska': the name of some foreigner from God knows where. Imagine meeting you and discovering that you are American, and can speak."
I had applied for that job because my mentor at UC Berkeley had told me that I was "the wrong minority" to receive a fellowship; he had to give the money to an African American, who turned out to be the Ivy-League-educated child of two professionals. I paid for my Berkeley MA by working as a live-in domestic servant, a carpenter, and landscaper. While, through grants and assistantships, my fellow grad students developed academic connections, I developed muscles.
More recently, as part of the training for new hires at Rutgers, I was asked to plan a lesson around a comparison between eating at McDonald's and genocide. I asked my new boss, a scholar with a national reputation, "What if the students do not feel that eating at McDonald's is comparable to genocide?" He escorted me outside the building and instructed me to leave the campus, as I was obviously too "right-wing" for an academic environment. This "left-wing" scholar felt no compunction about his Scrooge-like decision to dismiss, a few short days before the semester began, a new PhD who had declined other offers, offers since expired. Eventually Rutgers did hire me, as a short-term, last-minute replacement when, again, a name scholar opted out of a class she was committed to teach. Expediency trumped ideology.
As far as I know, though, I've never been denied a job, or anything, for that matter, because I am Catholic. In applying to Dimmesdale, I was not prepared for so sixteenth-century of an experience. I went for a long walk, during which my fingers clenched and unclenched, sometimes around a handkerchief in my pocket, sometimes in thin air.
I remembered events I haven't thought of in years. I could hear seven languages from my bedroom window in a small New Jersey town. The rooster that crowed at dawn belonged to Ukrainian Orthodox. Our family doctor was from China; our pharmacists were Arabs; my first boss was Indian (from India); my best friend dated an Indian (from North America); I played with Filipinos and Hillbillies.
There were some "white people" – we really did call them that – Dutch, vestigial remnants of seventeenth-century settlers. I went to Vacation Bible School at the Dutch Reformed Church. I loved it, mostly for the gusto with which we sang: "Running over, running over, my cup is full and running over." We sang, "Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory." When our bus was trying to park in a tight spot and almost ran over a mother and her children, as one we extemporized, "Run 'em over, run 'em over! Back up the bus and run 'em over!"
I was told that I was going to hell, and my parents were, too. I was told that Catholicism was a foul cult. At first, I dismissed these comments; growing up in such a diverse environment, you hear the occasional infelicitous remark. A fearless, large child, and, thus, inevitably, a designated enforcer, I did once beat up on a boy who called my friend Terry a "nigger," and I did beat up on kids who made fun of my deaf cousin. But the Dutch Reformed kids telling me that I and my parents were going to hell didn't seem to rise to the level of fisticuffs, so I let it pass.
It was the accompanying attitude, not just of disagreement, but distaste, that frayed and ended my Bible School attendance. Distaste: that I was not merely Catholic, but an immigrant; that I was from a big family, in hand-me-downs; that my parents spoke a foreign language; that the police had memorized my brothers' names. Mind: we are compulsively clean people. You'd contract salmonella more easily from a five-star restaurant than a Slavic immigrant woman's kitchen floor, but it was clear: we were dirty with a dirt soap couldn't wash off.
There was a book I bought in the local Salvation Army. I think it was entitled The Bible Handbook. After pages of fascinating explications of the Bible came an appendix that listed the world's predominately Catholic nations, and their gross national products, and the world's predominately Protestant nations, and their gross national products – no big surprise – the sums were larger in the Protestant case – and offered a terrifically brief summation: "See? These numbers speak for themselves. We are superior; they are inferior." When I read those, admittedly paraphrased, sentences, I was in the "middle room" of my childhood home under a high window on a bed with embroidered pillowcases. I remember these details because when I read that, I realized that I was hated by strangers just for who I was, and that I could do nothing about it.
From Victoria Wipperfeld's British Literature class in college I don't remember the comparative merits of a Petrarchan v. a Shakespearean sonnet; I remember Prof. Wipperfeld sitting on her desk, swinging her legs, and labeling Catholicism as disgusting and corrupt. We, her students, were blue collar kids from Catholic homes. We said nothing as the faith that our parents identified as the source of light was dragged through the mud. Prof. Wipperfeld was a graduate of Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University. She was a lesbian who published on gay Christian issues. She was sensitive to minorities. Some minorities.
I told Kevin Vanderbeek, the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship minister, that my brother's slow and agonized death rattled my faith. Kev informed me, while smiling, that he would not allow me to attend IVCF events any more and that he would warn my IVCF friends not to associate with me. He didn't want my questioning to contaminate anyone.
My brother had been studying to be a Baptist minister at the time of his death. At his funeral, a Baptist said to my mother, "It's so sad. Your son is in heaven, and when you die a Catholic, you will go to hell, and you will never see him again."
And then there were Chick publications, comic books that dramatize burning Catholics. Chick has a website that blames the Vatican for the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
I developed the same objections to Catholicism that every thinking person develops. I explored conversion, especially in Bloomington, where I got my PhD. Hair color was a red flag. In a Protestant church, an awkward visitor, I would stand close to the back. I would gaze forward and see more blond hair than I had ever seen in any other setting in my life. It's Indiana, I would think. It's the Midwest. But then, next Sunday, I'd attend Catholic services, and I'd be looking at white, black, brown and gold skins, and lots of black and brunette hair, as well as blond. Catholicism really is small-c catholic. Each Protestant denomination is largely wedded to its sixteenth-century hometown. Of course there are black Protestants, often in all-black churches.
In Protestant churches I've visited, kids are often kept in glass-walled, box-like rooms at the back of the church, so that they will not disturb. Babies, like communicants of various skin tones, are scattered throughout Catholic congregations, bringing their distracting cries with them; yet we Catholics still manage to pray.
Eventually, decades and continents away from the above-described moments lived by a girl, would live me, a jaded scholar who had learned about the anti-Catholicism that was one of the ideological roots of Scientific Racism, the very Scientific Racism that was a sine qua non for Nazism, a Nazism that institutional Catholicism rejected with a force that institutional Protestantism did not quite match. This scholar would become a warrior so wearily familiar of the war on people like my parents that I could write, practically without pausing to breathe, a letter to a television sitcom, "Back to You," that broadcast a vile Polak joke in the year of our politically correct enlightenment, 2007, and see that letter quoted in a New York daily. She had read, and is able to cite, while standing on one foot, scholars like John Higham, who wrote that anti-Catholicism demonstrates "the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history" and Richard Hofstadter's formula of anti-Catholicism as "The Pornography of the Puritan."
Back then, though, when I was a child, I could not write such a letter, because contemplating the prejudice my parents faced was like encountering a network of thorns that lined my insides and it hurt to breathe. I had no words; they did not teach us about this in school. They gave us only their words. I had life, and life without words is one of the most painful things there is. That's why I'm a teacher – specifically, an English teacher.
My grandfather, a Polish coal miner and professional boxer, was lynched by "English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh," as my father invariably enumerated them, who called him "The Little Polak." He, though a small man, consistently defeated his betters in the ring. My father saw the body. He was eleven years old. He had to support the family, now. That moment of my father's childhood has left its imprint on every day of my life.
My mother was gifted. She was a writer, a crisp, brisk, natural. I have virtually nothing of her writing. I stored her letters in a box that was stolen. She published nothing; I didn't think to photocopy. When she was 14, my mother had to leave school when her coal miner father's lungs failed. She went to work, cooking and cleaning for others, and never stopped.
If school had given me words, I would have asked why my mother cleaned other women's houses, while much stupider women wore white collars, artificial nails, and were in a position to tell me what to do. After many years of contemplation, I realized that these women had last names that ended with consonants. Others had made the same discovery. I have many reasons for never wanting to see Rudy Giuliani win his current bid for the presidency, but, place those reasons to the side for one moment. I invite you to do the Google search I have just done: "Rudy Giuliani" and "last name ends with a vowel." Numerous Google hits inform us: we the people are not beyond this.
In recounting these memories that buffeted me upon reading your letter, I may appear, not as a Grand, but rather as a Petty, Inquisitor, who has laid up years' worth of grudges against Protestants. That's not the case. I still chafe against the problems any intelligent person has with Catholicism; I have engaged in an as yet unfinished conversation with Pastor Roger Johns about the possibility of my becoming a Methodist.
I haven't converted not because of any "Here I stand" intransigence on transubstantiation or fanatical devotion to the Pope, but because of those uninterrupted blond heads, those children in boxes, and the babies I hear cry during Catholic mass. I also have not done so because I think that God views the follies of my natal church and the follies of grass-is-greener churches and they all look equally darn foolish. "Brighten the corner where you are," we sang in Bible School. "Bloom where you are planted," I urge my students who, like me, live in slums. "I have learned, whatever the circumstances, to be content," a man with more wisdom than I wrote two thousand years ago.
I can't offer the hackneyed defense against prejudice: that "my best friends are Protestants"; they aren't. My best friends are often Jews. I think it's Poles' and Jews' mutual enthusiasm for potato pancakes. They're adhesive. My longest friendship is with a gay, atheist Jew. Why haven't I converted him? After these many years, I've gotten him to admit that the supernatural exists in the universe I inhabit, but not in his. Truth to tell, I have asked myself: How would Simon be a better person were he to become Christian? I may as well ask the same question about Gandhi. Simon is no Mahatma, but he's a pretty excellent Simon. Roman Solecki, whom I've never met, based, only on reading my work on Polish-Jewish relations, purchased the computer necessary for me to type my dissertation. Dr. Solecki witnessed the Ghetto Uprising. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising. He is a Polish-Jewish patriot and an atheist. Would Roman be a better person were he the same faith as I?
I suspect that my late mother, a daily-mass Catholic, would have spurned the question. When I was a kid, and the adults around me were mapping out the world – teaching me how to tell time and approach God and bake kolache – I was informed in no uncertain terms that my people were Catholic, that we had suffered for being Catholic, and that Jesus and Mary had given us the strength to endure; and that Dave, the traveling salesman, was not to be offered ham sandwiches, that he worshipped on Saturday, and that Jesus was not the hero of his people's saga. When I did the math, and asked, "Why don't we bring Dave over to our side?" I was given a look as if I had just picked out a booger at the dinner table, and that was the end of that.
Though Protestants number few among my best friends, I have not been hoarding the above memories in a massive grudge. In fact, I had never, on the same day, summoned these disparate memories. Previously they had been squirreled away in noodling nooks and crannies; after I read your letter informing me that Dimmesdale College could not hire me because I am Catholic, these memories stepped forward as one and fell into a ranking as neat as the rows of uniformed youth in "Triumph of the Will."
One of the saddest things I've learned about misfortune is that everyone hates the unfortunate, and that "everyone" includes the unfortunate themselves. Peek, and not very far, under the bravado of the most menacing thug, and find the crushed, wet features of self-loathing. After I read your letter, "Well, they've unmasked you, then," I thought. "You presumed that you were good enough to teach on their lovely campus."
I knew I had to address this; it is a discipline I engage in to hold off more quotidian responses like heroin addiction. "Dimmesdale College can't hire you, Danusha. They also can't hire Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day to teach social action, or Saul Alinsky, either (Or perhaps "We don't hire Jews" is too crude even for those who can bring themselves to utter, "We don't hire Catholics.") They can't hire Karol Wojtyla to teach theater, Leonardo da Vinci to teach art or Copernicus to teach astronomy. Louis Pasteur, who infamously died with a rosary in his hands, need not apply. Dimmesdale can't hire Dante to teach literature of the Old World, nor Sor Juana to teach the literature of the New."
Bucked up by this auto-pep-talk, I realized: Dimmesdale does hire Catholics as adjuncts; just not in tenure-track positions. I spontaneously emitted the theme song of gotcha: "Oh, ho, ho!"
Adjuncts do the heavy lifting. We teach the large, required classes full-time professors disdain to teach. We teach freshmen just finding themselves. We answer their big, scary questions, hold their tear-slicked hands. Catholics are good enough to do that work. But we are not good enough for the job security, health insurance, or respect accorded professors. This isn't about some taint Catholics carry from which Dimmesdale must protect its students. This is hypocrisy.
Why should I care? This is why I care: I currently teach at a non-competitive school. My students' personae are like their first-day duds. In September they are crisp, shiny, plump with assurance. As the semester wears on, personae chip and scuff. Right about now, not only am I pushing them really hard to cite in proper MLA style, I'm pushing really hard to keep their nostrils above rising water. Carmelita's father has several children, by different mothers, stretched between here and Guatemala, but he has deputized her to stay home, at his whim, to tend his youngest. Carmelita pays for school herself, out of her full-time job at K-Mart. Supreme missed classes because she found it hard to hear me tell her how good of a writer she is. Supreme is used to being a victim of drugs and boyfriend battery. Juan's attention is sapped; his young friend has been pimped by her mother; he fears it will happen again.
And this is why I care: for a while there, in my childhood, it really did look like heterosexual, capitalist WASP men were the masters of the universe. The world would blissfully thrum to "Kumbaya" as soon as the rest of us multicultural others convinced The Man to share a piece of the pie. Teaching in Africa educated me. Africans own slaves. I moved to Asia, and learned how and why that continent has disappeared, as Amartya Sen calculates, a hundred million of its women and girls. I lived in the Soviet Workers' Paradise. I read a lot – in obedience to Lenin, who commanded, "Ucit sa, ucit sa, ucit sa" – "Learn!" We all – not just rich, white, WASP males – have power; we all use our power wrongly. No one is righteous, not even one. We can't save ourselves. The answer is an answer that applies to us all and transcends our nature: Christ.
In graduate school, the winners were scholars who said things like, "Clitoredectomy is valid and appropriate for Third World peoples. It is imperialistic for white Americans to judge." In teacher training workshops I heard, "There was no rape in Africa before Christians arrived and spread their contagion." My students looked almost drugged, they paid such rapt attention to a Muslim guest speaker whose stated goal was to recruit them. The university would not have hosted a Christian whose goal was to convert them to Christianity. My students are often parental afterthoughts. They are hungry and lonely. My students drank in the fervid attention the recruiter lavished upon them.
Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have written bestsellers that represent Christianity as Stalinist media represented capitalism. Their shiny, new hatred is not an abstraction to me. The priest in my mother's village ran afoul of the communists. They kidnapped him, tortured him, and broke him. He returned to the village a walking blank slate. He was lead around by the hand of a little girl. In Krakow, Poland, I saw unarmed Catholic priests defy a phalanx of armored riot police. Priests carried injured protestors to sanctuary in a church. Priests threw tear gas canisters back. No matter how many problems you, as an intelligent person, have with Catholicism, it is not easy to dismiss it after witnessing these things.
The revolution ate its young. The pathological demand for purity twists even the most benign-sounding of manmade solutions – doesn't "liberte, egalite, fraternite" have a nice ring to it? – into ugly distortions of everything we thought we were fighting against. We multiculturalists thought we were fighting religious intolerance; we've replaced it with an intolerance that throws the baby – Western Civilization – out with the bathwater.
We multiculturalists thought "tolerance" the answer. The fatal flaw in that position was driven home to me when, in the 1990s, a racist distributed anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian pamphlets in Bloomington, Indiana. This racist went on to murder a Korean man entering a Christian church. Bloomingtonians met to discuss our response. "We need lawn signs that read 'Tolerance!'" many insisted.
A world-weary citizen said, "No. I am not tolerant of Nazism." Nail. Head. Bang.
Others argued that we should state what we opposed.
I rejected this. "We should be disseminating what we support, not what we oppose." I listed: love, the dignity of the human person, non-violence. These were all things I learned about, I realized, from Jesus Christ.
My suggestion was rejected as impractical. Bloomington was "diverse." We could not impose values on others. Bloomington opted, then, for lawn signs saying: "NO!" No to hate, no to killing, no to racism. Thus the word "NO!", along with the words "hate," "killing," and "racism," sprouted on Bloomington's lawns; afraid to say what we were for, we took on the look of a town inhabited by nihilists.
And this is why I care: As part of my determination to respond to the prejudice that so affected my parents' lives, I have studied and written on the Holocaust. There is a push among superstar scholars like Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and James Carroll to identify Nazism as Christian. We can't betray the victims of genocide by refusing to understand the forces that murdered them.
And this is why I care: In grad school, because I missed four work days to attend my father's funeral, my boss harassed me. I was asked to testify against her. The stress was too much; my "head exploded"; I developed a rupture in my inner ear that left me functionally paralyzed and unable to see, and caused constant vomiting, for lengthy, unpredictable episodes during the next six years. The condition lasted so long because I was too poor to afford medical care.
In short: the world can be a very hard place. For me. For my students. For the truth. In late night discussions with my fellow leftists, in holding my students' hands, in confronting my own fears, I have come to believe, as firmly as I believe in my own fleshly existence, that Jesus Christ was the son of God, he died for us, and he is the answer. I applied at your school because I don't want to have to hold myself back when the moment comes to say that to a student who is ready to hear it.
Sandy, a Berkeley physics PhD, scoffs. I want Sandy to see that obsessing on who is gay or not, or Catholic or not, is not the representational activity of Christianity. I have insisted to Sandy that Christianity is more truly represented by hospitals, schools, rescue missions, and a self-transcending paradigm that shatters limits and invites, into our animal frames, the breath of the divine. But Sandy still scoffs, and, at times, and I am not at all sure that these are moments when Satan is getting to me, Sandy's scoffing sounds all too apt.
I care about Dimmesdale College's small decision in this small matter of my small application because it is part of a bigger picture of comfortable Christians fiddling on trivial matters while the world burns. A bigger picture of an obsession with purity, with placing crying babies behind glass walls, a belief that virtue can be nurtured only if whatever is "counter, original, spare, strange…fickle, freckled…swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim" has been eliminated from the landscape. Was God Incarnate really born in a stable full of ox shit merely in order to preach, "Blessed are the sanitized and those who color within the lines"?
I will stop applying for teaching jobs after this semester. I have not found full-time work since receiving my PhD, though I've adjuncted on several campuses. Institutions where I would not be considered for full-time work – "We can't hire you because we need to hire an Asian" is my favorite rejection line – are, like yours, happy to have me for a fraction of the price of a full professor. I have no idea what I will do next. I put my all into teaching; there really isn't another way that an unfunded, working class Polish girl can get a PhD.
A Rabbi – who is fully employed at a Catholic university, BTW – advised me not to mention my convictions about homosexuals' humanity; that was back when we feared that that would be the deal breaker. He reminded me that it is not a sin to fail to speak the full truth in order to save a life. The life that vexes him is mine. This past year my lifelong exclusion from medical attention sprang out at me like a jack-in-the-box whose time had come. Without being melodramatic, I can say I am still waiting and hoping that some combination of federal programs will result in a clean diagnosis for me. I mention this because some accuse people like me of being "Cafeteria Christians."
I have always stood for what I believe, even when it meant, as it might have meant here, that I might be losing my last chance to get a job that offers health benefits. My response to my advisor who told me to fudge my application: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
Fortunate people often don't understand poverty; I'll offer this metric: when I got sick, I realized that I was living off my savings, rather than earnings, for the first time since I started work at age 14, and that one day my savings would run out, which they did do. I also noticed, for the first time, that American streets are strewn with abandoned, forgotten, still viable socks: athletic, silk, tube, single and matched pairs neatly nestled in a sock embrace. Virtually every sock I own right now, I found on the street. Even so, if, through finding a coat on the street (I've found several) or donations or a lucky purchase at a flea market, I find myself with two coats, I give one away. Jesus said, "If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none." If I am a Cafeteria Christian, then, sir, so are you. We really are, from that very long book, attending to different verses.