The Passive-Aggressive Tyranny Trick

Years ago I coined the phrase “passive aggressive tyranny trick” (or PATT), in order to point to a phenomenon that occurs in the public square, though most frequently on college campuses. The trick is this: those who claim to be open and tolerant to differing points of view seem hell bent on using the levers of power to exclude any contrary perspectives within their communities.

In virtually every case, the trick occurs when the proponent of exclusion uses the language of passivity by claiming to be offering a celebration of “diversity” while at the same putting forth an aggressively narrow agenda and implying that those who disagree are not only harmful, but committing injustice.

A recent incident at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington is almost a textbook case of PATT.  Administrators did not allow a group of its students to create an official Gonzaga-affiliated chapter of the Knights of Columbus because it limits its membership to male Catholics.

According to Gonzaga’s vice president for student life, Sue Weitz, this decision is justified because the Knights’ membership criteria “are inconsistent with the policy and practice of student organization recognition at Gonzaga University, as well as the University’s commitment to non-discrimination based on certain characteristics, one of which is religion.”

She also stated that to “embrace the diversity [of Gonzaga’s student body, which includes many non-Catholics] and yet endorse a group based on faith exclusivity is a challenge that cannot be reconciled at this time. . . .It is a decision about social justice, equity, and the desire of the University to create and maintain an environment in which none are excluded.”

Before we see how this defense of the university’s policy is an example of the bait-and-switch inherent in every case of PATT, we need to look at a few attendant points that show, in the words of Rebecca Hamilton, the “dog-bites-self” quality of this case.

First, Gonzaga University was founded by an order of priests known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.  Although Gonzaga’s bylaws were temporarily suspended, but not amended, to allow the hiring of the university’s first lay president, the Jesuits remain an officially recognized campus group with its own residence aptly named “Jesuit House.”

Nevertheless, the Society of Jesus requires its members not only be male and Catholic, but celibate as well. Oddly, then, if Gonzaga cannot “yet endorse a group based on faith exclusivity,” the school’s Jesuit community has failed to win the endorsement of the school it founded.

Second, Gonzaga’s University Ministry “provides a wealth of opportunities for students to participate in retreats, liturgies and events that illustrate the connections between faith and life. . .in support of Gonzaga University’s mission as a humanistic, Catholic and Jesuit institution of education. . .” These opportunities include the celebration of Catholic Mass on campus. The Catholic Mass, however, requires that those receiving the Eucharist be in full communion with the Catholic Church, which means that both non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics are forbidden from participating in the Lord’s Supper.

        A statue of the eponymous Jesuit saint at Gonzaga University

Thus, if Gonzaga is committed to “non-discrimination based on certain characteristics, one of which is religion,” its own University Ministry, since it offers Catholic Masses on campus, is dissenting from the school’s commitment.

Whatever these two points reveal about the deep fissures in Gonzaga’s self-understanding, they do not disclose the most egregious problem with the university’s policy as applied to the Knights of Columbus: it is an instance of the passive aggressive tyranny trick. 

As with any college campus, Gonzaga includes among its students serious religious believers, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Because they take their faith seriously – that is, they believe that their faith is not only true but its communities and practices essential to moral and spiritual formation – they desire fellowship with others within their tradition and strive to become better examples of authentic faith. 

Because of the nature of the religious faith embraced by these students – and the differences between men and women that most of these faith traditions rightfully acknowledge and celebrate – certain types of spiritual and moral formation simply cannot be accomplished in settings that are ecumenical and/or in mixed company.

By not offering these students an opportunity to organize groups that accomplish these ends, Gonzaga effectively marginalizes these students, suggesting to the wider public that their religious interests are illegitimate, not worthy of being part of the Gonzaga community and its conversation about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Consequently, although one of its vice presidents states that the university desires “to create and maintain an environment in which none are excluded,” it in fact excludes, and it does so by implying that those who are excluded harbor antipathy toward social justice and equity.

This is the passive-aggressive tyranny trick in all its glory.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).