THE KINGDOM STIRS ANGER
AT FRANCISCAN UNIVERSITY
Didn’t I know that Mary remained a virgin and never gave birth to any other children? If I wrote that Jesus had a brother, surely I must be dabbling in heresy.
I explained to him that the book draws on early Christian writings (the so-called “non-canonical gospels”) that describe Joseph as an older widowed man with children at the time he took Mary as his wife. It doesn’t conflict with either the Bible — which says nothing about Joseph’s age and family circumstances — or with Christian Tradition. In fact, it’s been certified by the Catholic Writers Guild as being consistent with Church teaching.”
His misassumption reflected the fact that he’d only heard about the book and hadn’t read it. But then, that’s key, isn’t it. Not only can’t you judge a book by its cover, you can’t fully know what ideas it espouses until you’ve read it.
This truth is relevant to a controversy swirling around Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Located in northeast Ohio, near Pittsburgh, F.U.S. is one of a handful of colleges and universities that pursue a vision of higher education which combines intellectual integrity and academic freedom with an all-embracing commitment to the Catholic Faith.
I’m not talking about that old clichéd line about “education in the Catholic tradition” touted by just about every school with Church roots. I’m talking about an institution where students can get down on their knees and pray the rosary several times a day (and are encouraged to do so).
This is a charismatic, capital-C Catholic school. I’ve observed the unselfconscious piety on campus, and I’ve had close working relationships with several F.U.S. grads.
Balancing faith and scholarship isn’t easy, as Dr. Stephen Lewis, chair of Steubenville’s English Department, found when he assigned a controversial book to five students in an upper-level literature class.
That work, a novel titled The Kingdom, by French atheist Emmanuel Carrère, involves some highly graphic ruminations on the power of pornography along with wild speculations about the alleged erotic proclivities of a very non-virgin Virgin Mary.
Not surprisingly, word of this unusual reading assignment got around campus. It eventually found its way to the offices of Church Militant, a Catholic media apostolate headquartered in suburban Detroit.
Church Militant produces hard-hitting videos that combine aggressive investigative journalism with a more-Catholic-than-thou traditionalist sensibility. Under the direction of former TV reporter Michael Voris, CM has done creditable work keeping the bishops’ feet to the fire over the priestly abuse scandals currently rocking the Catholic world.
Church Militant recently broke a story about Dr. Lewis’s class on the CM website, bringing national attention to what had been a local tempest. This has prompted widespread online outrage as well as a letter of apology from F.U.S. President Fr. Sean Sheridan.
At this writing, it doesn’t appear that Lewis’ faculty position is in danger, since he has tenure. But word is that he’s stepped down from his department chairmanship, and there have been calls for his complete ouster.
It’s not hard to understand the heated reaction to immersing Catholic young people in a book that has, to say the least, a different take on purity and holiness.
A statement by F.U.S. Public Relations Manager Tom Sofio, quoted in CM’s article, explains the rationale for using The Kingdom in Lewis’ class — which is…
“arming our students with the knowledge and wisdom to confront the challenges of a coarse modern culture, which often runs contrary to Catholic teaching….”
Sofio asserts that…
“Franciscan students learn through critical comparison to consider multiple sides of an issue or argument, led by professors who always promote Catholic spiritual and moral perspectives. Thus, our students graduate better prepared to solve problems and engage with integrity in a world that desperately needs to hear the truth.”
It would be easy to dismiss such a claim as so much liberal academic gobbledygook — if it were offered on behalf of another school. But this is Franciscan University of Steubenville, an institution where confronting “coarse modern culture” is taken seriously.
And there’s a certain logic to F.U.S.’s argument. It’s rather like being exposed to poison gas in basic training so you’re primed to recognize it on the battlefield and take appropriate steps immediately.
Of course, poisonous ideas don’t act quite the same as poison gas. It’s not a matter of being suffocated quickly or even having your lungs burned. Harmful thoughts and images influence the mind to harm itself over time.
Now, I haven’t read Carrère’s book, so in all fairness, I can’t say how justified the negative reactions are. But the consensus view seems to be that making The Kingdom assigned reading was less than prudent.
Still, some observers urge not getting too carried away with righteous indignation. Commenting on Facebook, Catholic writer Emily Stimpson Chapman noted that…
“Franciscan is a university, not a seminary, and … its students are adults, not children, and therefore perfectly capable of skimming the racy parts in a book and analyzing the problematic (and even blasphemous) bits, from the perspective of faith and reason.”
She complained that Church Militant…
“published — with no context, no discussion, no good intent — all those bits from the book that people are finding so scandalous. They disseminated those words to THOUSANDS. At Franciscan, they were read in context, with discussion, and good intent by FIVE upper level students, who will read far, far worse if they go on to grad school.”
True enough. But moral probity is especially important at a school that’s serious about its Catholicism and waves that commitment as a banner of its institutional identity.
And after witnessing the moral devolution of other Catholic colleges and universities — a downward slide that often passes under the cover of academic freedom — a certain caution is called for.
Reading can indeed be an occasion of sin, and the old quandary remains unsolved…
Should we fortify ourselves to confront evil by viewing evil — even under controlled circumstances? Or are we better off staying as far away as possible, keeping ourselves unsullied but risking being tripped up by our innocence?
To read, or not to read, that is the question.
And, frankly, I don’t know the answer.