Book raises questions of orthodoxy, academic freedom 


A recent article by a popular Catholic media site sparked controversy regarding Franciscan University of Steubenville’s policy on anti-Catholic works of literature.

Church Militant, a digital media site, published an article called “Franciscan Univ Defends Use of Pornographic, Blasphemous Book” on Jan. 8, 2019. The book referred to is “The Kingdom” by Emmanuel Carrère, and it was assigned to an upper level English class in the spring 2018 semester by English Department Chair Stephen Lewis, who holds a doctorate from The University of Chicago.

The book’s questionable content includes graphic depiction of pornography and blasphemies concerning the Mother of Christ according to Church Militant, who also included excerpts of the questionable sections in the book.

Lewis employed the book as an assignment for a five-person class on French literature about the Bible, using both admirable and unorthodox writings by way of contrast to help his students understand the Catholic worldview.

Church Militant, in light of these events, questioned the orthodox branding of Franciscan University in allowing such a book to be read by its students.

A statement issued by the university to the publication said: “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.”

The next day, however, the Rev. Sean O. Sheridan, TOR, issued an open apology letter to the entire university community, apologizing to the Virgin Mary and anyone who had been injured by the incident.

“The Kingdom is not currently and will never again be assigned reading in any class at Franciscan University of Steubenville,” said Sheridan in the statement.

He went on to say that there was not any intention to scandalize, but “The Kingdom is so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus. I regret that the University’s earlier statement did not make this clear.”

In the opening of the spring 2019 semester Mass on Jan. 14, Sheridan invited the entire Franciscan University community to join him in renewing the profession of faith and oath of fidelity as a commitment to orthodoxy. All faculty in academic departments regarding the teaching of faith and morals are required to take the oath, and all faculty are encouraged to do so. Sheridan led the community in the recitation of the profession and oath from the center of the altar with his hand on the Bible.

Yet more sides to the story emerged after this commitment, suggesting that it is more than just a question of orthodoxy.

Inside Higher Ed, an online publication that provides news, opinion and resources concerning college and university topics, published an article on Jan. 15 sharing a tip from an anonymous faculty source from the university that Lewis was removed from his position of department chair over the controversy.

The main concern of the article, however, was the question of how far a Catholic university can go in protecting its students from blasphemous material without violating academic freedom.

In his letter, Sheridan wrote: “I have directed our chief academic officer, Dr. Daniel Kempton, and our Faculty Standards Committee to immediately review and revise our existing policy on academic freedom to prevent future use of scandalous materials.”

Since then, many academic journals have expressed concern over free speech in higher education, particularly in the Catholic realm.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) also published a Jan. 15 article, questioning “what exactly academic freedom means for professors at FUS.”

FIRE points out a perceived discrepancy in Franciscan University’s academic freedom policy. Since Franciscan claims it “opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching,” the banning of books such as “The Kingdom” sounds reasonable. However, Franciscan also claims to observe the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

“FUS’s academic freedom policy is unacceptably inconsistent on that front, because it promises broad academic freedom while also suggesting that faculty not run afoul of church teaching,” said FIRE.

As events continue to unfold and statements continue to be made, Lewis published his own article in First Things Magazine titled, “Why I Assigned ‘The Kingdom’” on Jan. 18.

According to Lewis, he wrote it as a defense against those who “have assumed that Franciscan University’s decision to remove me from my role as chair of the English Department confirms that I assigned the book out of hostility to orthodox Catholic belief.”

In the article, Lewis explained his intention to guide his small class through the historical-critical method of examining both sacred and atheistic material in order to arrive at the truth.

“As is well known, the Catholic Church, though initially skeptical, has embraced the insights of the historical-critical method, while recognizing its limits,” he said.

Lewis also suggested that Church Militant, by printing “lewd words stripped of context,” perhaps caused more scandal than his class, with its carefully prepared discussion and thorough investigation of both the good and evil in the work.

He went on to detail how he “knew well” the maturity and intellectual preparation of the particular students who were assigned the reading. The entire book was assigned, “focusing not on a few lurid passages but on … its related atheistic concept of witness, so as to understand the superiority of Christian methods and concepts. The aim was not to shock, but to edify. I share the revulsion Catholics rightly feel toward lewdness and blasphemy, but in the end I decided that my students could benefit by reading this text.”

As the university community continues to understand exactly where it stands on academic freedom while upholding Catholic teaching, many professors have taken the opportunity to affirm the orthodoxy of the institution.

Bob Rice, who holds a doctorate in theology from Liverpool Hope University (United Kingdom), wrote a blog post called “I (Still) Love Franciscan,” which denies any claims that the university is declining in its authentic Catholic presence.

Rice cited the fact that the faculty don’t turn over very frequently, many having been hired under the Rev. Michael Scanlan, TOR, who is remembered for making Franciscan University the sanctuary for traditional Catholic values that it has become known as.

He affirmed both Lewis, “a man who I know to have a sincere faith and love for the Church,” and Sheridan’s “strong and sincere reaction” to anything which may cause scandal or sin.

Rice admitted there are problems at Franciscan, as there are at any university. However, he also said: “To some alumni who comment that the students at Franciscan don’t seem as faithful or vibrant as generations past, I reply that the culture is not as faithful, and that ‘fighting the good fight’ is more difficult than it was twenty years ago … this is why we need your prayers!”

In the wake of this incident, many are attempting to understand what type of material ought to be condoned for Catholics in today’s classroom. But Franciscan University’s open commitment to orthodoxy appears to be here to stay.

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