Franciscan University’s Book Ban at Odds with the Catholic Pursuit of Truth
By: Rebecca Slocum
Recently, the Catholic extremist website Church Militant posted an inflammatory article regarding a recent scandal at Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS). During the spring 2018 semester, Dr. Stephen Lewis, the former head of the English department at FUS, taught a five-student advanced literature seminar, where the students analyzed and discussed twentieth century literature about the Bible. One of the selected works was by Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, a novel that explores Catholicism from a believer-turned-atheist’s perspective. Dr. Lewis stated that he chose this particular work because it tied into two major themes of the course: the idea of Christian witness and the historical-critical method, in which ancient texts are analyzed in relation to the period of time in which they were written.
Church Militant decried both Dr. Lewis’ choice of literature for the course and FUS for allowing Dr. Lewis to include The Kingdom as required reading. The article claimed that the novel blasphemes against The Virgin Mary, as well as depicts explicit pornography. The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization devoted to the promotion and defense of Catholic education, stated that the book was clearly written with the intent to lead people away from God, and Dr. Lewis’ assignment of this book was reprehensible. The university’s initial response appeared to defend Dr. Lewis’ selection; public relations manager Tom Sofio, issued this statement, essentially stating that FUS provides a well-rounded education, preparing students professionally, intellectually, and spiritually to participate and function in the world. However, after Church Militant posted their article, FUS president, Fr. Sean Sheridan, backtracked from that statement and issued an apology, condemning The Kingdom and its use in a Catholic university. He affirmed FUS’ Catholic identity and stated that the book is “so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus.” Dr. Lewis was subsequently removed from his position as English department chair, and the book has been removed from the syllabus and campus bookstore.
Intellectual Freedom at a Catholic University
As librarian and a faithful Catholic, I have many thoughts on this situation.
- Um, these kids were seniors. In their last semester of college. SENIORS. As in, in a few months, they’ll be graduating and heading off to a professional job; or, as is more likely for English majors, they’ll be heading off to graduate school, either at a secular or private university, where they will certainly encounter other works or even people who will challenge their identity as a Catholic. At this point in their education, if they can’t handle being exposed to any anti-Catholic teachings, these students, who are essentially adults, are going to have a lot of trouble with their transition into the modern, secular world.
- This course was designed specifically with these five students in mind. Dr. Lewis had taught these students previously and was cognizant of their maturity level and capability of handling the material. Furthermore, the students themselves have responded to the Church Militant article and subsequent backlash; they testified that, despite the dark aspects of the book, the assignment helped them grow in their faith and their understanding of being a Christian witness in the modern world. In grades K-12, educators consider students’ intellectual and emotional maturity level when selecting books, whether it be for study in the classroom or a recommendation from the library. In designing his course, Dr. Lewis did the same.
- The Kingdom was selected specifically for its content. No, not solely the parts considered lewd and distasteful. And no, not for its shock value or scandalous nature. Those excerpts make up merely a portion of the novel. Carrère wrote following the perspective that only one who has believed and then turned against that belief can truly understand the faith. By engaging in discussion about the ideas presented in The Kingdom, these students were provided “with both insights into and questions about the meaning of the collapse of faith for contemporary men and women, from the standpoint of both believers and unbelievers.” With so many people turning away from the Church today, I would hope the Church would seek to understand WHY that is happening. Shielding our students and future leaders from the realities of the world does nothing to remedy their predicament, nor does it truly prepare them to live out their faith.
Intellectual Freedom at a Catholic School
I can’t help but also consider this situation from the perspective of a school librarian who has worked in Catholic schools for most of their career. What protections are Catholic students afforded in the face of censorship? Without government funding, Catholic, or any religious, education does not fall under the protection of the 1st Amendment. Still, that does not mean that students who attend private school should be shaped and molded in a bubble.
Article III of the Library Bill of Rights states:
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
Each article in the Library Bill of Rights is important, but I’m always drawn to this particular article for that phrase. “To provide information and enlightenment”. It is essential that parents and educators understand that to be fully informed, enlightened citizens in our society, our children must be exposed to a diverse array of viewpoints and ideas, not just those that fit within a certain ideology.
What Can You Do?
If you’re a librarian at a religious institution, you might feel like you have no recourse in the face of a book challenge, especially if the challenge is based on the depiction of something against Church teachings. But you do.
- Check your selection policy. This step is, I feel, one of the best ways to combat censorship. You’re prepared with exactly HOW you select your materials and WHY certain materials that may be considered objectionable are included in the collection. So if a parent approaches you regarding a controversial book, you’re ready with your defense. And the best defense if a good offense.
- Defend your mission. I can only speak for the Catholic faith here, but Catholic tradition upholds the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. We cannot practice that faith in a vacuum, shielded and untouched. Faith must be formed, molded through experience and trials. Explain to concerned parents and community members that only by engaging and learning about the world, in all of its strengths and flaws, can students truly understand their faith. Defend the mission for which your institution stands.
- Report it. The Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) provides resources for challenges at all types of institutions, including private schools. Even if it the effort seems futile, it is always worth reporting the challenge. OIF is better prepared to defend these instances of censorship when they’re brought to light.
The Catholic Church has a longstanding history of intellectual pursuits. It is a shame to see students in a university course, where they presumably would be in search of an education that prepares them to be informed members of society, being shielded from ideas that challenge their way of thinking. I’ll leave you with this quote from a speech by the president of Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States, that I feel accurately captures the active pursuit of truth and intellectual freedom, even and especially in a religious institution.
“We are committed to the idea that truth is achieved in dialogue, and that to limit dialogue is to show a lack of confidence in the capacity of the individual to discover truth. To be sure, the university is a catalyst and container for conflict—and there will be conflict. But active debate and discussion of ideas are necessary conditions for an intellectual community.”
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.