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Franciscan University of Steubenville removed a professor of English as department chair after he assigned a book that portrayed the Virgin Mary as someone who had sex. It also banned the book from campus going forward.

A faculty member in the humanities at Franciscan who did not want to be identified by name, citing the contentious nature of the issue, confirmed reports on social media that Stephen Lewis is no longer chair of English due to his inclusion of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom in the syllabus for an advanced seminar.

The Kingdom met with critical acclaim upon its 2017 release, and it sold especially well in Carrère’s native France. Part memoir, part religious history -- imagined and actual -- the hard-to-summarize book essentially tells two stories: that of Carrère’s own crisis of his Catholic faith and that of the formation of the early Christian church. Watching pornography in one scene, Carrère’s says that Jesus’s mother, Mary, wasn’t a virgin. Rather, he says, she knew men in her youth and “might have come, let’s hope so for her, maybe she even masturbated.” There’s a bit more about a favorite adult actress and female masturbation.

Teaching novels that include sex is hardly new ground for an advanced English seminar. But this particular discussion, challenging a fundamental belief about Mary in a lewd if literary fashion, proved too much for some on campus. Word got around about The Kingdom, and the blog Church Militant reported on the book last week, with the breathless headline “FRANCISCAN UNIV DEFENDS USE OF PORNOGRAPHIC, BLASPHEMOUS BOOK.”

The article quotes Franciscan as saying in a statement that it “challenges students intellectually, helps form them professionally, and engages them spiritually. This includes arming our students with the knowledge and wisdom to confront the challenges of a coarse modern culture, which often runs contrary to Catholic teaching.”

Even “heresy, and sinful acts such as murder and adultery that go against Catholic teaching are addressed at Franciscan to help to strengthen students’ faith and prepare them to engage with today’s culture,” the statement continues. And while “this happens through the study of literature by authors such as Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare who portray many sinful acts, it can also happen when they grapple with significant challenges to Catholic faith by contemporary writers. 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 statement also asks what might happen if Catholics were, for example, unwilling to “engage with and push back against calumny such as The Da Vinci Code or against worse heresies and dangerous heterodoxies?”

A day after the blog post ran, Franciscan backtracked. In an open letter to the university, the Reverend Sean Sheridan, president, apologized “to anyone who has been scandalized” by Lewis’s use of The Kingdom, which he said was “so directly pornographic and blasphemous” that it has “no place on a Catholic university campus.” He pledged that it would never be taught again at Franciscan.

Sheridan said a Catholic education should prepare students to “stand for the truth” by exposing them to views both familiar and hostile to their faith. At the same time, he said, “Professors must weigh the benefits and risks of exposing their students to the works of those who oppose the church. They must walk the fine line between underpreparing their students for the mighty tasks ahead and overexposing them to material that may cause them spiritual harm.”

In a directive that has especially alarmed some academic freedom advocates, Sheridan went on to say that he’d asked the university’s chief academic officer, Daniel Kempton, and the Faculty Standards Committee to “immediately review and revise our existing policy on academic freedom to prevent future use of scandalous materials.”

In a post to the American Association of University Professors’ "Academe" blog, contributing editor John Wilson wrote, “Ironically, last April [Franciscan] hosted a conference on higher education that featured a panel of conservatives discussing ‘The Politicization of the American University and the Crisis of Free Speech and Reasoned Academic Discourse.’”

Yet “there is no better example of a crisis of campus free speech and an attack on reasoned academic discourse than a university banning books and ordering its academic freedom policies to be rescinded,” Wilson wrote. “This case is a stark reminder that the most repressive universities in America today -- the places where the administration literally is banning books -- are conservative religious colleges.”

Many religious colleges do have strict rules about conduct and dogma that affect the curriculum. Traditionally, however, Roman Catholic colleges maintain more of a separation between their spiritual missions and the classroom than do campuses affiliated with other denominations. Most Catholic colleges don’t require faculty members teaching outside of theology programs to sign statements of faith, for example, and they tend to welcome students and professors from non-Catholic backgrounds along with Catholics.

Paula Moore, spokesperson for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said she couldn’t comment on the Franciscan matter. But she said that the guiding document for Catholic higher education remains Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution put forth by Pope John Paul II in 1990. That document notes, in part, that every Catholic university “is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services.” And each Catholic university therefore “possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

Paraphrasing the document, Moore said the "basic mission of Catholic higher education is the search for truth, understanding that God is the ultimate truth." And given that, she said, “professors at Catholic colleges and universities are free to raise questions or even disagreements in intellectual areas where there is a formal Catholic position -- so long as they also present official Catholic teaching accurately and respectfully.”

Catholic colleges “rely on their faith -- its ideals, attitudes, and principles -- to inform their decisions about teaching, research, and other activities,” Moore added via email. “For students, the result is not only intellectual growth and academic excellence, but also faithfulness to the Church.”

The Franciscan faculty member who did not want to be named said he believed that Sheridan was facing pressure to take a firmer stance against The Kingdom, and that his colleague should have been savvier about what would provoke “hangers-on” outside the campus, particularly on social media.

“There’s two sides to this: of course, a good teacher should be able to teach any book anywhere,” he said. “But the reality of this is that there are some hyperconservatives who knee-jerk react to things, and you have to use some sense in what you assign.” Of Sheridan, the faculty member sad, "He's got to watch the bottom line. It's about having enough money to run the university. If this became an avalanche in the wrong direction, well, I can appreciate that pressure." 

Franciscan said in statement late Monday that it promotes “responsible academic freedom,” including as defined by the AAUP.

“Franciscan University encourages the faculty, in their teaching function, to address all material relevant to their subject matter but, as specified in the Faculty Handbook, opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching. This in no way impinges on true academic freedom, as the Catholic church accepts all that is true and rejects all that is false.”

Lewis, who remains a full professor, did not respond to a request for comment.

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