Content warning: discusses child sexual violence.
Matthew 18:6 and Mark 9:42 provide an identical warning from Christ: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” We often spend a lot of time thinking about “these little ones,” but we don’t consider the subject of the “you” here. What many of us fail to reflect upon is that, in this scene, Christ is alone with the twelve. John has just asked Jesus about stopping those who cast out demons in his name, and Jesus says not to concern himself with such matters. Instead, Christ is warning his disciples about their own behavior.
In my experience, the “little ones” have often been discussed in the context of Catholic education. As an education nerd myself, I obsessed over the liberal arts in college, devoured Newman’s Idea of a University, and got my hands on every James Schall book I could find. I bemoaned the “core” at my own school, Notre Dame, which I believed (and still do) had reduced a robust liberal arts curriculum into a set of unrelated distribution requirements. And I praised schools like Franciscan University, which believed in education integrated with faith.
In its recent controversy, my college self would have probably taken Franciscan University’s side. But much has happened in my life and in my Church since that time.
Here’s a rough outline of the facts surrounding Franciscan’s controversy:
On January 8, the militant Catholic group Church Militant ran a piece about Franciscan’s English Department chair, Dr. Stephen Lewis. Lewis had assigned Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom for a five-student advanced literature seminar on twentieth-century French literature on the Bible. The book contains explicit sexual material, including such material about the Virgin Mary. 
The following day, the priest-President of the University issued a public statement, apologizing for the use of the book, declaring that the book would never again be assigned for courses, and announcing a review of the school’s existing policy on academic freedom, in order “to prevent future use of such scandalous materials.” Within two days, Lewis had been removed as English department chair and was replaced by another professor. The following week, Lewis released his own account of the incident and his reasons for assigning the text.
Carrère’s The Kingdom and the Reasons for It
There’s no doubt that Carrère’s book is troubling to Catholics, and contains offensive content. Nonetheless, the book is considered a serious work of twentieth century literature and has been reviewed in a number of respected publications. Cassandra Nelson said of it in First Things, “The Kingdom, imperfect as it is, can set one on the lookout for little doors. And perhaps that is just what believers need.” Gregory Wolfe, the founder of Image Journal, has written, “As maddening and unpersuasive as The Kingdom can be at times, it achieves moments of genuine pathos, and for me, at least, these are the times when the strange, unreasonable New Testament evokes something profound in him.” Jack Miles in Commonweal: “Carrère writes that he spent seven years writing The Kingdom, as well as two translating Mark… as well as three doing a devotional reading of John… during his ‘Christian Period.’ The book has a great deal of learning behind it, and in asides Carrère gives glimpses of his sources. “
(Given these reviews, one is left wondering whether Franciscan University would consider it a shame for its students to work for or be featured in one of these publications. At the very least, the University seems to consider it essential that none of its students understand what these reviewers are talking about, and that none of them be able to have an educated conversation about any of these reviews.)
Because Carrère’s work is considered so significant as to garner serious engagement in the world of Catholic public intellectuals, what are we to make of Franciscan’s decisions surrounding the text? Lewis himself, in response to claims that he assigned the book out of hostility to Catholicism and Catholic teachings, has said, “nothing could be further from the truth.” He writes:
“The book provided my students 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… I assigned the book in an upper-level course to students whose maturity and intellectual preparation I knew well. Our class read the entire text, focusing not on a few lurid passages but on its appropriation of Renan’s method and its related atheistic concept of witness, so as to understand the superiority of Christian methods and concepts…. The testimonies of the students bear out my assessment. Each has claimed to have grown in faith by reading the work, despite its ugly aspects. None has wished that it had not been assigned. One has even stated that she feels her current work as a missionary has been made more effective because she frequently encounters people who display features of Carrère’s mindset.”
The Grand Jury Report
Given the significance of The Kingdom as a literary work, its coverage in the pages of serious publications, and the reviews by the students who took Lewis’ course, what does one make of Franciscan’s decisions here? Does it surprise us?
It didn’t surprise me. Considered as a whole, this approach by Franciscan is only another example of the way in which much of the Church seeks to avoid reality, particularly those portions of reality bound up in sexual depravity and perversions of Christianity. I would posit that Franciscan has banned this book for the same reason that many Catholics have refused to look at–and will continue refusing to look at–the stories of the Church contained in such documents as the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.
While recognizing some of the limitations of this report, there’s no denying what it includes: blasphemy. Blasphemy incarnate. Blasphemy written upon the lives of children–sometimes in semen–and then recorded for investigative and expositionary purposes. What is written in that report is what had been banned by many from Catholic consciousness for many years. It was too gruesome to behold, too scandalous to share, and too challenging of the faith to acknowledge. For many years, these lives and stories were the banned books for an institution which sought to preserve its public image as one of unambiguous holiness of purpose and practice.
What we see happening now at Franciscan University is only a microcosm of what we’ve seen happen in the Church: an inability to cope with the realities of the world and the realities of the Church in the world. We need not dig into a scandalous novel to view blasphemy. We can look into history. But can we at Franciscan?
Consider the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report in relation to the following portions of the statement by Franciscan’s president:
- “While I believe the professor’s intention in using this book in his class was not malicious, the book is scandalous and extremely offensive.”
- “The Kingdom is so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus.”
- “Professors… 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.”
- “Preparing students to confront challenges to their faith is certainly an important part of the education and formation we strive to provide… But Franciscan University cannot, and will not, jeopardize our students’ moral and spiritual development in doing so.”
- “I have directed our chief academic officer… to immediately review and revise our existing policy on academic freedom to prevent future use of scandalous materials.”
The atrocities which Franciscan University cannot look at in Carrère’s novel are actually nothing compared to those carried out in real life. We can thus conclude that the criteria for judging a book unacceptable at Franciscan also precludes texts such as the Grand Jury Report, which covers the realities of the Church in America. 
So we should return to those “little ones.” Here, undoubtedly Franciscan considers those “little ones” to be its students, whom it fears might stumble from an overexposure to the world today, particularly the world as depicted in some of the most influential literature in the last century. Rather than considering itself an Alma Mater who might look at our troubled world with her students and seek an open-eyed response, she attempts to shield those students from the disturbing realities of life and literature. Thus, her students will be the least prepared of all to respond to those “little ones” actually suffering: the victims of the disturbing realities.
The “little ones” will go unnoticed because their lives, sufferings, and confusions (sexual or otherwise) will be incomprehensible. Franciscan could decide to issue “trigger warnings” for subjects it considers offensive or which may be troubling to students with particular sensibilities. But students who cannot engage Carrère’s text will be emotionally unprepared to work in such fields as psychology, social services, and law, which often require the processing of similar stories (you certainly wouldn’t expect graduates in the PA Attorney General’s Office). Indeed, they would be emotionally unprepared to work for the Church in 2019.
The test of Catholicism in the world today is whether we are able to look at reality, acknowledge it, and respond to it. What’s happening at Franciscan shouldn’t be surprising because it’s what we’ve seen in the American Church at large: closed eyes to protect our fantasies of purity. But Catholics today are having a reckoning with reality. The question is whether our educational institutions will face it with the rest of us.
As a (related) side note, has anyone been following Franciscan’s issues in addressing sexual assault on campus (also this)?
In tomorrow’s post, I will discuss Franciscan’s approach to literature in relation to Blessed John Henry Newman’s views on education.
 One might note that, while the Church Militant article condemns such material, it also quotes directly from the book portions which it asserts should not be available to college students. One might ask why Church Militant approves of such material for polemics, but not for educational purposes. Should Church Militant’s website be banned from Franciscan’s campus?
 One might also wonder whether it precludes exposure to the many statues depicting rape in the Vatican Museums. Maybe that’s why their study abroad program is in Austria?
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.