Franciscan University vs. John Henry Newman

Yesterday, I discussed the recent controversy concerning Franciscan University’s decision to ban Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom from its courses and what it has to do with the Catholic Church’s clergy abuse crisis. Today, I will discuss this decision in relation to Blessed John Henry Newman’s views on Catholic education.

A quick recap of the controversy (skip this if you read yesterday’s post):

On January 8, the militant Catholic group Church Militant ran a piece about Franciscan University’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.

Restating the Contours

The Rape of Proserpina, Vatican Museums

Before setting aside the general discussion of this controversy and focusing solely on one letter within it, I should clarify the contours of the controversy. This controversy does not concern some fringe work of pure pornography or the hostile aggressions of an anti-Catholic professor or the superfluous musings of an uninhibited academic seeking libidinal shock. This controversy concerns a tenured (previous) department chair assigning for an advanced course a text considered a great work of twentieth-century literature which has been reviewed in a number of prominent publications. Lest some hasty provocateur build a straw man here of 50 Shades or the Twilight series, let’s be clear that the book we are talking about is by an author serious and brilliant enough to have spent years translating the Gospels from their original Greek.

Now let us continue…

Newman on Education

In his letter on Franciscan’s decision to ban the book and review the policy on academic freedom, University president Father Sean Sheridan, writes:

“A Catholic education should prepare students to stand for the truth of the Catholic faith and to do battle against the blasphemy and heresy rife in our culture today… 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.”

This statement seems to suggest two things. First, it suggests that the point of an education at Franciscan is to equip students to fight in a battle of objectivities, presenting a utilitarian view of education and a vision of truth as an empirical science where reality and knowledge can be reduced and separated into buckets of “truth” and “falsehood” at war with one another. Second, it suggests that the method of selecting literary texts is to be a balancing act: between underpreparing students for the world and overexposing them to the world.

The Battle of Objectivities

There is something right about the first. According to Newman, the sciences “relate to truths universal and eternal; they are not mere thoughts, but things: they exist in themselves, not by virtue of our understanding them… but in what is called the nature of things.” The subjects of the sciences are objective realities subject to greater or lesser understanding.

In the sciences, we do battle heresy and falsehoods. The exploration of objective realities should push us to cut away at our misunderstandings of the world. The cup on my desk exists or it doesn’t. Water becomes ice when cooled to a certain temperature or it doesn’t. Gravity pulls us towards the earth or it doesn’t. The truths of the realities outside of us judge our understanding, rather than the other way around. There is an objective creation, and we must understand what it is and isn’t. Here, systematic theology is no less a science than biology or logic. God exists or He doesn’t. He reveals certain things to us or He doesn’t. Likewise, we understand in moral theology that there are objectively good and objectively bad actions. Moral theology directs us away from and has no room for sin; it seeks the good.

Newman says that this is precisely what makes the sciences differ from literature. He writes, “Literature expresses, not objective truth, as it is called, but subjective; not things, but thoughts.” In his Idea of a University:

“Literature stands related to Man as Science stands to Nature; it is his history… it is the Life and Remains of the natural man, innocent or guilty… Man will never continue in a mere state of innocence; he is sure to sin, and his literature will be the expression of his sin, and this whether he be heathen or Christian.”

Literature can’t play the role that Father Sheridan suggests for it in his letter. It cannot be a mere tool in the battle of objectivities, because it is not an “objective” sort of thing. Indeed, the entire point of literature is exposure to the thoughts of particular persons and all of their flaws, sins, and ambiguities.

The Balancing Act

Further, one must consider Father Sheridan’s balancing act for the selection of literary texts in the Franciscan curriculum. If literature is to play the role that Newman proposes for it, then the balancing act proposed by Father Sheridan (choosing between overexposure to the world and underpreparedness for it) doesn’t make sense. Considering Newman’s view of literature as an encounter with particular persons, Franciscan’s balancing act is not between various literary texts. It’s between literature and not literature.

Literature is exposure. If we take literature seriously, Father Sheridan’s choice is nonsensical. We might evaluate an author’s perspectives and whether or not they are conducive to the good. But this is an entirely different question from whether his writings constitute literature and ought to be included in a University curriculum.

Finally, Newman raises the question as to whether a “Christian Literature” ought to be separated out from the “general Literature” for students:

“Some one will say to me perhaps: ‘Our youth shall not be corrupted. We will dispense with all general or national Literature whatever, if it be so exceptionable; we will have a Christian Literature of our own, as pure, as true, as the Jewish.’ You cannot have it:–I do not say you cannot form a select literature for the young… [T]his is another matter altogether: I am speaking of University Education, which implies an extended range of reading, which has to deal with standard works of genius, or what are called the classics of a language: and I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms…”

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, IX.7

One might read Newman and wonder, not just whether Father Sheridan wants Franciscan to be a relevant or prominent University, but whether he wants it to be a University at all.

The Purposes of a University

Nowhere is this more concerning than in an assertion I have referred to before, Father Sheridan’s statement:

“A Catholic education should prepare students to stand for the truth of the Catholic faith and to do battle against the blasphemy and heresy rife in our culture today.”

Here, Sheridan presents a fundamentally utilitarian view of Catholic education, where its purpose and aim is a zealous defense of the Faith. While acknowledging that such a defense might be admirable, one might consider Newman’s view of the assertion.

In his outline of the nature of a University, its aim, and its bearings, Newman writes that the “main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students” is a “habit of mind” in pursuit of Knowledge, a philosophical habit whose attributes are “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” Indeed, Newman stresses the importance of Knowledge as its own end, as a good to be sought for itself. The pursuit of Knowledge does not need the justification of being a means of “standing for the truth of Catholicism” in battle against a hostile culture. The love of truth seeks the truth as its own good.

Newman’s discussion of Theology shows how Sheridan’s utilitarian aim diminishes that of the University:

“If, for instance, Theology, instead of being cultivated as contemplation, be limited to the purposes of the pulpit or be represented by the catechism, it loses–not its usefulness, not its divine character, not its meritoriousness…–but it does lose the particular attribute which I am illustrating; just as a face worn by tears and fasting loses its beauty, or a labourer’s hand loses its delicateness;–for Theology thus exercised is not simple knowledge, but rather is… a business making use of Theology.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, V.4

Using Theology to defend the faith isn’t necessarily bad. But it’s not really doing Theology; it’s using Theology (and we would call it Apologetics, rather than Theology proper). And, according to Newman, this use is not the aim of University Education.

Newman states that there are two methods of Education: one is to be philosophical, and the other is to be mechanical. The former loves and seeks Knowledge for its own sake; the latter seeks Knowledge in order to use it for some other aim. Sheridan seems to be proposing the latter for Franciscan. And in his proposal, both Theology and Literature lose their beauty, justified foremost at his school by utility rather than by love. Sheridan and Franciscan are welcome to advocate this. Newman does not. And neither do I.


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. 

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