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Catholic university stood to lose millions if it didn’t ban ‘pornographic’ book on Virgin Mary: source

Trustees meet to discuss the situation today

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio – A Catholic university is undertaking a review of academic freedom standards, following the revelation that an English professor taught from a book that depicted the Virgin Mary in a sexually explicit manner.

The review was ordered by Franciscan University of Steubenville President Sean Sheridan a day after the Catholic website Church Militant said that Prof. Stephen Lewis had assigned Emmanuel Carrère’s “The Kingdom” for a high-level literature class last spring.

The controversy comes as Sheridan and Chief Operating Officer Bill Gorman are planning a major 20-year expansion. It’s aimed at growing the school to 25,000 students from roughly 3,000 undergraduate, graduate and online students now.

The scope of the review is intended to “prevent future use of scandalous materials,” in Sheridan’s words. The university has not given any examples or parameters for what it might judge “scandalous” in an academic lesson, however, beyond the depiction of the Virgin Mary in “The Kingdom.”

Multiple sources confirmed to The College Fix that the university’s board of trustees will be meeting Friday to discuss the situation with faculty and administrators.

The word “scandal” has a different meaning in Catholic teaching than its ordinary usage, but members of the FUS theology faculty declined to speak even on background to The Fix regarding Catholic teaching on scandal.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has already warned the private university that its pending “book-banning” policy will violate its other policies.

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

Lewis’s course focused on “twentieth-century French literature about the Bible,” with most of the reading from “central figures in the twentieth-century Catholic renaissance in France,” he wrote in a Jan. 18 essay for First Things, a conservative religious magazine.

But the course also includes works by agnostics and atheists, and by including Carrère’s text, Lewis wrote that he was not trying scandalize but rather “edify” his students.

The book provides “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,” Lewis said. “Carrère possesses more knowledge of the facts of Catholic practice and doctrine, the New Testament, and the history of the apostolic age than most believers do, yet he doesn’t believe.”

Despite his feeling of “revulsion … toward lewdness and blasphemy” in the book, “in the end I decided that my students could benefit by reading this text,” Lewis wrote.

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Faculty invited to ‘renew’ their ‘oath of fidelity’ to church

Known for its devotion to church teaching, the university initially defended Lewis’s assignment of the book, which includes sexually explicit language regarding biblical figures.

FUS told Church Militant in its Jan. 8 report that the university “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.”

This response drew widespread backlash from supporters, including threats to withhold $6.5 million in donations, according to a source that attended a meeting where the figure was shared.

A day after the report, President Sheridan bucked the original statement and issued a one-page apology. Lewis, a tenured professor, was also promptly removed from his position as department chair. He is not known to be under further investigation, according to sources close to the situation.

Sheridan assured the university community that the book would “never again be assigned reading in any class” and said that he “above all” apologized to “our blessed mother and her son, and to anyone who has been scandalized by this incident.”

The university held a “holy hour of reparation” to the Virgin Mary in the days following the letter’s release, and all university faculty were invited to take the “oath of fidelity” to the Catholic church at the opening mass of the semester Jan. 14.

The listing for the mass says it would include an “unusual element” – an opportunity for faculty, staff and administrators to “renew” the oath they have already taken. Sheridan was scheduled to lead the oath.

The president wrote in the Jan. 9 message that he regretted that “the university’s earlier statement did not make … clear” that “pornographic and blasphemous” materials had “no place on a Catholic university campus”:

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.

Sheridan concluded his letter saying that he had “directed” the university’s academic dean, 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.”

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Information on committee not available

The faculty standards committee is not listed on any FUS webpage or organization chart that The Fix was able to review, though a source with knowledge of the committee told The Fix it was very old, possibly decades old.

A university spokesperson didn’t answer how old the committee is, but told The Fix that academic freedom “and the appropriate use thereof” is addressed in the mission statement and faculty handbook. The latter does not appear to be on the university website.

“A change to the Handbook can be implemented relatively quickly if the faculty supports it through a vote of their representatives in the Faculty Council,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Conversely, if the Faculty Standards Committee also believe that a change to the Mission Statement of the University is also advisable, this would proceed through the Shared Governance Council and is necessarily a slower process.”

Though the university’s own theologians declined to talk about “scandal,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.”

It further states that “scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense,” and can be committed by “laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.”

Most relevantly, the Catechism also says “scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.”

In an email statement to The Fix, university officials said that the review of the academic freedom standards should be completed “by this summer.”

“Franciscan University is in the process of updating the review procedure for teaching materials that might be considered inappropriate as addressed in its Mission Statement and Faculty Handbook,” the statement said. “There are theologians on the faculty committees who are well qualified to help incorporate Catholic moral teaching as to what ought to be considered scandalous material.”

The Cardinal Newman Society, which monitors Catholic higher education for its faithfulness to church teaching, expressed its own concerns about a professor assigning a “pornographic book,” but said it was in communication with Sheridan directly.

The society said it accepted Sheridan’s apology “in charity” but added that it would be “watching to confirm that this indeed never happens again.”

“The Newman Guide has and continues today to proudly recommend Franciscan University of Steubenville to Catholic families,” the statement read. “We strongly believe that Catholic education is valuable and that Catholic families should give preference to our recommended colleges, including Franciscan University, for an authentic and faithful Catholic education.”

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IMAGE: Franciscan University of Steubenville/YouTube

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About the Author
Jeremiah Poff -- Franciscan University of Steubenville