Lately, Church Militant posted about a “scandalous” novel that was apparently taught at a graduate-level class at Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS).
The post not only sent the usual suspects reaching for their pearls to clutch, but also resulted in mob mentality raising their internet pitchforks and demanding the removal of the educator in question, tenured Professor Stephen Lewis, from his post as English department chair.
FUS replied by cowering before the mob, and removing Professor Lewis almost immediately. (A rather fast move, considering that FUS continues to turn a blind eye to complaints about sexual assault on the campus.)
University President, Fr. Sean Sheridan, posted an open letter removing Professor Lewis from his post as department chair, and offering reparations to the Blessed Virgin Mary – a letter that was posted on social media by Scott Hahn. (Read more about that here, at the excellent DarwinCatholic blog.)
So the question remains:
Is Church Militant right?
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Let’s begin by looking at the facts in question. It appears the novel, Emmanuel Carrere’s “The Kingdom,” was taught by Prof. Lewis in a class of five upperclassmen studying literature who had an eye towards moving on to graduate studies in the field.
The novel, a best-seller by an internationally respected author, was deemed important enough that even First Things reviewed it here.
According to DarwinCatholic:
Five students under the direction of Dr. Steven Lewis, the chair of the English department, studied books that compared and contrasted modern views of Catholicism and faith, including works which exemplified the “culture in crisis” which Fr. Sheridan has committed the university to evangelizing.
From a public post by Emily Stimpson Chapman, who knows Lewis personally, and worked for FUS’ publication arm for several years, wrote:
[Professor Lewis] is an excellent professor and an expert in modern American literature. He came to us from the University of Chicago, and truly knows his stuff. He also knows what students are reading in graduate programs across the United States, and he knows what upper-level English majors who may be bound for grad school need to be prepared to deal with. His desire to equip students to respond to virulently anti-Catholic sentiments in literature and the culture is not a bad thing. It is quite necessary…
Further, it appears that the book was used in one semester of the class and then was dropped from the curriculum before Church Militant’s article was published. From Stimpson Chapman’s post:
Regardless, the University decided that the book was not something they wanted read again in an FUS classroom, and addressed the matter. That is where the whole thing should have died.
So far, so good. FUS has always prided itself, like the best of Catholic colleges, with promoting an intellectual rigor that does not shy away from the world, but engages it courageously and with thoughtfulness.
A class geared towards preparing students for graduate studies in literature would do very well to select a modern book engaging with Catholicism in order to examine not only our current society but also to prepare students for what literature they will encounter in their chosen field of study.
But is The Kingdom the best book to exemplify modern views of Catholicism? Or is it a blasphemy unto itself?
It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!
For this section: Content Warning.
Church Militant (a click bait site the reader is welcome to Google for themselves) posted a series of articles about Prof. Lewis having used The Kingdom in his graduate seminar under the provocative title: “Franciscan Univ Defends Use of Pornographic, Blasphemous Book” with the subheading: “Dr. Stephen Lewis assigns novel with graphic speculation of Mary’s sex life, masturbation, porn.”
Which may be the clickiest-baitiest title I’ve read in a while. To translate:
Virgin Mary! PORN! Don’t read this article! (Read this article. You know you want to.)
Initially, before reading CM’s attack on Prof. Lewis, I presumed that the secular novel – which, full disclosure, I have not read and do not intend to read – probably included long sequences featuring the Blessed Virgin Mother in lesbian pornographic situations. Which would both be: 1) Plausible for modern literature; and 2) Something to be upset over.
In researching for this article, however, it appears that about 200 pages in, the author self-indulgently but briefly describes a pornographic clip he enjoys watching of a woman masturbating – which, while unseemly and perhaps in bad taste, isn’t blasphemous.
This might have been sufficient for CM and their ilk to be upset, but we may have genuine concern about what follows. Here, the author – who is tracing his own stumblings into and out of the Catholic faith – and who has acknowledged that for himself, he does not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, considers this:
This woman [Mary, the Mother of God] knew a man in her youth. She had sex. She might have come, let’s hope so for her, maybe she even masturbated. Probably not with as much abandon as the brunette who has two orgasms, but whatever else is true she had a clitoris between her legs.
This is where Church Militant loses its mind.
The objections appear to be the following:
- Students at FUS and other Catholic institutions should not be exposed to anything the world has to offer; and
- The Blessed Virgin Mary Did Not Have Lady Bits
To the objections on the first count:
One of the great blessings of being Catholic – to be a bit flippant about it – is that we are not Puritans. We are not Evangelicals denying the possibility of the Big Bang or dinosaurs. We engage with the world happily, even lustily, sometimes bawdily as our own literature suggests. Chaucer and Shakespeare were Catholic and could tell lewd jokes. Dante was graphic about just how the Pope could go to Hell.
My own time at Franciscan challenged me to engage with texts that did not fit my world view. I was fortunate enough to take the Great Books program, and so had the joy of debating everything from Socrates’ defense of reincarnation to dismantling Locke’s solipsistic philosophy. In literature, too, I learned how to engage and not fear Satre’s No Exit, for example, or just why Lysistrata was important – even though it’s super bawdy.
But of course, the world does exist. And the truth is that Catholicism has answers, filled with grace, if we would only allow grace in. Chaucer and Shakespeare aren’t ashamed of the body, and that’s a valuable lesson. Even clergymen are not immune to evil. Banality can land you in Hell. And women can end wars.
Through it all, through reading a variety of literature, we were encouraged to see people as people. Not as “us” vs. “them” to fear. But humans, warts and all. All in need of Grace.
Moreover, we were encouraged to think, and think critically. Is one of us particularly affected by No Exit? Great. Why? What’s going on in you? What are you reading into it? What are you being affected by? If you loathe it, why do you loathe it? Can you cite your source? Can you verbalize your critique? Can you justify your position? Can you do more than cross your arms and call names? Can you debate, and still love the person you’re debating?
In short, by not shunning the world, but being guided in how to approach our fellow man, we were given an excellent education – and one that helps even when reading clickbait articles. Or dealing with your drunk uncle on Facebook.
Whereas, those ex-Catholics I’ve met as an adult, largely lived a “sheltered” life. Were kept in a bubble. Not allowed to think critically. Not exposed to the world, or given any tools of discernment. And so once they encountered the world – which, like Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, cannot be avoided – their faith, which was only ever fragile and imposed, crumbled like so much sand.
The Blessed Virgin Mary Was a Woman? Gasp!
The second objection to The Kingdom is that the author declares that Mary had a clit.
Does that sentence bother you?
Let me ask you why?
As Catholics, we believe that Mary was conceived immaculately. Which means that she would have possessed a perfected female body. Female bodies, no matter what generations of Barbies may have indicated to the contrary, include genitalia. Female genitalia includes the clitoris. This is a bundle of nerves that, when stimulated, release various chemicals to the brain that cause pleasure.
From which we can extrapolate that the Blessed Virgin Mary probably had a perfected body, which included a functioning – even a perfected clitoris.
Now, whether Mary ever engaged that part of her body may be a subject for someone else’s post, but I don’t think I’m far off in writing that what CM is scandalized over is Mary’s possession of what every woman has.
And therefore what FUS is apologizing for is allowing a professor to include a piece of literature – which he included, I must stress, in order for upperclassmen to engage with critically – that claims the simple scientific fact that Mary might have been actually, fully female. Or that she would have organs that, when engaged, would function to give her pleasure. Or that those organs may have functioned well.
Therefore, what FUS and CM are beating their breasts over is that Mary was made perfectly. And without sin. Including a sinless clitoris. That the clitoris is, itself, sinless.
Critical Thinking and Carrere
It may be worth taking a brief digression to see what other, secular reviewers thoughts of the inclusion of the offending passage in Carrere’s book.
The Spectator has this to say:
The Kingdom contains a completely incongruous sequence in which the narrator breaks off from telling us about the New Testament, to watch an online film of a young woman masturbating. He watches it 20 times and then has a conversation with Hélène about it which was … well, a bit French for me. Later in the book, he says that he does not find it embarrassing to admit that he enjoys pornography, but that he does find talking about all the religious stuff in this book embarrassing. Many readers will know what he means.
CM fails to put the offending passage into the fuller context, unlike this secular review. Think critically for a moment: what is Carrere exemplifying by allowing in this segue? He’s looking at the fact that his audience, whom I presume he believes will be secular or even ex-Catholics like himself, will probably not be embarrassed by admitting that they thought about a porn star, but they will be embarrassed about engaging their imagination about Christ.
What a fascinating insight! How sadly true! What does that say about our society, that we’re embarrassed by God? How important is it to realize our inverted sense of shame regarding the Creator and His Creation?
From The Guardian:
Finally, [Carrere] offers a singularly male view both of his own world and of antiquity. Women find their way into his story either as virtuous virgins, wives or bodies in porn movies. At one point, all three merge together, as he tells of his preference, when watching young women masturbate online, for real people over actors. This turns out to be a weird metaphor for the novelist-biographer’s desire to represent flesh-and-blood people. He then turns to imagining Jesus’s mother, Mary, herself masturbating. It’s meant as a provocation to pious types, but it ends up showing up Carrère himself as a caricatured Catholic male, for whom virgin and whore represent the only two categories of women.
How important, particularly in this post-#MeToo age, particularly at Steubenville, is it to realize that the “caricatured Catholic male,” even ones who leave the faith, have trouble breaking free of the virgin-whore dichotomy? In fact, how much is the current CM uproar exactly in line with this reduced view of femininity? That the Virgin Mary only has worth if she is anatomically neutered? That the Virgin Mary must be as offended at her body as we are at her possessing one?
Moreover, how telling is it that CM is outraged at this part of the novel, when apparently – and far more blasphemously – Carrere’s whole novel suggests that Christ did not rise from the dead, and that the resurrection was an invention of St. Luke’s. Here is the scandal:
That CM and FUS believe that a woman’s capability to achieve orgasm is more outrageous than denying Christ’s divinity.
What Do They Teach Them At These Schools?
I hope, I have long hoped, that FUS might recover itself from the current, anti-academic, Puritan “Catholics” who currently control the governing body, and return to the more purely, joyfully, intellectually rigorous and curious Catholicism that I experienced during my time there.
With FUS caving to CM and other alarmists, I worry that the bastion of thought may crumble at the last. I’ll send up an Ave tonight for my alma mater, but trust that Mary can – and will – take care of her children herself.
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