Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The University and the Flash Mob

Franciscan University of Steubenville, my alma mater, proclaims in the proud words of president Fr. Sean Sheridan:
How do we educate and evangelize a culture in crisis? And how do we equip a generation raised in that culture to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.  
As president of Franciscan University, those are questions I think about every day. They go straight to the heart of our mission and the challenges we currently face. 
Recently, Franciscan University has come under fire from critics of our University community who have accused us of compromising our Catholic mission and witness. These critics could not be more wrong. 
Today, as always, Franciscan University is committed to forming joyful, intentional disciples who can proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. Today, as always, Franciscan University remains academically excellent, completely faithful to the teaching of the Church, and passionately Catholic. And today, as always, Franciscan University wants to serve God and the Church by educating and raising up a new generation of humble, holy, faithful Catholic leaders equipped to evangelize the culture.
Academic excellence is the first quality proclaimed by Franciscan, as well it should be. The purpose of a university should be academic excellence, else why should it exist? And how does a university combine academic excellence with passionate Catholicism and a goal of educating and evangelizing a culture in crisis?
Recently at FUS, an upper-level class tried to combine these aims. 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 . One of these books was Emmanuel Carèrre's The Kingdom (2018), of which First Things says:
The genius and the apostle are alike, according to Kierkegaard, in that both bring new ideas into the world. But there’s a crucial difference. Geniuses are ahead of their time, and, consequently, the knowledge they bring forth always “disappears again as it becomes assimilated by the human race.” Thus we take it as a given in the twenty-first century that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the Mona Lisa is printed on shower curtains and beach towels. But the apostle’s message is eternal, outside of time. Because of this, it can never be assimilated. The topsy-turvy logic of the Gospels—in which the last shall be first and the meek will inherit the earth—remains permanently paradoxical, never to be absorbed by ideas of progress. Every incursion of eternity retains the power to shock. 
In many ways, Emmanuel ­Carrère’s latest book, The Kingdom, is about just this irreducible strangeness of ­Christianity: a church in which the low are made high, and the least qualified candidate for any job—the stutterer, the outcast, the murderer—is invar­iably the person whom God chooses to help build his kingdom on earth. Carrère himself is one such unlikely candidate. Born in Paris in 1957, he has achieved success in France as a novelist, biographer, and writer for film and TV. As this truncated CV suggests, he has a penchant for combining genres. The Kingdom is itself half autobiography and half fictionalized account of the early Christian Church. The autobiographical portion centers on Carrère’s early to mid-thirties, when a bout of writer’s block plunged him first into crisis and then into Catholicism with a convert’s zeal. For three years, he attended Mass daily, prayed and observed the sacraments devotedly, and filled twenty notebooks with his own commentary on the Gospels, until the time he now refers to as his “Christian period” came to an end.
Dr. Lewis taught this class once, and then opted not to use The Kingdom again. While it was unquestionably a study of a modern mind grappling with Catholicism, it also contains a scene in which Carèrre, watching late night pornography, indulges in an explicit, blasphemous, banal meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary participating with the actresses. It's sordid and paltry in the way that people who think they are so edgy often are. In a way that the culture which needs evangelization often is.

The website Church Militant, which specializes in a kind of tabloid Catholicism, learned of this incident post facto, and rolled it into a larger exposé on the liberalization of Franciscan University. This article, despite containing no background information about the course, no details of its enrollment, and no interviews with Dr. Lewis, did offer for readers' breathless consideration an explicit section of the book, with only the sheerest cosmetic editing of offensive words. (I won't link to it, and if you're inclined to google it, you should know that Church Militant derives income from people clicking through to their site.) The reason given for sharing this material with the entire internet was to protest Franciscan University's use of it in a class, to lament the outrage to the Blessed Virgin, and to demand the firing of Prof. Lewis and an apology from the administration for having exposing young minds to such filth in an academic setting. Included were anonymous speculations about planned left-wing coups to destroy FUS's Catholic identity, with Prof. Lewis's class being one example of such a direction. (Current faculty member Bob Rice, not speaking anonymously, offers some analysis of these claims.)

I am not sure that the standard practiced by Church Militant would pass muster with Franciscan University's freshman journalism classes, but as a method of sparking pious outrage, it is very effective. A day or so after Church Militant's article was posted, Fr. Sheridan offered a new statement on how a Catholic university should operate:


The existing policy on academic freedom will be revised. Reading material will not be at the discretion of tenured professors, the University's own hires, but at the sufferance of internet lynch mobs who can barely finish one outrage cycle before leaping on a fresh cause. Shortly after this statement, Prof. Lewis was removed as chair of the English department. Not content with the scalp, Church Militant is demanding the whole head, insisting that Prof. Lewis be fired. And the online outrage machine will move on, will demand that Something Be Done about the next cause, and the partisans will be suffused with the righteous thrill of action until the day the machine comes to devour their diocese, their parish, their apostolate, their reputation.

There can be, and should be, debate about how to best understand and engage with a intellectual culture which is often hostile to Catholic moral teaching and practices. Not every student needs to prepare to evangelize the culture in the same way. We need faithful theologians, doctors, nurses, elementary teachers, theater artists, classicists, engineers, computer programmers, biologists, and journalists. And we need Catholic intellectuals. Students from FUS, going on in academia, preparing for graduate studies, will soon be confronted with programs, professors, reading material, and other students who will challenge their faith and their critical thinking skills and clarity of communication.

And make no mistake, even pompous intellectuals who pride themselves on being edgy enough to compare the BVM to porn stars deserve to be evangelized. God considers no person beyond the pale of his love. And so perhaps a few people studying how to evangelize the culture through literature and academia might be called to study that particular culture, to better counter it, and introduce it to God's love in words it can hear.

The point is, if we want magazines like First Things to provide intellectual and spiritual context for us, or reviewers who can intelligently dissect art house films and show the culture how those works are flawed even on their own terms, where do we expect those Catholic intellectuals to come from if our Catholic universities are too tender to train them? Must every professor of literature be a convert who came up on the mean streets of Harvard or U. of Chicago?

If FUS wants to recruit a higher caliber of student, if it wants alumni capable of determining how a crank website is trying to manipulate its readers, if it wants to maintain the morale of its teachers and attract quality talent, perhaps it will consider a stronger brand of intellectual and moral fortitude in the face of a internet flash mob who by next month will have forgotten that this fracas ever took place. 

3 comments:

Unknown said...

FUS grad '90 BA English here... also have 3 children currently at FUS, one of whom is a Senior and also an English major. I'm not opposed to mature college students being exposed to modern literature. It is, indeed, full of immoral acts that are celebrated. I just don't want the particular picture of the BVM in my headspace, or ANYONE's head space. Find another book... same topic, different characters. Then the same conversation can occur between professor and students without the added layer of blasphemy. And no, the University is not going down the tubes, as CM claims.

I love Dr. Sunyoger, she was at my house for dinner this summer. But I really wish Dr. Lewis could have stayed as Dept head. Whatever happened was an overreaction.

Agnes said...

Oh dear. I agree that a Catholic university ought not to allow internet flash mobs and social media campaigns to dictate their curriculum and teacher choice - but it is very difficult because when they start throwing mud, some of it stucks, even if it's completely undeserved. I suppose this particular example of questionable literature (I have no idea of its intrinsic literary value) may not be for everyone to study, but study of even the most outrageous material ought not ot be forbidden at university. Catholics can't shut themselves off from the world. Well said about needing Catholics well grounded in both their faith and their knowledge of literature to analyze and to critique. And it's also necessary to protest blasphemy being published and popularized just for its shock value.

Brien Doyle said...

First, There are no gods;
Second, There is no debate since there are no gods....