Amid Curriculum Controversy, Franciscan University President Calls for Unity

Homily comes amid recent public controversy over book selection in an upper-level English class.

The Portiuncula Chapel on the campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville
The Portiuncula Chapel on the campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville (photo: Robert Pernett via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — The president of Franciscan University of Steubenville said last Monday that the university is committed to a faithful Catholic approach to university education, and he invited university administrators, faculty members and others to renew with him an “oath of fidelity” to the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

“As some persons raise questions about what it currently means to be faithful to the magisterium — what it means to be orthodox — it is important to remember that Catholic identity should thoroughly pervade our teaching, our research and all other activities pursuant to which this university advances her mission,” Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan said Jan. 14 in his homily at the university’s opening Mass for its spring semester.

“In recent months, critics of Franciscan University have accused us of compromising our Catholic mission and witness,” Father Sheridan said.

“Is anyone here perfect? No. Do people here make mistakes? Yes. But our particular Franciscan charism is rooted in ongoing conversion. That we resolve to continue to do better every day.”

His comments seemed to refer to a recent public controversy over the university’s curriculum. On Jan. 8, the Church Militant website drew attention to a book that had been taught by a university English professor in the previous academic year. The book, The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrère, included passages that Church Militant described as blasphemous and pornographic.

Father Sheridan issued a letter Jan. 9 stating that while he believed “the professor’s intention in using this book in his class was not malicious, the book is scandalous and extremely offensive.” He said the book would not again be assigned at the university and offered an apology to “our Blessed Mother and her Son, and to anyone who has been scandalized by this incident.”

Father Sheridan’s letter added that “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. To do so, they must be equipped with a firm knowledge of Catholic Church teaching as well as a thorough understanding of the views and philosophies of their opponents.”

Announcing that he had directed administrators to “review and revise our existing policy on academic freedom to prevent future use of scandalous materials,” Father Sheridan also wrote that university 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.”

The professor, Stephen Lewis, was subsequently replaced as chairman of the university’s English department.

The Kingdom was the subject of a December 2018 review in the magazine First Things. As the controversy erupted, First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz took to Twitter Jan. 14 to opine that: “Mobs are not well qualified to make decisions about literary quality or moral risk. In a more civilized age we allowed popes to compile the Index, instead of giving the job to bloggers.”

In a Jan. 18 essay published by First Things, Lewis wrote that he had 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 aim was not to shock, but to edify. I share the revulsion Catholics rightly feel toward lewdness and blasphemy, but in the end I decided that my students could benefit by reading this text.”

While “certain websites have taken a handful of obscene passages from the book and presented them to the public in a manner intended to shock and scandalize,” Lewis wrote, “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.”

“Discussion of the book ... helped the students to understand more deeply what it means when we Catholics affirm that Jesus Christ cannot be known outside the Church. The Church, as the ongoing presence of Christ among us, is the only way by which we gain knowledge of him,” the professor wrote.

Each of the five students in the class “has claimed to have grown in faith by reading the work, despite its ugly aspects,” Lewis stated. “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.”

Father Sheridan’s homily said that the controversy “has been a serious disruption to our unity. We have stopped trusting one another. And it is pulling us apart as a university.”

“With the help of our shared governance council in the next few weeks, I will be working to set up an ongoing commitment to our fidelity and freedom, to advance higher education within our entire faithful, orthodox Catholic university,” he announced.

That project, he said, “will help to restore that break in our unity.”

Father Sheridan added that he would be consulting with the leaders of other Catholic universities and Catholics involved in higher education, as well as those connected to Franciscan University, and drawing on the scholarship presented at a university symposium on Ex Corde ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. Father Sheridan, a canon lawyer, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the document.

“It is the responsibility of everyone who belongs to the university family to advance the university’s Catholic identity. It is the responsibility of all of us to strive for unity within this university that we all love.”

In recent months, the university has also faced criticism amid 2018 reports that administrators have improperly addressed allegations of sexual assault, abuse or misconduct. In response to those reports, Father Sheridan announced in August 2018 an independent review of university records by a law firm “specializing in Title IX compliance and sexual abuse and violence.”

A report from the firm will reportedly be delivered to the university’s board of trustees this month; university administrators have not announced whether it will be subsequently released publicly.

Father Sheridan’s homily encouraged a period of rebuilding.

“These days demand courageous Catholics who will stand up for our faith to go forth and rebuild. Our Church, our world, needs people who are willing to stand for truth,” he said.

Father Sheridan concluded his homily by inviting all members of the university community to join him in renewing the “profession of faith” and “oath of fidelity” he had taken upon assuming the university’s presidency in 2013. Members of the university’s theology and philosophy faculties already take the oath annually.

“God has entrusted his university to us to lead and guide,” Father Sheridan told university faculty members and administrators.

“May we always be courageous Catholics, empowered to fight together, for the fidelity of this university and the work that Our Lord, Jesus Christ, has entrusted to us.”