How can you be Church militant if you refuse to train to fight?

In light of the academic and cultural debacle playing out at Franciscan U, I’m reposting an essay I wrote in 2014. It addresses only one aspect of the creeping academic cowardice that threatens, once again, to overwhelm the American Church — to turn the Church militant into the Church Ostrich, squawking indignantly at anyone who wants to get up out of the sand and engage the world, the flesh, and the devil.

At FUS, we see this cowardice not creeping, but swarming and wielding pitchforks. Short version of the nonsense: A well-respected FUS professor assigned The Kingdom, a work of fiction imagining the early Church, to a group of five upper-level English majors. The book, which merited a mixed review by the conservative journal First Things, included a blasphemous and graphically profane passage describing the sexual thoughts of one fictional character. As far as I can gather, part of the professor’s goal was to help some select, mature students learn how to evaluate and respond to literature which isn’t specifically designed to edify the sheltered — i.e., most of literature. He wanted, it seems, to train his students for their imminent battles, both intellectual and spiritual.

But the group that calls itself Church Militant somehow got wind of the assignment and organized a mob, allegedly horrified that any Catholic would read such things . . . and also excerpting the most profane and blasphemous portions of the book and disseminating them far and wide. Strange behavior for an organization that believes no one should read such things. But this isn’t about logic, this is about moral panic. The professor has been stripped of his chairmanship, and Church Militant is calling for him to be fired. The school president wrote a craven letter apologizing for the putative offense and promising reparations and tighter oversight of curriculum.

Coincidentally, social media churned up an old and ludicrous Crisis article warning readers away from Flannery O’Connor because ugliness and violence just don’t pair well with religious ideas.


So it seemed like a good time to remind folks that we’re Catholic, dammit, not cowards. If Catholics can’t muster up the intellectual courage and brainpower to answer the world, then the world is doomed. You can be well-educated without reading The Kingdom, but you can’t win any wars if you keep firing the drill sergeants training your kids for the battle.

We are the Church militant — not the fourth-rate media outrage machine that goes by that name, but the real thing, the part of the communion of saints still on the battlefield. We’re supposed to put ourselves on the front lines. How can we fight the world, the flesh, and the devil if we shrink howling away from any kind of toughening and training? How will you fight if you refuse to meet the enemy? How can you fight the devil if you don’t even have the guts to talk about a book?

It may or may not have been wise for the professor to assign that particular book, but it chills my blood to see yet another Catholic institution knuckle under to the demands of a knothead mob. You parents who want to protect your kids from evil: This is what the evil looks like. It looks like vicious cowardice dressed up as righteous indignation. We’ve seen this before. The ones howling “blasphemy” are always the same one panting for another crucifixion.


When I was about eight years old, I decided that, just once, I was going to read a story that turned out the way I wanted it to turn out.  So I wrote it myself. It was about a little girl who went to a fair, and she got to go on all the rides as many times as she wanted, and all the vendors thought she looked like such a neat kid that they gave her tons of food for free, and then she played a bunch of games and she won prizes every single time. Then she went home when she was ready to go home.

Even I knew that this was the worst story ever. Even though the little girl was tired at the end, nothing had happened. The story was devoid of conflict, which is the tension necessary to make the gears of the story mesh. No teeth, no engagement, no movement, no vroom-vroom-vroom.

My own daughter just learned this fact this morning. She was home “sick,” so she and the toddler and the dog were watching My Little Pony, which is actually not terrible. It was the episode where Shining Armor is marrying Princess Cadance (that’s how you spell it. I looked it up, everypony), and in Part II, the bridesmares turn crazy and evil. My daughter says, “How come there always have to be jerks?”

Hooray, something I went to college for! I can answer this one. I explain that when everyone is just nice and friendly and helpful all the time, it’s too boring. It may be fine in real life, but when you’re telling a story, there’s no story there.

“Oh,” she says, “Like in Care Bears.” Yes, exactly. Which is why, even I do not let them watch Care Bears. (Or, I don’t ban it outright, but I encourage a heavy atmosphere of hostility and derision around the entire franchise. This is one of the huge advantages of having a big family: all you have to do is brainwash the older kids, and if you’ve done your job thoroughly, your propaganda takes on a life of its own.)

Audiences are primed to expect conflict in a story. This  makes things more interesting, it gives us a reason to care, and, even for little kids, it makes the story more true to life. For kids, it is perfectly okay to have the mess 100% mopped up by the time the ending credits roll: all the misunderstandings are cleared up, all the misdeeds are apologized for and forgiven, and all the unrepentant characters have their just desserts delivered to them in a tidy little pastry box.

That’s for kids.

Not for adults.

In adult fiction, it is okay for things to be a little messier. There is some middle ground between the sunshine-and-lollipops world of Care Bears, and the muck of unrelenting despair that passes for postmodern fiction. There is a lot of middle ground, in fact, and that is precisely where good, thoughtful, entertaining, thought-provoking fiction sets up camp: where there is a moral universe, but it’s not a tidy one.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a fellow who had been to a Catholic liberal arts college and somehow emerged on the other end with a B.A. and the firm impression that, for a work of fiction to earn the seal of approval from Catholics, the plot must include pretty much everything you’d expect in a My Little Pony episode — especially the parts where all sins are punished and all sinners are either damned or repentant. He said that Catholics ought not to read any book or watch any movie or play where this comeuppance is not reliable and overt. Not only did he advance this point of view in public, under his real name, but he kept it up until three separate people sent me private messages warning me that he would neither eat, nor sleep, nor relieve his bladder until I gave up and admitted he was right.

And I says to myself, I says, Sorry, Shakespeare! Sorry, Homer! Sorry, Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Melville, Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Dickens, and Thomas “Joyboy” Mann. Sorry to you all, but you have got to go, because I’m fairly sure that on page 243, right where nice little college girls and college boys could read it, someone got in someone else’s pants and didn’t drop dead of the clap before the end of the book. And on the very next page, someone used God’s name in vain and even though a perfectly good crevasse could have plausibly opened up and swallowed him without doing much violence to the dramatic integrity of the work as a whole, IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Is outrage!

I don’t even have to write the last paragraph of this, do I? You’re not going to argue with me are you? Are you?

Yes, ideas have consequences. Yes, the things we read have an effect on us, and if we wallow in filth, it gets deep into our pores and then the next thing you know, we don’t even want to shower. This is a real danger. But it’s just as dangerous to imagine that the Catholic imagination can produce nothing better than a Care Bears episode, a lesson in manners and morals disguised as a story.

Being a Catholic doesn’t mean foreswearing everything you know about humanity. We can recognize the difference between a novel and an instruction manual; and if we can’t, that’s not the sign of some high moral attainment. That’s a sign of a feeble mind and a limp spirit. We’re not little kids at the fair, and we can deal with someone telling us, “You don’t need any more cotton candy right now.”

Images: Shrinking Violet by JD Hancock via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Grünewald Crucifixion detail via Wikimedia (Public domain)


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43 thoughts on “How can you be Church militant if you refuse to train to fight?”

  1. First, for Christians David is our model for taking up the battle; he rejected Saul’s armor, worldly and “necessary” as it was. For Christians, “the battle is the Lord’s”. Second, nobody should have to plunged headlong into the disturbed imaginations of another and be held as a captive audience just because “literature” and “art” and “academics”. If art is profane, vile, grotesque and causes us to recoil, we should be allowed to recoil without some academic elitist trying to shame us for being “puritans” etc. There’s a reason people are horrified. They are having a normal reaction. Third, requiring students to read explicit content is not going to prepare them to engage the world for Christ. Knowing Christ is going prepare them to engage the world for Christ, and sadly, many schools prepare students to enter the world, but not live for Christ in the world.

  2. I read an article on Catholic Culture Dot Org ( and it opened my eyes and showed me what filth really exists in the movies.

    Guys, remember to stay away from the Sound of Music (Maria leaves the convent, bad message, plus the nuns are starchy and idle).

    John Wayne movies are harmful because his characters sometimes are not religious. (‘John Wayne plays a valiant Marine who, on his way to war, hears a girlfriend say that she’ll pray for him. His answer: “Let’s not get religion!”’)

    And in the Song of Bernadette, the nuns are sour and crabbed.

    Also Joan of Arc, King of Kings, The Miracle of Marcelino, Miracle on 34th Street, Going my Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and The Miracle of the Bells need to be avoided.

    And don’t even get me *started* on Schindler’s List, which has nudity and is practically pornographic like The Kingdom. Even Orthodox Jewish groups condemn it.

    1. To clarify, my list of movies to be avoided was sarcastic, but were all listed on that article so someone else really believes that.

    1. Thank you for linking to Professor Lewis’ rebuttal. FYI, the link is not working. I had to input the title of his article into First Thing’s search bar. Found it, but I thought you’d want to know the link itself is bad. His words, however, are refreshing.

      1. Thank you! It looks like they changed the title from “In Defense of Reading Pagans” to the more direct “Why I Assigned The Kingdom,” so the link with the old title didn’t work. I have updated the link.

  3. Simcha,

    I just read this on the heels of a whirlwind experience of writing a thriller-genre screenplay, optioning it, getting repped at one of the largest talent agencies in LA and knowing that my script is being read by top movies stars/directors and will be made this year with great fanfare. I’m Catholic and a devotee of Flannery. My work is for the world, not just for Christians. There’s violence, gore and even some language my homeschool-mom friends would blush at and, perhaps, condemn. But, there’s also heavy themes of redemption, hope and Christian presuppositions and imagery woven throughout, of which I’m immensely proud. Anyway, thank you for writing this. Just what I needed to read *right now*. I’m forever a fan.

  4. Would Jesus like you to read a story in which His holy Mother is depicted pornographically? The answer is no for those of you who have a hard time answering the question. Honor your father and your mother.

    Would you write about your own mother putting her in a pornographic scene? I would hope not. Would you like other people to read a story in which your mother is depicted doing the unspeakable? Again, I would hope not. Honor your father and your mother.

    Pornography is a sin. It’s worse when you make it blasphemous and put Our Lady in it. It should avoided and denounced–never defended. It is a lousy excuse to claim it is spiritual training. Saints avoid sin at all cost. Saints practice custody of the eyes. Saints keep their minds, their imaginations pure.

    The assignment of that book should be denounced. Any time a professor opens the door for Satan, that professor should be fraternally corrected. If he continues to welcome Satan, he needs to go. No drops of poison in the faith. No scandals in our Catholic universities. We have enough in our Church.

    1. The Doctrine of Double Effect allows for bad effects if the good effects are equal to or greater than the bad effects. There are other requirements too, like intention. Sometimes it even requires we choose options which have bad effects, even really strong bad effects, like killing someone, when in self-defense or to defend others. So your “drop of poison” analogy is wrong.

      I think the professor’s intention was good and Christian charity compels me to assume this anyway and I think the good will outweigh the bad.

  5. I can’t see ANY example of a church being “church militant,” except in their blatant efforts to live the opposite of what they’re holy writ says they should live like. The dogmatic mind and seared spirit is a good description of what I see today. All the way from Catholic pedophile priests (that’s what Jesus would do) to the Evangelicals and their attitudes about immigrants (that’s what Jesus would do) and one leading evangelical claiming 45 has sinned since being elected (that’s Jesus?). I have a fat and still growing file of the evidence of anything but militant. Then again, counting on useless thoughts and prayers is also a great cover up for not needing to be militant.

  6. I wonder if this is really not about content as much as it is about our image of God. We seem to be teetering around, racked with fear and hoping that the blinders we are wearing will protect us from reality, but only some parts of reality. We don’t want to admit that real art represents real life which in turn is messy, sinful, confusing and never either purely good or purely evil. And life also contains evidence of great order and goodness and sense and sends us joy unimaginable. When we are living our lives in fear rather than spiritual freedom, we will always be looking around, hoping we have it right, making sure others have it wrong and indulging in this superstitious, juvenile ‘faith’ which thinks that our image of God is obviously the right one, which has to be different from the God of those who are also different.

  7. Makes me think of the Christians (including many Catholics) who won’t watch R rated movies because of the R rated stuff. I don’t even know what to do with that.

    1. I don’t think we should outsource our moral compass completely to the MPAA, which has been known both to overreact and to underreact (and ditto for the A through O ratings issued by the USCCB), but I think it is valid to take their assessment into consideration.

  8. I wish this whole thing had been covered in a more journalistic manner (maybe too much to expect from Church Militant, I guess). I haven’t seen one article on either side that has provided any facts about this class other than the fact that this book was assigned. Even the name of the course has never been mentioned as far as I can tell. The one exception is that some on the pro-Lewis side have asserted that only five students were enrolled in the course, but I don’t know if that has been confirmed.

  9. I don’t think Church Militant should have sensationalized the event, nor should FUS have thrown the professor under the bus. I do question a professor’s prudence in assigning such a reading. There are other works of literature that would have accomplished the same thing without the graphic content. That, after all, is what makes good literature – the subtle. Perhaps contemporary authors are incapable of that. I have known young people who don’t enjoy or don’t “get” the great literature you mentioned because it is not action-packed enough and doesn’t hit them with excitement on every page.

    I don’t need to read the details on the Jayme Cross kidnapping. I can imagine her ordeal. I don’t need to read McCarrick victim testimonies to be outraged at clerical sexual abuse. If I do, I have become jaded and desensitized to human suffering or I am indulging in the prurient (for the sake of being “informed” of course).

    On the other hand, I have rolled my eyes at women who have discussed annulment scenarios and tried to “re-write” “Brideshead Revisted” so Julia and Charles live happily ever after. Let’s reread that again, gals, without thinking of a Hallmark movie.

    1. Your comment about annullments made me think of something. I’m a lawyer. Over the years I’ve handled lots of cases involving disgusting conduct of one sort or another. Proving the case requires me to get witnesses to describe such conduct in detail, which for the witnesses falls somewhere between unpleasant and traumatic, but if they don’t do it, we lose. We make the experience as formal and safe as we can, but the witness still has to speak about the events in detail. If I can’t face such descriptions then I can’t prepare the witness to do so and my failure prevents whatever justice might happen from happening. I draw on the memories of reading disturbing histories and literature to gain strength for thise cases.

      Not ever job requires this particular mental effort, but most of the learned professions do require it. Accountants see fraud; engineers study catastrophes. Doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers — all of them see at least a few tragedies or nightmares over their careers. We need students to read about unresolved monstrosities when they’re in a place where they can discuss them dispassionately and objectively. If the teacher used the gross parts of this novel to demonstrate how to analyze such narratives then he did a good thing.

    2. I agree, well said. I’m not an uber orthodox person, and often struggle with certain fundamentalist ideals that have gained followers as of late, but I do acknowledge that not all things and experiences have to be examined/lived, in order to “fight” the good fight. If I read this book, is it to “research” the “real world” or to perhaps awaken things in me that had not yet awoken? There are some good points here, but I also wonder if this particular selection was necessary. Thanks to the original author though, I think we probably have more in common in the way we think, but I do think there is power in words/images to our sensibilities to a degree, and more for some than others… I think balance is key.

      1. Suzy,

        As Lewis wrote in his response, the book was not chosen because of the salacious parts. The students could just skip those parts when they got there, as the vast majority of the book seems fine.

  10. Excellent article. Of course some individual works should be avoided by some people, for their own sakes. I won’t read or watch anything dystopian or too violent because of the way it affects my mood (my life is dystopian enough, ha). A priest I know who is secure in his vocation nonetheless misses the family he will never have, and so avoids stories that spend lots of time depicting happy families. Someone who struggles with chastity should, of course, avoid works that are too explicit. But the idea that all Catholics should avoid entire categories of stories and themes is misguided at best, and downright harmful at worst.

    1. Pornography is one entire category that should be avoided. The book in question had a part with the Mother of God depicted in pornographic terms.

      1. Right, the only problem is that pornography is notoriously hard to define. “I know it when I see it” is not super helpful beyond establishing one’s own taste/preferences. People have tried to label The Diary of Ann Frank as pornographic. Ditto A Farewell to Arms, The Handmaid’s Tale (way to miss the point), Ulysses, Madame Bovary, and The Scarlet Letter.

        There is no objective list of naughty books we can all turn to for guidance. Like so much else in life, it requires careful thought, exercise of judgment, an understanding of social, literary, and cultural context, and above all charity.

        1. How about we use our intellect and preserve our purity by avoiding that which is not pure? No need to read or watch something pornographic just to judge for yourself. Would you sit down with Jesus and read with Him a story of His Mother sexually abusing herself? Of course, not. I hate it when people act intellectually superior by refusing to take a stand against blasphemy and sin.

          1. You misunderstand. I’m not arguing that people are intellectually superior for reading books that contain blasphemous material — see my original comment, where I explicitly discuss reasons individuals might have for avoiding a certain kind of work or topic. I am arguing that while you choose to never read anything that is impure (by your standards) or blasphemous, someone else reading such material is not *inherently* wrong or behaving sinfully.

          2. Or, to put it another way: for you to know enough about this book to realize it is blasphemous and therefore not something you will read, someone, somewhere, had to read it first. Surely you agree it was good, or at least morally neutral, that *someone* read it, so as to let others know what the content was?

  11. This argument is just silly: in order to expose students to the “real” world you have to expose them to pornographic and blasphemous things?! And if you read some of the things in the book in question, it is utterly vile. It’s a logical non-sequitur and there is no practical explanation offered for exactly how that works: that otherwise someone not exposed to such stuff is ipso facto ill-equipped? A further fallacy is committed by equating the other works/authors cited with the text used at Franciscan, but with no exact examples cited. This piece seems to be more of an attack on Church Militant and orthodoxy than another else, and Fisher has been on a tear lately to attack orthdox catholic schools.

    1. Anyone training for battle recognizes the importance of understand the enemy well enough to successfully parry. What successful sports team doesn’t study the weaknesses of an upcoming opponent? What devout Christian doesn’t bother to understand the human condition and what sin is? Should priests no longer hear confession for fear they may be tempted by the sins of their flock? We can not win a battle or a war without an understanding of what we are fighting.

    2. Every person who read the salacious passages in Niles’ article is a hypocrite if they do not demand an act of reparation for CM’s promotion of pornography. After all, the theory is that there can never be any justification for exposing readers to that stuff. But if you are praising CM for publishing that stuff in order to “raise awareness” then you have just granted Stephen Lewis the right to do the same.

      This is all about rage monkey idiots and hypocrites looking for a good man to crucify so they can feel holy. Every person defending CM is doing grave evil.


      1. Mark Shea is correct (again): Church Militant was right to republicize the bits and the professor was, too. Institutions what exclude people like the professor will be isolated and less influential and those that don’t will be provide cover for free thinkers to bend the institution in a positive direction, toward freedom and away from injustice posing as tradition (Gillette).

    3. David, I agree with you.

      T, a person can train for battle without exposing oneself to near occasion of sin or sin itself. I don’t have to commit adultery to know it is wrong and should be condemned. I don’t need to read blasphemy to know it should be condemned. What exactly does this professor, Simcha, Mark S., or you believe training for spiritual battle means?

      Mark, why is it you and Simcha always feel the need to mock, insult, and ridicule your fellow Catholics when you disagree with them? The professor didn’t need to be “crucified,” but he did need some form of punishment. He should have been put on probation or whatever the university version of a serious write-up is. Serious enough that if he promotes such blasphemy again, he does get fired.

      1. Does a law professor encourage theft and murder by having the student read about them? Of course not!

        In the same way, having literature students read a book containing blasphemy is not promoting blasphemy.! It is all about context, in this case encouraging clear and critical thinking. Studying a book is quite different to simply reading a book for enjoyment.

        This doesn’t sound like a book I would want to read, nor am I going to chase up the article in question to read the salacious excerpts. But The professor did nothing wrong in this case.

        The people who took the excerpts and published them widely for anyone to view should be ashamed. They could have made the same claims without publishing the texts in question.

        “Church Militant” is like the local gossip who spreads lies and rumours under the pretext of asking for prayers.

        1. Exactly. Oncologists have to know what cancer looks like, and have to be able to tell patients when there is no more hope of a cure. If they have never seen cancer cells, oncologists are called, oh, accountants or typists or anything else because they certainly aren’t oncologists. Conclusions have to be based on facts, many of which are quite horrible.

          1. All of these claims that exposing people to pornographic and blasphemous stuff is necessary fails completely in another respect: it assumes they don’t have any exposure to it anywhere else, so that doing so in a college course is necessary. This is almost ridiculous, of course, as a few minutes on the internet or watching prime-t.v. or a number of other things, could do just as well. And again, it’s just illogical- exactly what is the “training” someone is receiving and how does that ipso facto make them a better Catholic, make them better to evangelize? It’s also scary that some Catholics today seem to have no problem with such material and it seems also don’t know what blasphemy is and that it is a bad idea, if not wrong, to propagate/convey such material in any context. And for those of you wanting to make this about bashing church militant, remember that the university has now recognized this was inappropriate as well as professors there, e.g., Scott Hhan, and alumni. Of course, they aren’t attacked because they aren’t convenient targets.

      2. Michael,

        Exactly. This is pretty rich coming from folks like Shea, who specializes in making blanket, slanderous statements about all kinds of people and groups, on a daily basis, and most of all fellow Catholics whom he deems not to be “real” Christians, and mostly because they don’t agree with his leftist views. And when you call him on it he will attack you and call you names, level accusations against you. And Simcha does this sometimes herself and cheers Shea on when he does it.

        1. “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”


          “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

          Good lessons for how to speak to people on the internet. First step would be to conquer pride and be free from a superiority complex. I haven’t read anything written by these two in years and prior to the last time, it had also been a long time. I take no pleasure in reading Catholics insulting other Catholics. It doesn’t seem very Catholic.

      3. It’s a very good thing for fundamentalist institutions and the Trump-voting idiots who support them to be exposed to the light by people like the good professor. There are many great Catholic universities where this book would not be a problem at all.

  12. Thank you so much for saying this. I have been a cloistered nun (Dominican) for almost twenty years and I know I am missing a lot of what goes on in our modern culture, but what I have seen and heard and even at times experienced frightens me. It’s almost beyond rational belief to think that young people could possibly want restraints on free speech and prefer socialism to democracy. And how do people think they’re helping the young by shielding them from the ugliness and evils of life? The Old Testament in our Bible is filled with horrible stories of gravely sinful acts–not to mention the New Testament, as your picture tells us. I always read and enjoy your blog, and please know that you are in my special prayers. Please don’t stop writing and speaking in your strong voice. God bless you!

    1. Sister E. S., scripture does give us accounts of gravely sinful things; however, it does not describe them in the most explicit wording possible. Part of living a Christian life is to maintain purity of thought. A professor at a Catholic university (and the university itself) should be held to a higher standard and shouldn’t give a reading assignment that includes the Mother of God doing unspeakable things to herself. Leave that to those who mock God. Let’s keep a pure imagination, a sanctified imagination.

      Thank you for giving your life to God and for praying for the Church and the world. We’re in desperate need of the prayers of the religious right now as Satan runs roughshod through society and the Church.

      1. Do you speak fluent Hebrew and Aramaic? If not, how do you know that the Old Testament isn’t explicit? If you think those writers censored their speech, look up 1Kings 21:21, King James version.

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