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.”