Dr. Stephen Lewis and the Bad Book

Franciscan University, which I lovingly (and still do) refer to as my Alma Mater, although I only studied there for Freshmen Year in 2005, has been rife with scandals in the last couple of years. Among the first was the supposed “Pro-Choice Feminist” on the faculty, spreading confusion and scandal on Twitter. Then, stories of failures to properly handle sexual misconduct on campus, the revelation of the sexual misconduct of the late Fr. Sam Tiesi, TOR, a key-player in the reform of the former top party school, and close confidante of the late Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR. Now, with another strike to the gut, comes the confusion surrounding Dr. Stephen Lewis’ upper class reading assignment of “The Kingdom”, written by French atheist Emmanul Carrère. The assignment was reported by Church Militant, at which point it exploded in a wave of comments and blog posts responding to it. I am still well connected to friends who studied and completed their degrees at Franciscan University. The response from those students has been incredibly in favor of Dr. Lewis’ actions, much to my surprise. The Traditional Catholic side of the internet lost their absolute heads over it. Parents have decided against even visiting the school for college visits and people are stopping their donations. There are also those like blogger Bill Kassel who took a more moderate/passive, “who knows the right thing” approach. A listener of the podcast I am now running with some friends called “Theology of the Buddy” (you should really check it out, it’s fun!), reached out to me and suggested that we deal with this question on our podcast. In preparation, I began digging deep into what the Church teaches regarding so-called Academic Freedom and education in light of what the response was from faculty at the University, graduates, and other catholics within my limited purview.  This post is meant more to be a resource for those searching, and for anyone who may be looking for more information than what will be shared on the podcast, because I cannot share all of my findings there. This may be not be a fully comprehensive look at the topic, but I hope that you will follow the logic and train of thought.

What’s so bad about the book?
Church Militant treated on this topic at length here. For the same reason why I wouldn’t read or recommend the book, I am not going to write of the nitty-gritty gross details here. I will say that the general issue comes down to the author speaking of things of a highly pornographic nature, including masturbation, while also speaking incredibly blasphemously about Mary, the Mother of God. He describes, in demonic detail, gravely immoral actions taken by her in his mind.

The first response sent to Church Militant from Tom Sofio, Public Relations Manager at Franciscan University, stated the following point:

Franciscan students learn through critical comparison to consider multiple sides of an issue or argument, led by professors who always promote Catholic spiritual and moral perspectives. Thus, our students graduate better prepared to solve problems and engage with integrity in a world that desperately needs to hear the truth.

Of course at face value, this is an admiral approach for a Catholic University to take. There is, however, something to be said about the nature of the content being examined. In the case of pornographic content, whether literary, audible, or visual, it is always gravely immortal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

2354 Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.

No matter what level a person may be at in their academic learning, pornographic material is gravely immoral. Whether you’re a 10 year old, or have a Ph.D, we are not immune to the effects of grave moral evil. Whether it is visual, audible, or literary, smut is smut. If it was not so, the President of the school, Fr. Sean Sheridan, TOR would not have openly admitted “again, the professor did not intend to scandalize, but The Kingdom is so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus… I regret that the University’s earlier statement did not make this clear.” Sadly, the students did not simply have to be told about the book, but they had to purchase it. While they may not have known it at the time, the school and students were indirectly supporting a man who makes his money from blasphemy and pornography.

Other faculty members, including the famed Dr. Scott Hahn and Dr. John Bergsma, (both whose Biblical Scholarship I still consider to be some of the best in the Church today) have voiced their concerns and opined about the inappropriate book selection, which Church Militant noted here. There was also an event created on campus wherein, Father Nathan Malavolti, TOR, the Chief Evangelization Officer, lead a Holy Hour in reparation in the main campus chapel, Christ the King, for offenses against the Immaculate Heart of Mary on January 11, 2019, shortly after the proverbial excrement hit the fan. I think doing so is worth applauding.

Yet, despite this clear admission from the President, and acts of public reparation, some faculty appear unconvinced that it is actually pornographic, including Dr. Lewis, who seems to have not spoken about the situation publicly. Much to my surprise as well, Dr. Bob Rice, Associate Professor of Theology and Catechetics at FUS, stated in his blog (emphasis mine):

In an upperclass elective (with five students in it) that examined the difference in approach between Catholics and non-Catholics in literature, he included a blasphemous and arguably pornographic book as an example of the kind of “bad” literature that was out there. It was a poor choice (that he did once).

Rice spent the rest of his time waxing nostalgic about his love for Franciscan and taking aim at Church Militant. I stand quite surprised that such a prominent professor at Franciscan could have such differing views from the Administration on this subject. It is unfathomable to me to think that this man could be in charge of forming the next generation of Catechists. His response is also reminiscent of the crazy protectionist culture in the Church these days, wherein you hold more to the “good” one has done, and seemingly ignore the rest – Hello Cardinal Wuerl! But I digress.

Why is it bad to read pornographic and blasphemous books for educational purposes?

Let’s chat about consequentialism and the Principle of the Integral Good. Wikipedia defines it well stating, “consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae states in First Part of the Second Part, Question 18,  Article 4:

Nothing hinders an action that is good in one of the ways mentioned above, from lacking goodness in another way. And thus it may happen that an action which is good in its species or in its circumstances is ordained to an evil end, or vice versa. However, an action is not good simply, unless it is good in all those ways: since “evil results from any single defect, but good from the complete cause,” as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv).”

Pope Pius XI stated, “For, let human prudence say what it likes and reason as it pleases, it is impossible to produce true temporal peace and tranquility by things repugnant or opposed to the peace and happiness of eternity” (DIVINI ILLIUS MAGISTRI 54)

No true good comes from something evil. Yet, Emily Stimpson Chapman, a former FUS teacher, and Catholic author, wrote on Facebook in defense of the actions of Dr. Stephen Lewis stating, “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. At the very least, his intentions are completely defensible.”

Whether or not his intentions were good does not render the act good. To use porn, which is declared by Holy Mother Church to be a grave moral evil, for a good end, namely education, is indefensible. Stimpson Chapman goes on to say, “I do know that Franciscan is a university, not a seminary, and that its students are adults, not children, and therefore perfectly capable of skimming the racy parts in a book and analyzing the problematic (and even blasphemous) bits, from the perspective of faith and reason.”

Pope Gregory XVI stated, “Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?” (Mirari Vos 15)

Again, consequentialism is fully displayed by Stimpson Chapman. It appears this well-loved author seems to misunderstand our Church’s wonderful historical teachings on education in general, when she seemingly separates men in a seminary and men and women in a Catholic university. Also was her comment a little sexist? I hope she’ll forgive me now for quoting mostly ordained, sheltered men from the recent and long past.

If anything you take away from this article, it should be this:
The Catholic Church does not owe her children a secular education, but a Catholic education. There is a difference. 

Unlike secular education, who is generally regulated by civil government, Catholic Education should truly be regulated by the Church, overseen by the local Ordinary and those clergy who have been charged with the task of education and administration. Pope Pius XI states in Divini Illius Magistri:

Again it is the inalienable right as well as the indispensable duty of the Church, to watch over the entire education of her children, in all institutions, public or private, not merely in regard to the religious instruction there given, but in regard to every other branch of learning and every regulation in so far as religion and morality are concerned.

But what about “Academic Freedom”?
Franciscan loves JPII so much they named the library after him. Let’s get his thoughts.

Pope St. John Paul II stated at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore – Sunday, 8 October 1995) that “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Therefore, Academic Freedom, it would follow, would be to do and teach that which we know is true, good, and beautiful. We can presume, therefore, that much care is to be taken in doing what is right in the realm of education. Pope Pius XII stated, “With regard to new questions, which modern culture and progress have brought to the foreground, let them engage in most careful research, but with the necessary prudence and caution” (Humani Generis 43). Pope St. John Paul II again stated:

Because knowledge is meant to serve the human person, research in a Catholic University is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and of its discoveries…’It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience.'(Ex Corde Ecclesiae 18).

So true Academic Freedom is found in searching for the truth, while upholding the dignity due to God and the human person. From the same Encyclical:

Every Catholic University, as a university, is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities. It possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good. (12)

Pope eo XIII states in Libertas Praestantissimum:

…Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them; but lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State…If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint. In regard, however, to all matter of opinion which God leaves to man’s free discussion, full liberty of thought and of speech is naturally within the right of everyone; for such liberty never leads men to suppress the truth, but often to discover it and make it known. (23)

Should the Church be able to dictate what books are used in centers of Catholic education?

Pope Gregory XVI states in Mirari Vos:

Thus it is evident that this Holy See has always striven, throughout the ages, to condemn and to remove suspect and harmful books. The teaching of those who reject the censure of books as too heavy and onerous a burden causes immense harm to the Catholic people and to this See. They are even so depraved as to affirm that it is contrary to the principles of law, and they deny the Church the right to decree and to maintain it. (16)

Pope John Paul II declared in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (emphasis mine):

Article 2§ 4. Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected(46).

Article 2 § 5. A Catholic University possesses the autonomy necessary to develop its distinctive identity and pursue its proper mission. Freedom in research and teaching is recognized and respected according to the principles and methods of each individual discipline, so long as the rights of the individual and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.

To make this abundantly clear, from a Catholic viewpoint, Academic Freedom can only be found “within the confines of the truth and the common good”. It is self-evident that pornography and blasphemy is an offense against the common good, as it does damage to the dignity of the human person, and blasphemy is an offense against the Truth Himself. How can students formed at a school so very in love with Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, then turn and defend Dr. Lewis’ actions? The uproar the use of this book caused also serves to prove that it was not truly for the common good. An act, as Aquinas makes clear, is rendered immoral if one of its parts is evil, despite the seemingly good intention. Consequentialism is not morally tenable. Bottom line:

Was Dr. Lewis’ book selection a very poor choice? Yes.

Was Franciscan University correct in correcting itself? Yes.

Was Dr. Lewis’ acts justified? No.

Does this change my opinion about Franciscan University? Yeah, kinda.

Would I still potentially send my kid to Franciscan University? … maybe?

Do I still love Franciscan University? Yes, in the same way that I love old Coke, Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper,  Zellers, or my years in Life Teen. I loved my time there and will always look fondly upon it. But to expect that it is the same as it once was, is to assume that everyone there is the same as they once were, just like those who went there might be the same. My life and my Facebook feed has determined that is a lie. I know of many students who studied in the hallowed halls of Egan and Cosmas and Damian, only to have abandoned the Faith ten years later, or who have become so incredibly lukewarm that it is scary – this includes currently employed catechists across the globe. Franciscan has changed. It is inevitable. I am also not the same as I once was. Will the school retain Fr. Scanlan’s vision? Should it? That’s another post for another time. But as Scott Hahn said, “Please pray for our university.”

For my final comments, I’m going to get a little salty and a little less scholarly. Hold on to your butts (I wrote this at 3:00am)!

1 .Thanks for stopping by Facebook, Emily. You can go back to your precious Instagram now, where everything is safe and nothing hurts…I hear it’s the USCCB’s favurite social media platform. *winky face* Nighty Night!

2. Dr. Bob Rice – if the book is only “arguably” pornographic, would you let a teenage daughter read it? If not, why would you let full blown adults read it, whose education is entrusted to your care? Let’s be frank, if it is only “arguably” porn, then your 1999 album “Behold the Lamb” is just “arguably” music. Therefore, I want my $15 American Dollars back, or just give me Bookstore credit. Thankfully I won’t have the option to buy “The Kingdom” there anymore.

3. Dr. Bergsma – I love you. Please be my friend.
Signed, an anonymous but reliable source.

4. Church Militant and Christine Niles – You need to repent for sharing out the blasphemous, heinous parts of the Kingdom. While calling out the school was good, you are also guilty in part for the scandal. From one group of Trads to another – repent and make reparation.

4. Subscribe to the Theology of the Buddy Podcast, it’s way better than this blog.









2 thoughts on “Dr. Stephen Lewis and the Bad Book

Add yours

  1. In before Christopher West:

    “If one were to read this book whilst in the marriage bed, would it still defile one’s soul?”

    Yes. Yes it would.


  2. You don’t learn how to be a good painter by studying bad painters, or to make a good film by watching bad ones. Don’t recall where I read it, but bank tellers are taught to recognize counterfeit bills not by looking at counterfeits, but by studying real bills so well that the counterfeits stick out like sore thumbs.


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