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STEUBENVILLE, Ohio (ChurchMilitant.com) - (caution: graphic content) After intense backlash from outraged donors and parents, Franciscan University of Steubenville is backtracking on its defense of a blasphemous and pornographic reading assignment. Inside sources who have spoken with Church Militant make clear, however, that the apology is meant to placate donors and supporters, and signals no real change at the university.
Father Sean Sheridan, president of the university, issued a letter to staff Wednesday evening regretting the choice of a novel assigned by English department chair Stephen Lewis in a spring 2018 course.
"I would like to apologize for the use of Emmanuel Carrère's, The Kingdom, in an advanced literature course at Franciscan University last spring," Sheridan wrote. "Above all, I would like to apologize to Our Blessed Mother and Her Son, and to anyone who has been scandalized by this incident."
Sheridan's apology came 24 hours after Church Militant broke the story that Lewis had assigned the novel, which includes graphic and explicit discussion of Carrère's internet porn addiction, the types of porn he watches, and how it relates to his thinking of Mary, mother of Jesus. Rejecting the existence of the "Holy Virgin," Carrère claims Jesus' mother "had sex" and probably "even masturbated" and had "orgasms." Other details from the novel are too graphic to include here.
In response to Church Militant's queries, the university, through spokesman Tom Sofio, initially defended Lewis' decision, claiming among other things that such literature helps prepare students to grapple with the Faith by considering multiple sides of an issue.
The backlash was intense and immediate; hundreds of outraged Catholics called, wrote and left comments online making clear they would drop all support for the school.
"It is unconscionable to me that Franciscan University of Steubenville actually issued a statement defending the assigned reading of a grotesque blasphemy against the Mother of God," wrote one graduate student who disenrolled from a $1,500 course in light of the scandal. "You have actually defended evil. You actually defended a satanic attack against the Queen of Heaven and Earth. I am horrified and disgusted. This evil goes well beyond the tepid and poorly reasoned statement issued by the University public relations manager Tom Sofio. Unbelievable."
"We homeschool our eight children, and this WAS one of the colleges we were going to look into to sending our oldest next year," said one mother of eight. "We will no longer need to waste our time visiting their campus. I wrote them a letter today telling them they will not see one of my dollars or any of my children."
Her comments were echoed by many others, who also made clear Franciscan was no longer a viable option for their family or friends.
Extremely disturbing - especially reading the school's response. I've been promoting FUS to students for several years, including driving them to FUS for visits. That ends now. I will no longer support FUS unless they take immediate action on this.— Rich Olon (@OlonRich) January 8, 2019
Parents paying for a Catholic education and getting filthy garbage!! Don’t send your kids there . Alumni should not support them! Hit them in the pocket book.— Aquilio Sr (@4831383SJ) January 9, 2019
Financial supporters wrote, called and left comments online promising never to give to the university again.
Dr. Scott Hahn, professor of biblical theology and the New Evangelization, expressed dismay by the administration's initial response.
"Academic freedom is valuable, but it should not be exercised in a vacuum," Hahn wrote in a Facebook comment. "Rather it must be in service to the truth, and not serve as a license for perversity and sacrilege. Assigning this book was irresponsible and imprudent. Defending it is unwise and wrongheaded. Please pray for our university."
Dr. Anne Hendershott, professor of sociology at Franciscan, said in comments to Church Militant, "The novel is horrific — something that no student at a faithful Catholic university should have been required to read. It was a betrayal of the Catholic identity and mission for a professor to assign such a novel."
Sheridan's Wednesday letter makes clear the university's initial response defending Lewis was inadequate.
"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," Sheridan wrote. "I regret that the University's earlier statement did not make this clear."
Missing from Sheridan's letter was an apology from Lewis, who sources make clear continues to defend his choice to assign the novel.
When administration confronted Lewis privately about the novel, before the story went to media, sources confirm Lewis was defiant, insisting on his right to assign such literature as a matter of "academic freedom." Faculty tell Church Militant he continues to stand by his decision, regardless of what Sheridan wrote.
A number of Catholics, including faculty, remain dissatisfied with Sheridan's response and want action against Lewis, who reportedly has a long track record of assigning questionable and inappropriate content to students. According to multiple inside sources, Lewis is a large part of the problem at Franciscan and one of the main reasons the university has suffered damage to its credibility and reputation. Faculty in other departments are upset that one man overseeing a single department is being allowed to bring their beloved university into disrepute.
For instance, Lewis was behind the support for Rebecca Bratten Weiss, an adjunct professor in his English department for 11 years, who was forced to leave Steubenville in 2017 only after media exposed her as a "pro-choice" feminist. Since then, Weiss has also made clear her sympathy for the LGBT movement, repeatedly praising Jesuit celebrity priest Fr. James Martin, best known for his attempts to normalize homosexuality. Weiss had also received complaints during her time at Franciscan for assigning students inappropriate literature — something she could not have done without the permission and approval of her department chair.
Weiss remains close to Lewis' family, working closely with Lewis' wife on editing a literary journal as well as hosting meet-ups with likeminded writers. She came to Lewis' defense in the latest controversy, publishing a blog post defending his choice to assign the novel while dismissing his critics as "far-right" journalists too unintelligent to comprehend his scholarly work.
In light of the latest controversy, Sheridan is now calling on all faculty to take the Oath of Fidelity. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1989 Vatican document on authentic Catholic education, requires that any professor teaching on matters directly pertaining to morals or doctrine must take an oath promising adherence to the Magisterium. Currently the theology faculty takes the oath, but other departments, including the English department, are not required.
"I know for a fact that Lewis has stated in his department that he won't say it and has not said it," a faculty member told Church Militant. "It is not mandatory to teach here and now we know why."
Faculty have offered mixed responses to Sheridan's apology, with some grateful the president is adequately addressing faculty's concerns, while others are dissatisfied because he refuses to discipline Lewis.
"The first response from the university was disappointing," Hendershott told Church Militant. "Since Franciscan University prides itself on its support for Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it seemed to me to be a betrayal of that. Fr. Sheridan's response finally reflected the real concerns that faithful faculty at Franciscan University have had for quite a while now."
Even so, Hendershott says it's "time for action — not just promises for the future. It is clear that a distorted view of academic freedom has emerged among some on the faculty at Franciscan."
Hahn published a follow-up statement thanking Sheridan for his apology.
"I am very thankful to Fr. Sean Sheridan, TOR, the President of Franciscan University of Steubenville for his heartfelt response — a strongly worded and clear message — to address an unfortunate situation that emerged this week," Hahn wrote. "Please read it and then share it with whoever asks if our university is still wholeheartedly committed to being 'academically excellent and passionately Catholic.'"
But faculty who have contacted Church Militant make clear the administration has known "for years" about the problematic texts assigned and taught by Lewis. According to one faculty member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, concerns about Lewis and his department were routinely "brushed aside" by Sheridan and the administration.
"Many of us on the faculty are appalled at the response of Fr. Sheridan," said the faculty member, who claimed that the president is making the situation "sound like a mistaken policy that needs to be addressed, instead of a scandalous professor who needs to be disciplined."
Sheridan claimed in his Wednesday letter that he was "unaware" the novel was being assigned in Lewis' course in spring 2018, and that he would ensure curriculum guidelines would be reviewed "to prevent future use of scandalous materials."
Although his statement is technically true, faculty confirm Sheridan has been aware of the graphic contents of the novel since at least the fall semester — long before his public apology.
"I can confirm without a doubt, 100 percent that Sheridan was aware of the contents of this novel last fall," said one faculty member who spoke with Church Militant on condition of anonymity. "Faculty approached him with concerns about the novel and about Lewis, and he dismissed them."
"He offered no apology to the Blessed Mother then, nothing," the source said.
Sheridan also failed to offer any assurances that the novel would not be assigned in a future course.
"He only offered the public apology after he was caught," the faculty member said, and only after donors called up threatening to drop financial support.
As to consequences for the chair of the English department, "Lewis knows he is going nowhere," the faculty member said.
Church Militant asked Sheridan whether Lewis would remain on as chair of the department or whether any disciplinary measures would be taken.
"It is inappropriate for Franciscan University to discuss employment or personnel matters," said a university spokesman.
As to the call for faculty to take the Oath of Fidelity, some faculty members say the move is hypocritical and "highly insulting," as it is largely the administrators who "have yet to prove their fidelity" to the Magisterium, according to one source.
The public has also offered mixed reactions to Sheridan's letter. Although some are grateful for the clarification, others wonder why Lewis remains at the school.
"This is a garbage response that is meant to placate everybody," said Mark Ingoglio on Facebook. "We'll use the word 'scandalize' and that will satisfy the pious. We'll use the term 'unintentional' and that will let the prof off the hook. We'll get the committee to reword a policy so things like this won't have the potential to be discovered so easily in the future."
"If Fr. Scanlan was still there Lewis would have been gone yesterday," read another online comment.
"Good, but they have broken their trust with the people and would have gone forward with everything," said Elizabeth Shepherd Warynick on Facebook. "I would call for new leadership that people can trust to be REAL Catholics — I'd never send my child there until then."
Catholics also took to Twitter to insist Lewis should be fired.
This is the worst I have ever seen. What is wrong with the school for not firing this man immediately?!!!— Byzantine Catholic (@ByzantineCatho1) January 8, 2019
Franciscan needs to FIRE the professor if they expect to have any credibility to Catholics, parents and the church...— Momofkids (@Momofkids4) January 10, 2019
There is no possible excuse for this
Lewis did not respond to requests for comment.
*An earlier version of this article included a partial list of Lewis' published titles