Catholicism and Censorship Part I

Q: Why is it that when I am on vacation and have more time to write, I don’t write at all?

A 1: When I’m teaching, I’m thinking. When I’m thinking, I usually have something to say about it eventually.

A 2: I thrive on being busy / I have not mastered the art of leisure.


Well, here goes. One thing I have been planning to write about for a long time is censorship.

Also known as: which books are appropriate to teach in Catholic schools? How do we determine “appropriateness”?

This question came to my attention this past year when a parent strongly objected to teaching Homer’s Iliad in another teacher’s class because of some “vulgar language” contained in the translation.

As in, the parent demanded that The Iliad be taken completely off the reading list.

My guess is that this request came from ignorance and fear than rational concern, but it certainly got me thinking again.

The question had arisen earlier as well during my job interview. I was asked which books I would be unwilling to teach in a Catholic school, and was strongly pushed toward excluding anything by Toni Morrison.

I am no fan of Morrison, but quite honestly, if I were asked to teach one of her books, I would not have any moral qualms doing so.

Here is my abbreviated answer, in which I replied in as measured a tone as I could muster:

“Well, my usual approach is to be unafraid of controversial literature. I believe all works can be studied with a Catholic perspective, even if the work itself challenges Church teaching. Especially at the high school level, students are being bombarded constantly by anti-Christian propaganda. Sheltering them from this is very unwise. It would be far better to teach them how to encounter and wrestle with such texts.”

This of course is not to say that ALL texts are appropriate for secondary school.

This is also not to say that all texts merit serious reading at all. There is plenty of trash out there that we can rule out.

The real question arises, I believe, when you are confronted with a work of literary merit that rather obstinately challenges Church teaching or, worse, advocates an anti-Catholic worldview.

It’s difficult (and, I believe, rather unhelpful)  to talk about this question too abstractly. So, what books do you think are especially relevant to this question in terms of the Catholic high school classroom?



My Writing Processes: A Blog Hop

Thank you to David Mosley over at Letters from the Edge of Elfland for suggesting I undertake this “blog hop” task.

I will let him describe the process for you:

Michelle over at Soliloquies––an excellent blog that mixes philosophy, life, and writing––has invited to participate in a Writing Process Blog Hop. She has previously invited to a similar ‘event’, though in the previous case it was an award of sorts. I was remiss in not attending to the previous invitation and so willingly and gladly do I participate now. The Writing Process Blog hop invites bloggers to answer four questions about what, how, and why they write. The bloggers are then encouraged to recommend three other bloggers to do the same. (Mosley, “My Writing Processes: A Blog Hop”)

Here they are:

1. What are you currently working on?

I feel a little abashed by this question. It implies that I actually am working on something literary.

Up until a few days ago, I was working on trying to help my students learn how to write. Most of the time I am teaching persuasive writing, but this past semester I agreed to teach a Creative Writing class for the first time. So I had the much easier job of being the literary critic rather than the anguished author.

Still, I learned a few things. My favorite unit was murder mystery stories. As we investigated how these stories work, I began to realize just how important form can be. Mysteries demand attention to plot structure and physical objects more than most other genres do. Character development is ideal but not essential to a good mystery (witness the success of relatively static characters like Columbo, Magnum P. I., Miss Marple, etc).

Interestingly, it is all too easy for inexperienced writers to wander too far into the psyches of their characters and their motivations rather than into plot. Too often my students tried to turn their mystery stories into novels— they got the emphasis all wrong. They wanted to focus on character and dialogue primarily like Jane Austen, because, for a new writer, that seems easier.

Am I writing anything besides this blog?

I write music. I play guitar and write songs. It’s really interesting how similar – and how VASTLY different – writing music is in relation to writing poetry.

I have been reworking a paper I wrote in college on Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, and I hope someday to publish it. It has already been rejected, however, so I have lots of work to do! There is a lot of pressure in the literary academic world to say something new, although the writing I admire most simply tries to say what is true and usually results in being ancient.

And a private fun project of mine is writing my own Narnia book. It’s about Susan Pevensie’s daughter, and in the last six months I’ve made it to chapter three. The fact that Susan never made it back with the others “beyond the Stable door” has always bugged me to no end.

It’s the Hans Urs von Balthasarian “universalist” in me.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Well, I suppose I can say two things about that.

1) Although all blogs, even if they fall under the “Catholic” genre, are as different as the writers who create them, I do think that my blog is attempting something unique. It is a sort of casual, musing way of reflecting on the art of teaching — in particular, teaching in Catholic schools, which for better or worse is a whole epic educational saga in itself. Many other blogs have a more political, theological or family-oriented focus: for example, the mommy blogs, the “public square” blogs, the ecumenical/theology-debating blogs, all of which I love reading.

But I’m not really doing any of those things. I touch on theological and political issues insofar as they relate to my experience working with high school kids, but my writing focuses on the act of trying to engage in a very specific type of relationship and to perfect a very particular type of art. (Teaching is an art, by the way.)

2) Because I am an English teacher, I often end up writing about literature. But I don’t really write about it in the way many other blogs do– I’m not usually evaluating it on its own merit, or providing reviews of it, or even really describing my own personal reactions to it. Instead, when I talk about literature, I almost always talk about it in reference to a very particular and frequently hostile audience: teenagers in a “school” setting.

For better or worse, I often think about literature as a vehicle for learning certain skills. I suppose that’s very “Common Core”-ish of me. Notice that my primary successes with Dante seemed to be using his illustrious Commedia as a vehicle for reading strategies.  Julius Caesar was great for teaching persuasive techniques.

Sounds rather utilitarian I guess, but that is a hot topic for another time…

3. Why do you do what you do?

What do I do again?


I feel that teaching is primarily what I do, and writing is an extension, a goal, a byproduct, and even an “efficient cause” of my teaching.

Well, then I suppose I write and teach because God is pushing me into it, and I’m trying my best not to get in His way (with varying results).

4. How does your writing process work?

I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but I have found that my best writing (the stuff I don’t scrap) is pretty spontaneous. As Flannery says, “I write to discover what I know.”

In high school and college, friends of mine who painstakingly outlined their ideas beforehand seemed to be engaging in an impossible task. Even others who think a lot about what they want to say, even if they never create a formal outline, are engaging in something I have never been able to do. I have no idea what I want to say until I say it.

A wonderful professor in college (painfully) taught me the importance of revising. So now I do that instead of just allowing my unsupervised thoughts to wander about.

Most of the time.

Well, like David Mosley, I am going to nominate three other bloggers to try this out.

1. Ironical Coincidings by Joseph Simmons. Joseph is a friend of mine from college who takes a much more analytical, philosophical approach to his work than I do. So I’m really interested in what insights he will have into the writing process.

2. Comos in the Lost by Artur Rosman. I am relatively new to Rosman’s blog, but I read it almost daily, which is saying something since most of my time is spent sifting through high school essays. His own “About” page says “He is husband, father of three, professor, public speaker, translator of several books (Polish to English), and onetime television personality (several times) on Polish TV. He is presently writing a dissertation on the Catholic imagination of Czeslaw Milosz at the University of Washington in the Comparative Literature department.”

He is also a fellow admirer of Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Rosman writes, I often feel like “oh, that is what I want to say, but am not really equipped (intellectually and otherwise) to put into words!”

3. The Wine Dark Sea by Melanie Bettinelli. I have actually been reading Melanie’s blog since I was in high school. I found it while looking for stuff about what the University of Dallas was really like. She is a UD grad and writes with clarity, humor and grace about family life, poetry, and more.