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?



6 thoughts on “Catholicism and Censorship Part I

  1. I had to read a lot of things in school I vehemently disagreed with, or didn’t like, well before I became Catholic. The end result of this was a refining of my own beliefs. If a piece of literature presented an idea I had previously disagreed with in a positive way, it forced me to really evaluate and engage in my own beliefs.

    In law school, I had a professor I was diametrically opposed to in political belief. He would argue positions I disagreed with so persuasively and skillfully, I had nothing but gut feeling to go on at first. In the end, that challenged of working through my disagreements helped me to become more discerning and better versed in presenting my own point of view. It’s incredibly valuable.

    I also think that people want to shelter teenagers at a time when they are questioning everything. I read all sorts of things as a teen that people thought should be forbidden, including dreck like VC Andrews. The end result was that I was able to identify what was quality writing and what was not. I was able to poke holes in ideas and arguments I disagreed with. And most importantly, it engaged me and actually made me think about what I believed in, rather than passively hold onto my ideas and values.

    So while I believe in picking age-appropriate books for the classroom, I do think that sometimes people can be too overzealous in wanting to filter what’s read in the classroom, which means that kids lose out on a great learning tool.

  2. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is a bit advanced for high school but is pretty much exactly what you describe.

    I read Sartre’s “No Exit” my senior year of (Catholic) high school. Fr. Gregory did a good job but I can imagine a censurious personality objecting.

    These both have not just “bad content” (=sex, violence, obscene language, …?), but also an “anti-Catholic worldview”. I’m curious–do you think there’s a case for censuring for content, if the “message” of the book is good?

    1. I think there is a case for censuring for content in terms of age-appropriateness, although I don’t know exactly how one would determine it.

      For seniors in high school, I’m not sure this applies as much anymore. They are all on the verge of adulthood and I think it’s our job to help them learn how to navigate really difficult messages, especially when they include “bad content” and/or an “anti-Catholic worldview.”

  3. You may have seen this already Maura, but when Pope Francis was younger he taught high school literature. He did the opposite of censoring what the students read; he “made them read existentialist and leftist writers, ‘not to propose them as an example’ to follow, but to parse their opinions, ‘analyze them, break them down piece by piece’ so the students would be able to ‘examine any kind of argument'” and never be ‘hoodwinked.'”

  4. Graham Greene immediately comes to my mind. I have only ready “The Quite American” and “The End of the Affair.” Greene’s ability to capture the rawness of humanity is so captivating. Many people feel safe with Greene because he is Catholic but he is able to illustrate the problems man have in living out faith, and once you learn more about his life you can really see why he is able to capture this difficulty so well. I am shocked when I hear Catholics talk about Graham Greene and have no idea about his personal struggles. Not that his life is what matters but those who read doctrine more than narrative get so excited because Greene is a “Catholic” novelist but the same sort of virtue, or lack there of, that is displayed in his books is also true in his life. This is why Greene can also be a really good tool of reading literature as a Catholic. Greene not only helps one to reconcile man’s state as a sinner and the doctrine. This must be done so carefully because Greene often does not speak about doctrine explicitly so many apply doctrine without reading the text with care. Ultimately I feel very biased because Greene was the focus of my senior novel project.

    Also, I think part of the question should also be about how the novel or piece of literature is helping in the development of virtue.

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