Reviews > Culture

Censorship that is still allowed

Culture | Flannery O'Connor is expelled from a Catholic high school

Issue: "Breaking the term limit," Sept. 16, 2000

Christian schools often ban books that undermine the Christian faith. Secular schools often ban books that are too Christian. But what are we to think about a Christian school having to ban a Christian book? The Roman Catholic Church used to compile an "Index" of books, movies, and other material that were judged to be injurious to faith and morals. Today, a bishop is banning a book by one of the 20th century's most distinguished Roman Catholic writers, whose works consistently support faith and morals. Flannery O'Connor lived in Georgia and died in 1964 when she was only 39. Despite her long, crippling, and excruciatingly painful struggle with lupus, O'Connor produced a series of short stories and brief novels that are now recognized as being among the top accomplishments of 20th-century American literature. And she was a Christian, one of the more outspoken and explicit Christians to be found in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. "I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy," she wrote. "This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in the world I see in its relation to that." A devout Catholic of an Augustinian stripe, O'Connor was always dramatizing the conflict between sin and grace. Not that her writings are pious and uplifting in the conventional way. Her stories are full of odd and repellent characters, twisted humor, moments of violence, and unsettling confrontations with Christ. Her novella The Violent Bear It Away (perhaps the best introduction to her work) sets up a conflict between a fire-breathing backwoods preacher and a modern secular psychologist battling over the soul of a mentally retarded child. "Her overriding strategy," wrote critic Robert Drake, "is always to shock, embarrass, even outrage rationalist readers." And yet, because of her undeniable greatness-not to mention the overriding imperative in feminist-dominated academia to emphasize women authors-she and her message of salvation through Christ alone are being discussed in secular classrooms across the country. But not at the Catholic high school in Opelousas, LA. One of the sins O'Connor attacks in her fiction is racism. And some of her anti-racist stories, set in the rural South of the 1950s, have characters-whose vices she is trying to correct-who use the N-word. Some 20 black parents, a number of whom did not even have children at the school, saw the offending word in the collection of O'Connor short stories assigned for the summer reading of students after their junior year, so they will be ready to discuss the works in senior English. Without talking to either the teacher or the school administration, the group went straight to the bishop. The English teacher who assigned the book was WORLD's music critic Arsenio Orteza. (WORLD has a policy of not covering the activities of our editors and full-time writers. Unlike Time or Newsweek, we do not review books written by our staff members. We mention Mr. Orteza, who writes for WORLD once a month, in the spirit of full disclosure and since this story has been picked up by other media.) The bishop of Lafayette, LA, Edward J. O'Donnell, ruled that O'Connor's books be removed from the reading list. Furthermore, he said that "no similar book as the one under discussion" can be required reading at Opelousas Catholic. This was taken by school officials, said Mr. Orteza, to refer not to books by other great Catholic writers, but to other books that use the N-word. This would rule out not only other anti-racist masterpieces, such as Huckleberry Finn, but also works by important black authors, including Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man. Certainly the bishop was well-intentioned. He only wanted to be sensitive. But the incident illustrates a consequence of what postmodernist relativism has done to language. Words have been separated from what they mean in context. Thus, politicians dodging legal investigations feel free to give them new meanings. Or, as in this case, the very presence of a word can be outlawed as racist, even though it is being used in a way to attack racism. The meaning of O'Connor's stories does not matter. Parents certainly have a right to complain. School officials-and in this case bishops- have the right to say that certain material is not appropriate. A book may have no "bad words" in it at all, but be totally subversive of all that is good. That book might sneak in without objection. Concerned adults should probably object more than they do. But superficial attacks are often counterproductive. In the meantime, we are left with the double standard. Conservative parents are often derided for objecting to schoolbooks that contain profanity, depictions of sex, and anti-Christian slurs. Schools almost never give in to their concerns. Politically correct censors, on the other hand, almost always get their way.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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