Blasphemy Tests the Limits of Tolerance at Holy Cross

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By Phil Lawler, Catholic Culture, April 18, 2018

A confession: During the past few weeks, as the result of my own editorial decision, we have not fully informed our readers about the scandal created by a blasphemous theology professor at the College of the Holy Cross. Chastise me if you like, but I don’t regret my decision.

With blasphemy, as with obscenity, an editor must choose whether he wants to convey the full impact of the offense, at the risk of shocking and offending his readers. When I read what Tat-siong Benny Liew had written about our Lord, I answered that question in the negative. His vile suggestions about Jesus disgusted me, and I assumed that they would disgust my readers. So rather than repeating them, I posted a news story with only a vague reference to the nature of Professor Liew’s offenses.

There is a problem with this approach, obviously. Since we did not actually divulge what Liew had written, readers probably were not as horrified as they might have been, had they actually read his “scholarly” articles. Some naïve people probably think that online pornography consists of pictures of women with bare breasts. Similarly, some of our readers might have concluded that a reference to Jesus as a “drag queen” was the most offensive of Liew’s comments. Not so. There was more—much more—and worse—much worse. I made the decision to spare my readers from images that would be sickening to any Christian.

If you feel that you really must know more about Liew’s repulsive suggestions—and don’t say that I didn’t warn you—Charlotte Allen goes further than I was willing to go, in her First Things commentary. But she too steers clear of the most loathsome suggestions found in his writings.

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts, accurately labeled Liew’s thoughts as “highly offensive and blasphemous” and demanded a public retraction. But the top administrators of the Jesuit-run college quickly replied that the school would defend Liew’s right to propound his views, invoking the principle of academic freedom.

In order fully to understand the absurdity of this defense, one must realize that Liew’s most revolting ideas are the products not of scholarly investigation but of a fevered imagination, obsessed with issues of perverse sexuality. If the Liew essays that have prompted the current controversy qualify as honest theological inquiry, then by the same logic the lewd commentaries scrawled on the walls of bathroom stalls at turnpike rest areas should be regarded as literature.

But the administrators of Holy Cross are now in a quandary. Having hired Liew as a theology professor (and in fact he is soon to become the chairman of the school’s theology department), they feel compelled to maintain the fiction that his scurrilous work is legitimate scholarship. So I was delighted to learn that another Jesuit priest, my friend Father Paul Shaughnessy*, had provided them with a candid fraternal correction. In a letter to top college officials, he remarked:

I do not expect you, or Father Boroughs, or Dean Freije, to find anything amiss—on either doctrinal or professional grounds—with the image of God’s son feminizing his apostles by masturbating onto their supine bodies. If you did so you would not have the jobs you now do.

Nevertheless Father Shaughnessy rebuked the Holy Cross brain trust for allowing Liew to teach young students, who might come to the Catholic school with an innocent expectation that they would be nourished in the Catholic faith. He asked: “Can you not feel even if your own Christology be closer to Liew’s than Cardinal Newman’s a twinge of concern for the faith-lives of these undergraduates?”

By now you may have a sense that Father Shaughnessy is—shall we say—forthright in expressing his distaste for the ideas of Professor Liew and the stance of the Holy Cross administration. You would be right. Let me quote from the final words of his letter:

I do believe that if a College exegete had “transgressed” Shi’ite pieties with the same breezy contempt Liew applied to Christian ones, his mother would be pacing Linden Lane in elbow-length rubber gloves, putting his remains into a one-quart Zip-loc bag.

* —Does the name seem familiar? Yes, this is the same Father Shaughnessy who was cited for bravery as Marine chaplain in Iraq. He is also the author of “The Gay Priest Problem,” probably the most controversial (and perhaps the most important) article published inCatholic World Report during my tenure as editor. Whether these background facts are relevant to his criticism of Holy Cross (his alma mater), I leave it for readers to decide.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.