In a story broken by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, a highly-anticipated lecture by a gay speaker at a Roman Catholic college was suddenly canceled this weekend because it doesn’t align with the school’s “fundamental moral principles.”
Dr. John Corvino, chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, has spoken on same-sex marriage at more than 10 Catholic colleges in the country and is a frequent commentator on LGBT issues in religious contexts. He was scheduled to speak at Providence College in Rhode Island this Thursday, an event co-sponsored by nine school departments and programs.
But on Saturday, the college’s provost, Hugh F. Lena, announced that the talk was canceled because “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
In his e-mail announcing the cancellation, Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president of Providence College, cited a document produced by the American bishops in 2004, “Catholics in Political Life,” to support the decision. And he said that college policy “dictates that that both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally.”
Presenting both sides fairly and equally, eh? That’s not what this explanation seems to say. A portion of the cancellation announcement reads:
“While academic freedom is at the heart of teaching in a Catholic university, the United States bishops maintain that in accord with Ex corde ecclesiae: ‘the Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions’ (Catholics in Political Life, USCCB, 2004).”
Some of the departments co-sponsoring Corvino’s appearance have said they were surprised by the cancellation, particularly the claim that the talk would only present one side of the same-sex marriage debate. Corvino himself says he wasn’t planning on taking that approach, per se, but including and highlighting religious perspectives in his message:
Dr. Corvino said he had been very interested in speaking on a conservative campus like Providence College because he was “preaching to the choir” at most of his talks now. “I want to convince them that same-sex marriage is not only possible, but is also a good thing, for the couple and good for society at large,” he said. “But I also want to engage in a deeper dialogue about issues that we agree are important.”
Regardless of the nature of his talk, it is perfectly within a college’s right to invite a speaker who will only address one side of a subject — especially one like marriage equality. At a school like this one, does anyone have any doubts that students have already heard the anti-same-sex marriage side already? (Probably more times than they can handle?) Apparently college administrators aren’t convinced. Thankfully, though, some of them are speaking out.
Fred K. Drogula, president of the faculty senate at Providence College and an associate professor of history, said he could not find a college policy dictating that every lecture must have an equal opposing viewpoint. And he said it was “inappropriate” to invoke the bishops’ document, “Catholics in Political Life,” because it applied primarily to politicians.
Dr. Drogula said, “The job of any quality academic institution is to teach students how to think critically, which includes challenging, testing and defending our ideas.”
Corvino published a response to the school’s decision on his personal website, explaining very clearly that his views were not meant to represent those of the Catholic Church and pointing out that his talk would be followed by another speaker articulating the Church’s position on marriage equality. He, too, takes particular issue with the school’s insistence that speakers provide “both sides” of a controversial issue.
Provost Lena seems especially concerned that “both sides of a controversial issue . . . be presented fairly and equally,” and I applaud him for this goal. It is very much in the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas, the most famous member of the order that founded Providence College, and the greatest philosopher of the Catholic intellectual tradition. My impression, however, is that Providence College actively avoids the airing of views that challenge the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage. The provost seems to want to have it both ways: the appearance of a commitment to vigorous academic dialogue, combined with an isolationist approach to disfavored views; in other words, a Catholic identity defined primarily by what it excludes rather than what it includes.
The announcement also comes the day after Pope Francis famously said in an interview that the Church should focus less on politically divisive issues like homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. This makes it especially interesting that the provost cited a document deliberately meant to serve as a political guideline in restricting an educational opportunity. Corvino addressed the Pope’s remarks favorably in his response:
Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s new leader, has been justly celebrated for his welcoming tone toward gays and lesbians. Notwithstanding my abrupt dis-invitation, I remain hopeful that Providence College may soon better reflect that tone.
It’s a far cry to say that this institution is doing all it can to teach students to “think critically” and “challenge, test and defend” their ideas. The Church and its educational affiliates remain hesitant to challenge their old ways, even through something as simple as inviting a pro-LGBT speaker to campus. And, in spite of the Pope’s comments, these actions are as political as ever.
I applaud Corvino for his patient and professional response to his unjustified dis-invitation, but I fear for the LGBT students at Providence College who have little reason to believe they will ever be respected in their community.