Catholic College Cancels Pro-Marriage Equality Lecture Because It’s ‘Fundamentally Immoral’

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.

Dr. John Corvino

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.

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.

  • decathelite

    Dr. Corvino has, in my opinion, some of the best writing on the moral argument for same sex rights including marriage out there. His Youtube channel is excellent.

  • Rationalist1

    I wonder if they would ban a speaker that was in favour of the Second Iraq war. (Just before that war the Vatican issued a document saying it was not a just war).

    It seems it’s only sexual “sins” that continues to be enforced by Catholics.

    • Spuddie

      Provided those “sexual sins” do not entail acts of a member of the clergy and a child. Those are approved by Catholic leadership.

  • 7Footpiper

    This piqued my interest just a little bit:

    “They should not be given awards, honours or platforms which would suggest support for their actions”

    While I am not specifically taking aim at Catholics in this instance, I am forced to consider every prayer or religious symbol on public property and how the religious get away with saying that theses things do not suggest support for their viewpoint. Having trouble right now stringing a coherant thought together so forgive me if I seem off base.

  • busterggi

    “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

    Now those still include slavery, treating women as property and exterminating Jews too, right? Because those were fundamental moral principles the RCC stood for for centuries.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Fox Catholicism: Fair and Balanced. We decide, you obey.

    Occam’s Razor simplest explanation for the sudden cancellation:
    An alumnus of Providence College who’s a big donor heard about the upcoming lecture, called Lena and told him he could kiss those big donations goodbye forever if he let the lecture proceed.

    Forget the rationalization about their “moral principles.” Look for the money motive.

    • Erp

      I’m more inclined to think local Bishop. He is on the corporate board of the university and given he is the bishop, he can certainly wield a great deal of power over the president (a priest) and quite a few other administrators (also priests). The bishop recently lost the battle to prevent civil marriage equality in Rhode Island.

  • Gunner Miller

    ..and those college students run to the internet to watch the guy on youtube and other sites. The speaker could not have paid for better advertising to get across his message.

  • Fred

    Seems like this is an admission that the Catholic view of Marriage Equality cannot be presented “fairly and equally”.

  • Gus

    It occurs to me that there’s a long history of high quality academic work from some of America’s Catholic colleges and universities. We often wonder why students who are not religious go to these schools, but the truth is that they usually provide a good education. But maybe the question we should be asking is why academics choose to teach there. If the Catholic Church keeps restricting academic freedom, maybe they’ll find themselves without the faculty to keep up their once vaunted academic standards. When that starts to hit the bottom line, then maybe we’ll see some changes.

    Then I look at the job outlook for PhDs and I realize this is a pipe dream too. But at least the AAUP chapters on Catholic campuses ought to start standing up to this kind of thing.

  • Matt D

    Spare me these ancient zealots with a history of violence and bigotry advising modern society on what is “fundamentally immoral”, and I tire of the religious using minorities as scapegoats for their endless problems.

  • Jacqui H

    John Corvino was not only the speaker at one of my husband’s medical school commencement functions, but he spoke at one of my business ethics lectures (one lecture on the topic of gay rights, the other an unrelated commencement address). Both times he was funny, poignant and extremely smart. These students are definitely missing out by not having the opportunity to see him speak on any subject.

  • Verna

    Well done Wayne State!

  • Howard

    Putting the new Pope’s recent comments in far more appropriate and accurate perspective.

  • OCRazor

    Rhode Island, again…they sure seem to have their fair share of haters don’t they? Is it the water?

  • Spuddie

    So why was he invited in the first place if they were never going to bother with what he had to say?

    That’s just spiteful.

  • Neil

    Theology isn’t science. The more specific the issue the less you can declare right or wrong. That being said, Abrahamic beliefs promote the idea of absolute truth, which leads to arbitrary rigidity and flexibility depending on the social milieu.

    Ultimately, the school is not wrong (or right) on the theologically derived moral stance. They can legitimately take the stand they’re taking because, well, the Bible contains a lot of nasty an inhumane instruction and ambiguity in translation and historical and literary context.

    • Spuddie

      What is morally wrong is inviting someone to speak at a place where you had no intention on allowing them there. It was either being spiteful or wishy-washy.

  • allthosefeet

    Didn’t know who John Corvino was, but I’m watching his talks on Youtube now. Thanks Providence College in Rhode Island!

  • Agrajag

    Excellent summary, Camille.

    I want to repeat a earlier request, on the article about female atheists being “invisible” — can we PLEASE get more prominent author-biographies, up TOP, preferably with an actual PICTURE and with a font more noticeable than light-grey?

    Hemant rocks. But the visual profile of this blog still gives the impression that this is a one-man-show, when in actual fact it’s a one-man-primarily + several other contributers of both gender show.

  • milo rosenblum

    “The people that oppose gay marriage are either dumb or secretly worried that cocks are delicious.”

  • ragarth

    Corvino would have already paid for his plane tickets, money would have already been jostled about. One has to wonder if cancellation on such short notice isn’t intended to take advantage of the fact that preparations would have already been paid for and implemented.

  • Mark W.

    I guess if anyone would know about fundamentally immoral things it would be the catholic church.

  • UWIR

    1. Opposition to gay rights is a fundamental Catholic principle? That’s funny. I don’t remember anything about SSM in the Nicene Creed. I don’t remember Jesus saying “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, and don’t let gay couples get married.”

    2. So if Obama wanted to give a commencement address, they would refuse? If they found out MLK supported gay marriage or birth control, would they ban MLK celebration from the campus?

    • pmcurl

      I don’t know about Providence. Maybe they would,, I hope. However, we have a precedent for a Catholic College doing just that – inviting pro abortionist Obama to give the commencement address, AND, being awarded a degree. This was a slap in the face at catholic doctrine and the church.

  • pmcurl

    There is currently a brouhaha in this docese (Bridgeport) over the engaging of Rudi Guiliani, former mayor of New York and a catholic, to be the keyonte speaker at the kickoff breakfast for Catholic charities. There have been many protests from the pro life organizations in the various churches in the diocese, and rightly so. The new bishop, Frank Caggiano, attended. Being the bishop in New York, he had to know of MrGuiliani’s pro abortion position. Inviting him, if not strictly prohibited (and I think it was), was certainely inappropriate, as was Bishop Caggiano’s appearance. He should have politely refused to attend, and state exactly why.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      “Pro abortion”? No such thing.

      • 3lemenope

        I wouldn’t go that far.

        I knew a guy in college who supported abortion for the same reason he was pro-capital punishment and pro-euthanasia: he was pro-death.

        Seriously.

        He was also a self-proclaimed fascist.

        It takes all kinds.

      • pmcurl

        I am a graduate of Providence College, class of 1966, and I am elated to see my school standing up for the moral principles of our religion. I also am gald to see Anna Maria college also rejected the widow of Ted Kennedy also for her support of immoral agendas.


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