Back in February Providence College, a Catholic school, invited hyper-friendly philosopher John Corvino to speak about gay marriage. The date of September 26th was set and everybody was happy. Fast forward to a week ago when the school contacted Dr. Corvino again, this time to ask how he’d feel about debating a representative from the school’s theology department. Corvino agreed.
Fast forward again to last Saturday when Corvino received an email saying the event was canceled. The reason was:
In an e-mail to the faculty (reproduced below), Provost Hugh Lena claimed that the event violated college policy. He cited the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 2004 statement Catholics in Political Life, which states that “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.”
It seems that Hugh Lena does not know how debates work. The person you invited speaks, and then your representative gets up to say not only that they are wrong, but explains why they are wrong and that the Catholic Church is right. It suggests a very tenuous grasp on logic when you can think the words “you’re wrong, we’re right, and here’s why” can be taken as support.
By having Corvino at the school, it would be honoring the spirit of open discourse. It would be honoring the nine different on campus departments that arranged to have Corvino brought in. It would be honoring the lust for information that is at the heart of any true academic institution, so much that we eagerly listen to people with whom we do not agree – because presumably we have the humility to realize we could be wrong, and that we have discovered errors in the past by listening to people who contradicted our present beliefs. In short, by having Corvino the school would be honoring itself by demonstrating the courage to hear someone say “I don’t think you’re right” rather than shutting those voices out, as if other opinions were something to fear.
Lena continued in his reasoning:
Provost Lena complains that Dr. Dillon’s response was arranged only recently: “While I applaud Dr. Dillon for her willingness to present on such a complex and controversial topic,” he writes, “it is simply not fair to her to give her less than one week of preparation opposite someone who has been lecturing on this issue across the United States for years.”
It is true that Dr. Dillon—very graciously—agreed just last week to participate. Apparently some members of the Providence College community raised concerns that “all sides of the issue” be represented; in response, I told my host that I would welcome having a respondent. Indeed, during our earlier correspondence I had suggested that, instead of a solo program, I do a debate; I even recommended some prominent opponents. That suggestion was ultimately declined for what appeared to be reasons of expense.
As a fellow scholar I am offended on Dr. Dillon’s behalf. If she felt unprepared to respond, she could easily have declined. For her provost to declare her unprepared, however, is an affront to scholarly autonomy and academic freedom. It also does not speak well of Provost Lena’s confidence in his philosophy and theology departments that he believes that no one there can persuasively articulate the Catholic position on marriage with a week’s notice.
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.
Of course, this whole affair could be laid to rest. I’m sure god could adequately defend his own position on gay marriage (some would even say he did so in Exodus). God could come down and settle the matter once and for all. But he won’t, which leaves one representative at a time from one branch of Christianity out of tens of thousands to defend what they think god wants with regards to gays and marriage.
That is, unless they’re coming up with all kinds of excuses to avoid squaring off with an unassuming college professor who is at the supposed disadvantage of not having god at his back.