A Tale of Two Speakers

mattdefaultMatthew Henry Smith ’16

Father Shanley believes that the truth “lies somewhere in the middle.” He said it himself. He said it to you. He said it back on the 12th of February, 2013 when a visit from Sheldon Whitehouse elicited a scathing response from the Cardinal Newman association.

If you weren’t here or don’t remember, campus was abuzz last year with the prospect of Senator Whitehouse coming to speak to the campus. Sheldon Whitehouse is a politician who endorses the legality of abortion, and many here thought his principles would disqualify his words to our community.

In response, the President of Providence College, Fr. Shanley, sent out an email to our entire community which said the following:

“Let me begin by noting that the invitation to Sen. Whitehouse was made by the Political Science department without any consultation with me.  I do not say this to criticize the department, since it would be normal for departments to make their own judgments regarding academic speakers.   It was their judgment that Sen. Whitehouse’s views on the challenges facing Congress as an institution would be of obvious interest to the department and to the wider community.  I do not believe that any reasonable person could argue that the opinion of a sitting senator on the state of Congress is not academically valuable.

Does this invitation violate the U.S. bishops’ request that Catholic institutions neither honor nor provide a platform for politicians holding views at odds with the Church?   We are not giving Sen. Whitehouse an award.  Nor are we giving him a platform to promote views at odds with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.  Therefore I do not consider this inconsistent with the bishops’ wishes and I see no reason to seek to disinvite him from speaking.

Now hold on to that thought while you are presented with another email – one you never received. It wasn’t from Fr. Shanley; it was from Provost Hugh Lena. It chronicled the unilateral decision to cancel Thursday’s speaker, Dr. John Corvino. Here is what the email said:

“The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage,” a lecture by Dr. John Corvino, associate professor and chair of Philosophy at Wayne State University, which was scheduled for Thursday, September 26 and announced via email yesterday afternoon, has been cancelled.

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).   When it comes to mission-sensitive issues, Providence College has always sought to provide a context which allows for open and honest debate, a forum where both sides of an issue are presented in accord with the ideal of a disputed question.    College policy therefore dictates that both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally when discussed in a forum such as this.  That was not the case with this proposed event.  The notice sent out yesterday mentioned that there would be a response to Dr. Corvino by Dr. Dana Dillon of the Providence College Theology Department.  However, it has come to my attention that Dr. Dillon was asked just yesterday afternoon to provide that response.  While I applaud Dr. Dillon for her willingness to present on such a complex and controversial topic, 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.

The organizer of the proposed event was aware of College policy, and discussed a balanced presentation on the issue with members of the College Administration as far back as January of this year.  However, the organizer did not dialogue with the Administration as to his plans, the event was not developed along the lines dictated by policy, and the organizer did not secure approval from the Administration for his final event prior to sending the campus-wide email.  As such, I have made the decision to cancel the event.”

As far as any of us students know, and again, only a fistful of us received this email forwarded from professors, Dr. Corvino is an academic, not an advocate. He was coming to give an academic speech, not to receive an award for his principles.

The President of the school directly addressed and qualified the words of a liberal politician last semester as inherently valuable for fostering campus dialogue. But an academic is less than welcome, according to our Provost.

Recall, too, that there was no Theology Department representative who spoke after Whitehouse to reiterate the Catholic teachings. The policy, which I have been unable to locate despite a quick scan of our website, was not addressed in the President’s email.

This calls to question: does our Provost not believe that the Catholic Social Teaching disseminated by four semesters of DWC, two semesters of Philosophy and two semesters of Theology comprehensively combats the liberal agenda? If not, how many more semesters would be necessary in order for an academic speech such as this to stand alone.

Another facet of this is that a small army of queer freedom fighters didn’t organize the event. The event was sponsored by a collaboration of the following departments:

  • Black Studies
  • The Feinstein Institute
  • Global Studies
  • Philosophy
  • Pre-law
  • Public and Community Service
  • Sociology
  • Women’s Studies
  • Development of Western Civilization

So why now? Why one week before the event? Why only alert faculty? Why a speaker on (Gay) Marriage?

Because it’s not as if our Pope has just proclaimed we have been disproportionately fixated on legal issues. Nor, is it true that Rhode Island became the 13th state to issue LGBT inclusive marriage licenses back in August. Nor, for instance, was the campus’s LGBT support and information group, SHEPARD, just featured on the cover of the school’s newspaper for the strides it has made.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

On Thursday, in place of the event, Students will be holding a forum at 6:30 in the Aquinas Lounge (place and time the event would have taken place) to discuss the cancellation and the concept of Academic Freedom. We invite you to join us. 


8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Speakers

  1. Senator Whitehouse’s lecture was fundamentally different from this speech by Dr. Corvino. In quoting the email from Fr. Shanley above regarding senator Whitehouse, you left out a very important sentence:

    “I deeply disagree with some of Senator Whitehouse’s espoused positions. But that would not mean that I would bar him from speaking on campus in an area in which he has expertise that will enrich the learning of our campus and that does not conflict with the teaching of the Church.”

    Senator Whitehouse holds political positions against Catholic teaching, but they were not the topic of the lecture, and that is why Fr. Shanley supported his campus visit. Dr. Corvino’s lecture was specifically concerning gay marriage and he would be giving a speech completely contrary to Catholic teaching. According to Catholic teaching, gay marriage is OBJECTIVELY WRONG, and a Catholic institution has every right to prevent a lecture that would attempt to portray an objectively wrong action as right.

    Don’t compare Dr. Corvino’s lecture to Senator Whitehouse’s lecture. They’re not the same.

    • I would encourage you to write your own blog post on this so that more people do not fall into the trap of only hearing one (louder, more liberally charged) side of the story. Your point is extremely important, logical, and valuable. Please spread it.

  2. I think a lot of the students on this campus would like to know why the Catholic Church believes gay marriage is “OBJECTIVELY WRONG.” We should be able to back up our beliefs and have an open dialogue about these topics. If we don’t we are merely hiding behind our religion, not embracing it! Why cant we show the world through an academic portal why we follow these doctrines.

  3. Hasn’t the Catholic position on gay marriage been pretty well defined for the last THOUSAND years or so? So only having a day to rebut an invited speaker is insufficient?

    Thank you for this piece, Matt. You make me proud of my alma mater (especially when actions like that of the Administration make me less-than proud)

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