John talks with Fr. Paul Nicholson and hosts Charlie Langton and Taryn Asher about the Providence College debacle. Watch the full video here.
Yesterday evening I was informed that Providence College had “rescheduled” my event there—this time in the form of a debate with Sherif Girgis. The announcement was made in a statement from the provost.
The events of the last several days have been dizzying, and I would like to clear up the record on several matters.
First, on academic freedom, a concept that is easily distorted: I believe that a Catholic college—indeed, any college—has the right to choose speakers who comport with its mission. Obviously, academic freedom does not mean that I may speak wherever I want: I have to be invited.
I was invited to Providence College. On February 16 of this year Professor Christopher Arroyo, with the support of multiple departments, invited me to give a lecture on same-sex marriage, and we set a date for September 26. Last Saturday Provost Hugh Lena abruptly cancelled the lecture. So the concern here is not my academic freedom, but that of the nine Providence College department or program heads who were suddenly overruled by the provost, on the basis of a policy that he has since admitted is written nowhere. Moreover, Provost Lena decided that one of his own faculty members, Professor Dana Dillon, was unsuitable as a respondent for me. As Professor Fred Drogula, President of the Faculty Senate, pointedly asks, “Is the Administration henceforth to rule on whether and when each of us is prepared to speak in our areas of expertise?” (Drogula’s letter, which has been posted to Facebook, is worth reading in full.)
Second, notwithstanding the current spin from the Providence College administration, my event is not being rescheduled. It is being replaced with a different event.
In February I agreed that I would come to Providence to give a lecture, which would be followed by a Q&A period. Although Professor Arroyo and I had previously (last Fall) discussed the possibility of a debate, that idea was dropped for budgetary reasons. Then, just last week, I agreed to change the format so that I would have a lecture with an official respondent. Now, finally, I am being invited for a debate. These are three different kinds of academic events, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I have plenty of experience with all three, and (as I’ve long said) I’d be happy to do a debate at Providence College. What I’m not happy to do is to aid the administration in the pretense that “the September 26 event was merely being postponed, not cancelled, until we could be sure that it went forward in the format in which it was originally proposed,” as Provost Lena’s statement said yesterday.
While it is possible that what was proposed to me and what was proposed to the administration were entirely different events, Professor Arroyo assures me that this is not the case.
Last, but certainly not least, there is the personal side to all this.
In his “rescheduling” statement yesterday, Provost Lena (quite rightly) apologizes to Professor Arroyo and Professor Dillon. As for me, he simply says that the decision to cancel “had nothing to do with Dr. Corvino.” But of course, I am the person whose visit he abruptly canceled, in an e-mail sent on Saturday to faculty. In two decades of public speaking, at over 200 college campuses, I have never felt quite so bounced around.
Yesterday a friend asked me how I was doing, and I responded that the media attention was exhausting. “Yes,” he pressed, “But how are you doing? You were uninvited to speak. That seems hurtful, even if not intentionally personal.”
The truth is that it’s difficult not to feel as if the Providence College administration regards me as a sort of virus, which might infect students if not blocked by some administration-approved surgical mask. This feeling is sadly familiar, to me and to any gay person. It is the malaise of the closet, the notion that some features of oneself are unspeakable. I am the Other. And if I feel that way, I can only imagine how young gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Providence College students must feel. It is for them that I remain most concerned.
That’s where “damage control” should be focused right now: the personal harm to LGBT Providence College students, not to mention faculty, staff, and alumni. Pope Francis has called for a “new balance” in the Church’s pastoral ministry, and there is an opportunity—yet unrealized—to implement that balance here.
Back in February of this year I was extended an invitation to speak at Providence College, a Catholic college in Rhode Island. We agreed on a September 26 lecture date, and in the intervening months, I have corresponded regularly with the philosophy professor who had initially contacted me. As I understood it, my invitation was approved by various department heads whose units would co-sponsor the lecture, entitled “The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage.” The sponsoring units included the Black Studies Department, the Development of Western Civilization Program, The Feinstein Institute, the Global Studies program, the Philosophy Department, the Pre-Law Program, the Public and Community Service Department, the Sociology Department, and the Women’s Studies Program.
This past Saturday September 21 I was informed that my lecture had been suddenly cancelled. 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.”
Provost Lena’s invocation of Catholics in Political Life strikes me as misplaced. That statement arose in response to controversies surrounding the denial of Holy Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. The reference to “awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions” applies, for example, to allowing such politicians to present commencement addresses or to receive honorary degrees. By contrast, I am an academic speaker. Both the person introducing me and I would state clearly that my views were not those of the Catholic Church; moreover, a respondent from the Providence College theology department, Dr. Dana Dillon, would follow immediately to explain the Church’s position on marriage. Far from suggesting “support” for my views, the College would have ample opportunity to express precisely the opposite.
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.
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.
A Message from the Provost
“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.
Dr. Hugh Lena
The New York Times story on the cancellation is here.
John’s current Fall speaking calendar is posted on the calendar page.