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.