PC students protest canceled marriage talk

After the fallout, the Board of Trustees amended the college’s anti-discrimiation policy

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When administrators at the Catholic Providence College canceled a lecture by a same-sex marriage advocate last month, students and faculty members unleashed a backlash that led to the university’s amending of its non-discrimination policy to include gender identity and sexual orientation. The debate over how to balance a religiously based education with academic freedom remains ongoing, as students hold discussions and protests in support of the school’s LGBTQ students.

Nine departments at the Catholic university had agreed to co-sponsor a talk by John Corvino, same-sex marriage advocate and philosophy professor at Wayne State University, on “The Meaning of Gay Marriage.” But Sept. 21, five days before the planned lecture, Provost Hugh Lena emailed the faculty announcing the lecture’s cancellation.

In his email, Lena quoted “Catholics in Political Life,” a document created by a coalition of U.S. bishops, which states, “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” He wrote that college policy required the event to include a presentation of the opposing viewpoint. Though Dana Dillon, professor of theology, had volunteered the previous week to give a response to Corvino’s lecture, Lena wrote that Dillon did not have enough time to prepare.

Several days later, Lena announced that the Corvino lecture would be rescheduled for the spring semester as a debate with Sherif Girgis, a Princeton doctoral candidate studying philosophy, according to a press release from Providence College.

Many Providence College students said they disagree with the administration’s decision to cancel the event, but they understand the complexity of the issue at hand.


Activists demand policy change

When students in a Public Community Service Studies class called “Community Organizing” learned the event was canceled, they decided they would hold an event on academic freedom to bring attention to the issue, said Omar Terrones, a sophomore in the class.

The event was held Sept. 26, the date the original event was scheduled to take place, and drew about 300 people. After six students gave speeches objecting to the lecture’s cancellation, students participated in small group discussions about same-sex marriage and academic freedom before sharing their thoughts in an open forum. Students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender publicly criticized the cancellation.

“PC was their home, and they felt like their own home didn’t want them here,” Terrones said. “Everyone was happy that they were able to speak up and say what they felt.”

The faculty senate voted to approve a resolution criticizing the decision to cancel the lecture, the Providence Journal reported.

The following Wednesday, President of the College Brian Shanley sent an apology to the student body, expressing regret for upsetting students and encouraging dialogue about the apparent conflict between the values of the church and academic freedom.

“Speaking for the administration, it is plain to me in hindsight that we did not respond in the right way. There was a better way to address this difficult issue that we did not find. I take responsibility for that mistake,” Shanley wrote in the email.

Later that day, students in the “Community Organizing” course emailed administrators demanding the school invite Corvino back to deliver his lecture and to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the school’s non-discrimination policy, Terrones said.

The student congress and faculty senate voted last year to change the college’s non-discrimination policy statement, but the Board of Trustees had yet to approve it, said Catherine Jones, a senior at Providence College. If the demands were not met by Friday at 5 p.m., the students wrote in their email, they planned to hold a silent demonstration that Saturday during a celebration honoring the opening of a new campus building, Terrones said.

On Friday at about 3:30 p.m., Shanley announced that the school’s Board of Trustees had amended the policy to protect students of all gender identities and sexual orientations from discrimination on campus, Terrones said.

“We were happy because we finally got through to the administration and we saw that it was slowly progressing and getting better, and we canceled the silent demonstration,” Terrones said.


Striving for balance

Many students said they are pleased with the way the administration handled the aftermath of the cancellation.

Kristen Cavaliere said though she does not approve of the cancellation, she thinks the administration sufficiently apologized. “At the end of the day, I do love my school,” Cavaliere said. “We stand behind what the school decides.”

Other students said the administration only apologized due to media pressure.

“It’s a good response, but I feel it was because of the New York Times,” said Jad Touma, a first-year at Providence College who learned of the cancellation after he saw an article about it in the Times.

Ariana Greco, a sophomore at Providence College, said she understands why the administration wanted to balance Corvino’s lecture with an opposing viewpoint. “You have to respect that some (people) don’t accept same-sex marriage.” But she added that there was no reason to cancel the event because Dillon had already agreed to present the response.

Terrones and Jones said students are still waiting for the administration to provide details about the spring debate.

“I’m going to be skeptical until I have a date and time in my planner,” Jones said.


Catholic and LGBTQ?

The controversy over Corvino’s lecture brought attention to the question of what it means to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer at Providence College.

“(The cancellation of) this event was certainly a hard blow to take for many of the community and for their supporters as well,” said Kathryn Stephen, a sophomore at Providence College.

Terrones, who identifies as queer, said LGBTQ students usually do not face discrimination among their peers at the college.

As of last year, Stopping Homophobia, Eliminating Prejudice and Restoring Dignity, the school’s 11-year-old gay-straight alliance, became an official subgroup of the Board of Multicultural Affairs, said Jones, vice president of the group. The group includes more than 30 regular members and regularly hosts events to educate the campus about gay rights issues, Jones said.

In recent years, several Catholic universities throughout the country have begun officially recognizing LGBTQ student groups and starting LGBTQ centers. The University of Notre Dame inaugurated its first gay-straight alliance this fall.

Pope Francis has called on members of the church to be more accepting, a move that has pressured schools to reform, the USA Daily News reported.

On Sept. 19, two days before Lena announced the cancellation of the Corvino lecture, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church should focus less on condemning homosexuality and abortion.

Father Henry Bodah, Brown’s Catholic chaplain, said the pope did not voice approval of gay relations but rather advocated for greater acceptance of gay people.

“There is a difference between a gay person and gay actions. It’s nice to hear it put in a positive way. It signals a change of tone more than a change in teaching,” Bodah said.

The compatibility of religion with homosexuality and queerness is a matter of national debate, and Providence College students take different stances.

“I honestly think it’s easy. My aunt is a lesbian and I go to church with her,” Cavaliere said, adding that while parts of the Bible teach that homosexuality is wrong, other parts teach that all righteous people will be saved, and it is up to the individual to choose an interpretation.

Others said that while they do not condone same-sex marriage, they do not want to judge people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

“I’m not completely for it, but I’m not going to tell people that their lifestyle choice is wrong,” Greco said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *