Fundamental moral principles

One from last September, that I missed – a Catholic college disinvited a scheduled speaker because it suddenly felt sick. Or something.

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Hmmmmmmmmmmm. Do their fundamental moral principles have any connection at all with things like civility to invited guests? Like not wantonly and gratuitously insulting and dehumanizing people for no good (in fact contemptible) reason? Do they even think about such things? Are they capable of it?

The lecturer, John Corvino, chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, in Detroit, has spoken previously at more than 10 Catholic colleges and often appears in friendly debates with religious opponents of gay marriage. His appearance at Providence College had been co-sponsored by nine departments and programs, and some of the organizers said the cancellation surprised them.

It’s rude, it’s unprofessional, it’s mean, it’s anti-intellectual, it’s an act in defiance of fundamental academic principles.

There has often been tension between the ideal of academic freedom and the mandate to uphold church teaching at Catholic colleges. When the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to give the commencement speech there in 2009, it set off widespread protests because of his support for abortion rights. Notre Dame stood firm. But Anna Maria College, a small Catholic school in Massachusetts, rescinded its commencement speech invitation to Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy and a supporter of gay marriage, after the local bishop objected.

It might as well be 1950s Ireland.

The event at Providence College was initially planned as a solo lecture, though Mr. Corvino said he suggested that it be a debate and provided the names of several potential sparring partners. Last week, the organizers added Dana L. Dillon, a theologian at Providence College, to present a response.

But Dr. Lena, the provost, said in an interview late Monday night that the event was canceled because it was largely a platform for only one side, and that it could be rescheduled if it included a philosophy professor with experience arguing against  gay marriage.

Fred K. Drogula, president of the faculty senate at Providence College and an associate professor of history, said he could not find a college policy dictating that every lecture must have an equal opposing viewpoint. And he said it was “inappropriate” to invoke the bishops’ document, “Catholics in Political Life,” because it applied primarily to politicians.

So there was an outcry, and, fortunately, the College re-invited its disinvited guest. Brian Leiter shares the letter Fred K. Drogula wrote to colleagues. Drogula, in turn, quotes from the college’s statement explaining its grotesque action:

Providence College’s respect for and commitment to academic freedom is articulated in its mission statement.   Academic freedom means that our faculty may pursue the truth in accord with the canons of their disciplines and share their findings in research and teaching without interference.  The nature of marriage is a matter about which our faculty has academic freedom.

The incident in question is thus not really about academic freedom, but rather goes to the meaning of being a Catholic college.  Should a Catholic college invite an outside speaker to campus, pay that person an honorarium, and give that person an unchallenged platform from which to present arguments designed to undermine a central tenet of the Catholic faith?  Our reading of Ex corde Ecclesiae is that to do so would be to undermine the very nature of a Catholic college.  Our interpretation is in accord with that of the United States Bishops Conference, which has asked Catholic institutions not to provide honors or platforms for speakers who advocate for positions inconsistent with Church teaching.

No platforms for speakers who advocate for positions inconsistent with Church teaching – so no feminists, for a start. No secularists, no atheists, no advocates for human rights as commonly understood.

One of Drogula’s objections:

That both documents invoke language in the publication Catholics in Political Life to cancel an academic presentation seems very dangerous to academic freedom, because the Administration seems to be declaring certain academic discussion to be ‘political’. Subjecting academic discussion to regulations reserved by the USCCB for politicians and political advocates seems not only wrong, but perhaps even insulting. We academics are bound by standards of intellectual honesty and the pursuit of truth and knowledge. We support our statements with evidence that we have scrutinized, we do our best to remove bias from our thinking, we invite the criticism of our peers, and we challenge each other when our logic and reasoning is weak. There is no need to subject our academic discussions to the restraints and limitations reserved for political advocates.

Especially when those restraints and limitations issue from the USCCB.


  1. Wylann says

    So as long as they can fall back on some obscure (to anyone but a hardcore catlick) source, it’s totally cool.

    Wonder what those writings say about hiding pedophile priests?

  2. Sastra says

    Many years ago atheist professor Dale McGowen taught at a Catholic woman’s college which prided itself on its feminism and its open-minded willingness to consider many views. He was even head of a campus freethinker’s club and so went through the standard procedures to have a guest lecturer: Annie Laurie Gaylor, president of FFRF, who was going to speak on women in freethought. Everything seemed to be going fine, posters were put up around campus and then — the very night before — word came down that the talk was cancelled. Apparently the liberal, open-minded administration which had made such ballyhoo about how Catholicism welcomed challenge … changed its mind. Cancelled.

    The decision backfired though. A woman was being prevented from speaking. The students who considered themselves both Catholic AND feminist staged a massive protest and Gaylor came and spoke at a coffee shop or something across the street to what was probably a larger crowd than there might have been.

    But poor Dale was disillusioned. He knew that Catholicism wasn’t really tolerant … but he had hoped the Catholics wouldn’t notice it.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    Wait – was he a gay professor of philosophy or was he a professor of gay philosophy? Perhaps THAT’s where the confusion lay O_O

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    Hmmm…I’d be willing to bet my soul there’s nothing in Catholic teachings about the merits and importance of democracy, either! Throughout the Bible, it’s monarchy all the way – and the Holy Mother Church has always supported monarchs and been itself organized as a monarchy. That has not changed.

    So…doesn’t that make Catholicism ITSELF inherently political? Oh dear…

  5. Al Dente says

    Blanche Quizno @4

    Pope Pius IX, who was pope in 1860 when the Papal States were annexed by Italy, excommunicated King Victor Emmanuel and all of his supporters for lèse-majesté against the ruler of the Papal States. Pius said that any Catholic voting in Italian elections was committing a mortal sin. This position was abandoned by Leo XIII in 1910 when it appeared the socialists would win the Italian national elections.

    Pius refused to leave the Vatican, claiming that he would be arrested if he left church property. Later, when it was obvious that the Italian authorities had no interest in arresting him, Pius visited several cities in Italy and Austria but still referred to himself as the “Prisoner in the Vatican.”

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