By Sydney Gayton ’23
On Thursday, March 31, PC for Life, which is overseen by Campus Ministry, hosted a discussion by Emily Albrecht titled, “Understanding and Responding to ‘My Body, My Choice.’” The biggest issue with the event is that it dealt with how pro-life individuals should respond to dissenting, pro-choice arguments, but these dissenting arguments are not allowed to be expressed on campus. No pro-choice activists or voices would be allowed to speak on the issue unless a pro-life side was also offered. Thus, even by holding an event that claims to foster inclusive conversations, there is no opportunity for inclusion as one side is forced to remain silent.
Even Albrecht herself recognized that this issue needs to be treated as a dialogue between both sides. She commended pro-choice individuals for attending the event and seeking to understand, or at least listen to, a side that they do not agree with, as this is how productive conversations occur. The point of her discussion, in her own words, was to “promote less hate, and more dialogue,” something that would be successful if the College were to invite dissenting voices to join the conversation.
PC’s mission statement states that “the pursuit of truth has intrinsic value…and the search for truth is the basis for dialogue with others and critical engagement with the world.” It also states that the College “honors academic freedom, promotes critical thinking and engaged learning, and encourages a pedagogy of disputed questions.” However, the College does not appear truly devoted to this pedagogy as it has a history of not welcoming speakers who would actually encourage debate and allow PC students to think critically in pursuit of the truth.
In 2013, after canceling a talk by John Corvino on gay marriage (which was later postponed), then president Fr. Brian Shanley, O.P., stated that if the College “brings someone in to argue against the veracity of the church, there is an obligation to make sure it does not go unopposed.” This argument is often cited when speakers are not allowed to come to campus or events are campus, but Dr. Christopher Arroyo of the philosophy department, in the same year, explained that the ‘policy’ “requiring a speaker to present the Catholic church’s stance on controversial topics was revealed to be a practice, not a written policy, of the College.”
Student Congress in 2007, following the permanent cancellation of The Vagina Monologues at PC by Fr. Shanley, passed legislation entitled SSC57-01, which stated, “It is the sentiment of the Student Congress that suppression of academic, social, or other materials, under any auspices, religious or otherwise, is antithetical to the mission of the College, and unacceptable to its student body.” While this legislation does not carry much weight today, it represented mass student opposition to the censorship of certain voices.
Unfortunately, the interests of many students do not always align with the interests of the College’s Catholic identity. Bishop of the Diocese of Providence, Thomas J. Tobin, urged PC to remain vigilant against the politically correct mindset in society. He asked, will PC “simply be p.c.- politically correct, the pathetic, ephemeral fashion that has…taken such an ironclad grip on our culture?” This description of politically correct as “pathetic” is consistent with how PC has been treating some of these controversial issues, namely abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
Censorship of voices which oppose Catholic teaching is not a new trend at the College. In 1976, as part of a Sexuality Forum held at the College, no gay people were allowed to speak at a talk on the subject of homosexuality. Nearly 50 years later, this trend continues, even when speakers are not presenting on controversial subject matters which oppose Catholic teaching.
In the fall of 2020, the College was faced with an incident in which they were forced to question their “political correctness.” When Dr. Spencer Klavan, a classicist and host of the Young Heretics podcast, was invited to campus by the Humanities Forum, students were concerned about the hateful messaging he shares on his Twitter page. In his announcement to the Providence College community that the event would proceed as scheduled, provost Sean Reid said, “As a College committed to free expression of diverse viewpoints, canceling speakers who express beliefs with which we may disagree sets a dangerous precedent.” This is certainly true to an extent; so long as a speaker does not challenge the established ideas of the Church, they will be invited to speak in front of the student body, even if they have a history of hateful speech.
As Sean Gray ’21 noted in a letter to the editor after Klavan’s talk was allowed to occur, the College is actually rather selective when it comes to who is allowed to express themselves on campus. Gray cited an previous incident in which the College rejected a talk by a group called Speak About It on sexual assault and consent because they listed Planned Parenthood as a resource on their website. As Gray said in his article, “Planned Parenthood had nothing to do with the topic at hand, but the mere affiliation apparently warranted a rejection.”
Although neither talk was on controversial topics or subjects antithetical to the Catholic Church, Speak About It’s vague association with Planned Parenthood was grounds for the group’s event being canceled, while Klavan’s public racist and hateful comments were ignored. Had his event been held in person instead of over Zoom, there would have been an opportunity for students to debate with Klavan. By canceling Speak About It’s event, students had no opportunity for debate, discussion, or learning.
It is not only school-sanctioned events or speakers that cause controversy; student actions on campus have been treated differently depending on whether or not they are in support of Catholic teaching. In 2000, three students were suspended for creating a flier that depicted an image of the Virgin Mary that read, “How’s this for an immaculate concept: Keep Abortion Safe and Legal.” Each student was fined $1,000, suspended for the rest of the semester, and none of their work from earlier in the semester was counted. PC officials stated that they were punished for not receiving permission from Student Life before hanging the signs up and also for allegedly “violat[ing] the college’s expectations for student conduct,” according to Rev. Philip Smith, O.P., president of PC at the time.
In 2018, St. Joseph’s Hall R.A. Michael Smalanskas posted a bulletin board in the dorm which said, “Marriage: The Way God Intended It…One Man, One Woman” with Bible quotes and images. Despite sparking outrage and controversy on campus from many members of the student body, there does not appear to have been any formal punishments from the College, unlike in 2000. The lack of administrative action against Smalanskas suggests that the punishment of the three students in 2000 may have resulted more from the content of the flier than the fact that the students did not get permission from Student Life.
Albrecht’s talk reminds the student body that they are only receiving the thoughts that PC supports. Yes, it is a Catholic Institution, but if the College wants its students to pursue the truth through discourse and disputation, dissenting voices and speakers should also be welcomed onto campus. The College simply needs to extend its “freedom of expression” policies to all voices. Or else why would Albrecht need to teach us about responding to dissenting voices if those voices are not allowed on our campus?