by Mattie Henry ’16
“Providence College has lost its way.” This is a sentiment often invoked by rabidly conservative professors, religious third parties, and zealous students looking to force its hand. These actors would like to see the school return to its roots, stoke the fire, and chisel the brimstone. They want Thomistic fundamentalism ardently exercised without restraint. And frequently, they write think pieces in the echo chambers of Catholic web designed to alarm the faithful and compel PC’s president into action.
To his credit, Father Shanley is a careful and mild man. In my personal experiences, I have found him to be shrewd, but capable of compassion. It is likely that this steadiness and business acumen has granted him his place at the helm for so many years.
And yet, there is a cost to this carefulness. While I was a student at PC, the school clumsily invited and uninvited a philosopher to speak about his work on the merits of same–sex marriage. In doing so they insulted the intelligence of members of their faculty, isolated queer students, and tarnished their standing in the media. It was a time where the school could have learned valuable lessons, but did not.
Now, an incident where a student who took it upon himself to post a display in a residence hall emphasizing the heterosexual nature of marriage has become the latest effort of the Religious Right to mercilessly use Church teachings to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” Students led by SHEPARD, PC’s organization for queer students and allies, held a demonstration Friday to claim their space in the community in the wake of these events. They took this opportunity to confess their experiences of exclusion and marginalization on campus, and to speak out against homophobia.
To be clear, the residence hall display is homophobic because its purpose is not to clarify that which is unclear. No one is confused about where the Church stands on this issue. Instead this action, which was free of Christian humility or charity, was designed to compel the school to codify exclusion. But Father Shanley, doing his best version of what he once described to me as a delicate dance, equated students speaking out against homophobia with the homophobia itself.
I had only ever existed in close knit Catholic communities until I graduated from PC. These communities create a sense of normalcy around Catholicism that is frankly bad for the faith. Catholicism is valuable to people because it is not normal. A Catholic looks at normal things, like sex, and says, “I have some ideas around how I should conduct myself sexually that might mean saying no to some forms of sex in order to bring me closer to the Kingdom.”
These choices are incredibly personal ones. And Catholics are especially called to let the choices themselves be the evidence of the good they see in them and to seek to understand before being understood.
And though this is the case, SHEPARD was not speaking out against Church teachings. That can be left to the majority of Catholics who already disagree with the Vatican’s position on sex, marriage, and family. They just want the same opportunities to exist, to learn, and to make their own sexual choices free from being shamed into compliance.
Queer people are an incredible social inconvenience, and our presence is blamed for a special form of discomfort in faith based environments. Our identities, our pronouns, our unreliable couplings, our erratic visibility, all incite fear based responses in those who wish to see a simpler world. We should not be held accountable for these responses, nor should we be charged as equally wrong in criticizing them.
Providence College is a key representative of the State of Rhode Island, and its impotence in dealing with Far Right Catholics reflects poorly on all of us who live here. No longer should the greater community accept these chronic issues from a key player in our lineup. Freedom of conscience is fundamental to both the Catholic faith and the State of Rhode Island.
To queer student leaders – I know from experience that the greatest pain does not come from the malicious comments that will follow this piece, but rather, from the pleas of peers asking you to be quieter, to protest less aggressively, and to be less visible. If they do not understand now, they will later. Keep doing good work. Leverage your voices.
Father Shanley is going to keep dancing his delicate dance. PC’s students should be supported by the greater community in their quest to change the music.