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Professor John Corvino, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University and a nationally known supporter of same-sex marriage, was scheduled to deliver a lecture entitled "The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage" on September 26, 2013. On September 20, the lecture was abruptly cancelled by the college's provost. Whereas the administration of Providence College displayed both intolerance and intellectual insecurity, Corvino responded with his customary grace and professionalism. Moreover, the imbroglio brought new media attention to him and his message.
One day after Pope Francis's admonition about the need for the Catholic Church to cease its obsession with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, the provost of Providence College, a Catholic college in Rhode Island, announced the cancellation of Corvino's lecture, which had been arranged several months in advance and was sponsored by nine departments and programs. As Laurie Goodstein reports in the New York Times, in cancelling the lecture the provost cited a church document that says that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
As Corvino pointed out in a post on his blog, the provost's invocation of "Catholics in Political Life" is 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."
The document was not meant to apply to academic speakers. Moreover, no one who attended the lecture would assume that Corvino's position was that of the Roman Catholic Church. As Corvino explains, "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."
Even more astonishingly, another reason the provost gave for the cancellation was that both sides of a controversial issue needs to be presented. Yet one of his own faculty members was scheduled to counter Corvino's view. He obviously lacked confidence in his own theological faculty to defend Catholic teaching. And for all his lip service about allowing both sides of the issue to be presented, it was his decision to censor Corvino that would have prevented students at Providence College from hearing both sides of the issue.
The actions of the administration in rescinding the invitation to Corvino did not bring credit to Providence College or inspire confidence in either its academic quality or commitment to free inquiry.
Indeed, the reaction to the cancellation was so negative, on campus as well as off, that late on September 25 the provost claimed that he wanted only to postpone the lecture rather than ban Corvino. As Scott Jaschik reported in Inside Higher Education, "Alumni and others have posted many critical comments on the college's Facebook page, a new group called 'Fighting for Academic Freedom' was created, and petition drives have been launched. Facebook posts said that the college was treating its students like sixth-graders. One critic asked: 'Hey Providence College, when is the next scheduled book burning?'
The provost has offered Corvino an opportunity to appear later with an anti-gay speaker, Sherif Girgis, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Princeton University.
Although the cancellation of his lecture was insulting to Corvino and, no doubt, painful for him, it has had the altogether positive effect of bringing attention to Corvino and his message of marriage equality.
In a Facebook post on September 24, Corvino said, "Providence College has done wonders for my media exposure. In the last 24 hours I've talked to The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Huffington Post, the Providence Journal, the Detroit Free Press, a half dozen radio producers (I'm about to go on WPRO with former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci), and MSBNC (which may have me on "Last Word" tomorrow or Thursday night)."
Corvino is the author of the book What's Wrong with Homosexuality?, which was published by Oxford University Press in March. (Spoiler alert: the answer posed by the title is "Nothing.")
He is also featured in numerous YouTube videos in which he tackles various philosophical questions posed by homosexuality and the struggle for equal rights. The videos reveal a thoughtful and witty teacher who is able to explain philosophical issues succinctly and clearly.
In the video below, Corvino asks, "Is Homosexuality Unnatural?"