Friday, March 16, the Ocean State Current broke news of a cartoon found in the dorm of a residential assistant (RA) at Providence College, which is a Roman Catholic institution. Michael Smalanskas, of Holden, Massachusetts, had found himself the target of protest after he used a bulletin board to promote the Catholic understanding of marriage, as exclusively between a man and a woman.
On Sunday, a multidisciplinary group of Providence College professors released a statement calling upon the school’s administration to “state clearly and publicly that both the content of the bulletin board that Michael Smalanskas posted and his posting of it are consistent with the Catholic mission of the college.” On Monday, the college’s president, Rev. Brian Shanley, released a statement that did so, at least technically, while appearing to put both sides of the “disputed question” of marriage on an equal footing.
Public argumentation after Smalanskas posted his bulletin board has centered around his motivation. In answer to this question, earlier this morning, The Current received a photograph of another bulletin board allegedly posted in an all-girls dorm that promoted same-sex marriage and, in particular, lesbian relationships. While The Current waited for a statement from the college administration, LifeSiteNews published an article in which Smalanskas reports that the “pro-lesbian bulletin board [had been] up for the entire month of February.”
According to the school’s Web site, all freshman housing is in single-sex dormitories. Among the questions that The Current posed to the administration was whether the college has any policies bearing on the promotion of lesbianism in the girls’ dormitories. A failure to discourage the promotion of same-sex intimacy might run contrary to the rationale for separating housing by sex.
Earlier today, The Current also received a copy of an email from Providence College Vice President for Student Affairs Kristine Cyr Goodwin sent to the Residence Life email list on Wednesday, March 14 (full text below). In the message, Goodwin references “complaints about at least two boards—describing them as ‘inconsistent with the Mission of Providence College,’ but for different reasons,” apparently referencing the above board and the one posted by Smalanskas. However, the remainder of the message clearly addresses the disagreement over Smalanskas.
Goodwin implies that the message of Smalanskas’s board — while “in and of itself … consistent with the Church’s teaching” — might have “detrimental consequences” when “taken out of context.” She also quotes a statement from Pope Francis, saying that the Church should “say it is sorry to the gay person it has offended,” among other groups.
Goodwin also encouraged the RAs and others on the list to march in a pro-LGBT rally. Although vaguely encouraging her readers to meet with “someone whom you know has different beliefs,” Goodwin did not present any concrete or public opportunity for those disagreeing with the Church’s teachings on marriage to illustrate respect for believers as people.
The full text of Goodwin’s message follows:
Dear Student Leaders (of Residence Life, Student Congress, and BMSA),
I am writing to you, as student leaders, because Dean Sears, Jana Valentine, Fr. Pivarnik, Dean Gaffney, Dean Bevely and I have met with a number of students who have expressed serious concerns about their own and others’ well-being—to us and to each other. Your call for the administration to act was received, but there is wide disagreement about what such action(s) entails. I write to affirm some fundamental truths and to provide you with information you may need, or at least find helpful, as we collaborate on how to move forward.
First and foremost, I believe we need to treat each other with respect at all times. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity whether or not we agree with their point of view. People should resist the urge to vilify one another in words or actions. Vilification of any person or group further divides our community, can have a chilling effect on honest communication, and prevents us from understanding each other.
Second, the purpose and functioning of RA bulletin boards is not clearly and specifically articulated. Consider that over the last two weeks the Office of Residence Life received complaints about at least two boards—describing them as “inconsistent with the Mission of Providence College”, but for different reasons. We recognize that this needs to be addressed. To that end I have asked Dean Sears and Jana Valentine to work in collaboration with student leaders because you are well suited to explore this issue and assist us. If you are interested in serving on a task force, please let one of them know.
The RA who posted the bulletin board that has resulted in controversy described his intentions as informing students about the Roman Catholic teaching on the sacrament of marriage while promoting the College’s Catholic values. While there is disagreement about the effectiveness of using a bulletin board to do this, the message in and of itself is consistent with the Church’s teaching.
In the context of our larger response, Fr. Pivarnik and I tried to explain that this is only part of the Church’s teaching. In discussing all of this with my colleagues—students, faculty, Dominicans and other administrators—I was reminded that at Providence College we simultaneously hold together the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of marriage and the teaching on the dignity of every human person. This is not easy to do here at Providence College or in the Church more broadly. As we have seen in recent days, when any part of the Church’s teaching is taken out of context, it can have detrimental consequences, especially if it ends up alienating people from the truth that it serves. Therefore we must work earnestly toward deeper mutual understanding and the inclusion of all within the wide embrace of God’s love and mercy.
Perhaps the following two quotes will help further our understanding and provide context:
On the way home from Armenia, in a conversation with a group of reporters who asked Pope Francis about whether he agreed with a statement made by a Cardinal, he is reported to have said, “We Christians must say we are sorry . . . I think the church not only must say it is sorry to the gay person it has offended, but also to the poor, to exploited women [and anyone whom the church did not defend when it could].”
Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. former master of the Dominican Order and author of A New Way of Being Church: Pope Francis encourages us to be comfortable with uncertainty (September 2013) wrote “ . . . [Pope Francis] also sees the Christian mission as offering [a] healing gaze to others. He is touched by seeing how individuals live. When he addresses the question of welcoming gay people in the church, he says, ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ If we dare to really see people, in their dignity and humanity, then we shall discover the right words to say. Who knows where this will take us?”
I sincerely hope others will join me in committing to studying, to really listening, and to being in dialogue so that we can be informed and effective allies and educators. One way to do this is to walk in solidarity with SHEPARD next Wednesday, March 21st, promoting unity, affirmation, and inclusion even amidst controversy. Another way is to ask someone whom you know has different beliefs than you to meet so that you may listen to their perspective. As you know, inspired by Dr. Bernice A. King’s challenge to actively promote our shared humanity, we are currently engaged in a series of initiatives that we believe will bring us closer to the ideal of the “beloved community.” A student leader recently reminded us that stories about acts of kindness can be found at #Friars50Forward as well as posted in Slavin Center.
Finally, I offer you a quote that I have been contemplating this Lenten season. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Viktor E. Frankl M.D., Ph.D, neurologist, psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor). When we see, read, or hear something that causes us to have a strong emotional reaction, we have the power to pause and choose a “response” that is consistent with who we are and claim to be. I hope we have the strength to resist hurting each other any more than we already have.
I pray for civil discourse and healing, and look forward to when we can share knowledge and narrative absent fear.
Thank you for your openness and consideration.