Op-Ed: Providence College and Others Must Return to the Church

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Editor’s note: Last month, a student and Residence Assistant at Providence College in Rhode Island posted material on a campus bulletin board that affirmed the Church’s teaching on marriage. “LGBT” students reacted with menacing behavior–including an apparent rape threat–and an LGBT pride march on campus.

College administrators scolded the faithful Catholic student, and failed to condemn his opponent’s behavior for weeks. Catch up on the whole story here and here. Below is an op-ed by Michael Smalanskas, the whistle-blowing student at the center of the scandal at Providence College.

What’s next?

A few weeks ago, Providence College administrators stood idly by while I was threatened and harassed for promoting Church teaching on marriage.

Last week the College of the Holy Cross protected a professor whose writings about Jesus as a “drag queen” with “queer tendencies” came to light.

Bishops intervened in both cases and the presidents of each institution resisted. These colleges are on the same trajectory, one just slightly behind the other, and every faithful Catholic should be concerned about where this trend could be leading.

Countless times I have found myself praying in the back of St. Dominic chapel at Providence College when a tour of prospective students comes through. Without fail, each time some version of the question is asked, “How Catholic is Providence College?”

And without fail, the response from the tour-guide is inevitably the same: “It’s there if you want it, but otherwise you won’t be affected by it.” The parents and students often seem relieved.

There’s a truth and a lie to what the tour-guide has likely been told by the college to say to that question. The truth is that besides crucifixes on the walls in most buildings and two required theology courses for each student, one can leave Providence College largely untouched by Catholicism if that’s what one wants. And many do.

The lie is that, while the college might be a failing Catholic college that hides its identity, it still really is a Catholic college. And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy.

Even before students begin their coursework here, they’ve been told that they will not be confronted by the teachings of the Catholic Church in a meaningful way.

If, like me, you are one of the students who goes out of his way to find and discuss those teachings, you may well be outed as some kind of far-right religious zealot.

In a college atmosphere that continually reinforces the idea that students should not be confronted with Church teaching, the kind of reaction seen in recent weeks to a bulletin board about heterosexual marriage as the way God intended it is entirely understandable.

Students at Catholic colleges like mine have been set up. It’s not the students’ fault but rather the college’s. When the faith is constantly watered-down to empty platitudes about “love” and “welcoming”, that is all people come to expect.

Having been darkly warned about the Church teaching that lurks safely contained within the chapel, who can blame them if they treat it with indignation and hostility when they encounter it in the public square?

I’ve been told repeatedly, concerning the bulletin board, that it was maliciously uncharitable to just “toss out” part of the Church’s teaching like a bomb without fully accounting for context.

I’m told it needs to be laced with cushions about the dignity of the human person. This is the other lie perpetuated by the college. They’ve set up a false dichotomy between human dignity and the Church’s teachings on marriage.

By the way, why does nobody charge the LGBTQ warriors with the same accusation about context? Not only do they not “contextualize” their stance, they are most often not even able to provide a half-decent rational explanation for their position besides exhausted slogans like “love is love.”

The professors at Providence College who produced a statement in my support said it best:

We reject the notion that the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage … presents a threat to the wellbeing of homosexual persons. Rather, those teachings… aim at the flourishing of all persons.

It is not that Church teaching needs to somehow be contextualized by references to love and dignity. Rather, its teachings on marriage and sexuality follow necessarily from the dignity of a being created in the image of God.

In fact, the Church’s teachings on marriage and the dignity of the human person are inseparable. One contains the other and they are certainly not at odds.

Likewise, diversity and inclusivity should not be pitted against Catholicism. The Church has proven Herself throughout time and space to be the world’s most multicultural institution and is supremely equipped to handle such matters if colleges are willing to dip into Her vast treasury of wisdom and experience.

As long as Catholic colleges continue to dispense the lie that their students will not be impacted by Catholicism, they will alienate their Catholic base and set up non-Catholics for failure.

As long as Catholic colleges set up a false opposition between Church teaching and the human good they will continue to see a campus embroiled in confused rage.

As it is, those who profess Church teaching and care about an authentic Catholic identity are not protected, while those who actively work against the college’s mission are empowered. Catholic institutions of higher learning cannot go on like this.

The antidote is to finally give students what they deserve from a Catholic college or university. Give them an intellectually compelling account of what the Church teaches and why. Even if they don’t agree with it, they will at least have enough exposure to know and respect it and the college will have done its job.

It should have been easy for Providence College to quickly denounce the behavior of LGBTQ activist students last month, and to proudly proclaim the constant and unchanging teaching of the Church. Perhaps the college’s hesitancy was partly due to the fact that the ugly behavior was a monster they themselves had created, and they could not very well denounce it without denouncing themselves.

But denounce they should. That is real charity.

Likewise, Holy Cross should have taken immediate action against the professor who blasphemed. But they will not and they cannot because it does not fit their narrative.

It is only a matter of time until we see the next Catholic college in the news for allowing some other unspeakable behavior to go on. Administrators will probably continue to tow the middle line and end up hurting people on both sides.

Sadly, that is the pattern of what it means to be a Catholic school these days.  

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Stephen Herreid is Managing Editor Online at CatholicVote.org, and Executive Producer and Host of the CatholicVote Radio Hour. He is a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHerreid.

20 Comments

  1. The author here, if I read correctly, is indicating a required class in Catholic Theology.

    OK.

    They can add that to the curriculum.

  2. I read up on the coverage.

    The author here is an agent of the school, in that he is a resident assistant. RA’s typically get a break on, if not full waiver of, housing fees for the term as a quid pro quo for assuming RA duties.

    In any event, as a former college student in the 1980’s, I was not free to adorn university-owned bulletin boards with anything I felt worthy of note at any given time. Posted bills had to be approved.

    Did the author assume this use of university property of his own volition?

    Please note that I am not quibbling with the content-I am simply trying to determine how clean the author’s hands are in this instance. If he has a belief that he controls college property by his fiat, I have less wonder than before as to why his communications with school administration may be strained.

    • Rob Schroeder on

      According to the Providence school newspaper, there were no standards at the time regarding bulletin board postings.
      https://www.thecowl.com/news/bulletin-board-controversy
      The article leaves questions unanswered that Ram has brought up, though. Is the bulletin board the sole domain of the RA, or the people who live in the dorm? If the bulletin board is not the sole domain of the RA, then it seems that those who took down what the RA put up where just as much within their rights to display, or not display, information on the bulletin board as the RA was in displaying his information.
      If the bulletin board is the domain of the RA, so be it, but it doesn’t seem like that was the policy at the time.
      I have a hard time buying an argument of free speech or expression when one is apparently attempting to solely use a channel of speech that is accessible to all, and then claiming others do not have a right to use that same channel for free speech or expression.

      • The one who elects to vandalize is never in the right.

        That being said, it appears here that the student is taking the route of imploring the school to defend his speech. The school did admonish the vandals.

        Whether or not the board itself was the sole domain of the RA, I do believe that the RA acts as an agent of the school; they can write you up for violations of dorm rules, etc.

        Since Providence College apparently does NOT require an oath of fealty to Catechism on SSM as a prerequisite to admission, the RA here was making a personal statement which he now, post-facto, demands the school endorse in some fashion while blithely ignoring his position as an agent of said school.

        His RA position is operative in how he his act has been viewed by school administration, IMO.

        • Rob Schroeder on

          Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but was the board actually vandalized? I guess I would draw a distinction between “the material was removed” and vandalized. At least according to the Cowl story, the material was taken down by other students in the dorm.
          Given that there were no regulations regarding the usage of bulletin boards, it would seem that the RA has just as much of free speech rights to the board as others do. Obviously there’s a need for some sort of process here.

          • I just saw “vandalized”. I’ll stipulate to “removed” if that’s all there was. The graffito noted is different; that’s a personal attack on a student and should be dealt with as is customary there.

            RE: his free speech rights-I assume (assume) that there are matters of mutual agreement RE: being an RA that are codifed. If not, sounds like time for that.

  3. James Marinelli on

    I have been on three recent tours of Providence College with my son who will enter the college in the fall. The message that this student says was given in St. Dominic’s chapel is not the one that we heard on any of our three tours. We were told, quite specifically, that the college is unapologetically Catholic. We were told that close to 75% of students were Catholic and we were directed to take a copy of the Mass and confession schedules that were available in a kiosk in the rear of the chapel. I am not saying this author is lying but I would like to correct his version of what happens on tours with three random tours that I have attended within the last year. I am confident that my son will have a wonderful experience of Catholicism on this campus and we know that he will also have some exposure to the kinds of thinking that pervade much of the world. Both my wife and I have heard many of the people he complains about speak and we feel that they present a wholesome and balanced approach to education in the Catholic tradition. I don’t know what this man was expecting to encounter at a college in the United States but he certainly seems jaded.

    • Locate and read the last several letters written by the presidents of the college trying to explain away all this while equivocating in fear that a clear statement of catholic teachings would offend the so many who may not be willing to accept such. If after a careful reading of the letters released by the administration, you remain in your belief that PC is unapoligetically Catholic, I would wonder how you would define Catholic. The college has gone overboard in the belief that a diverse sea of beliefs is the basis for the milieu of a sound education. The diversity mantra is strangling so many Catholic institutions. Matters such as homosexual lifestyle, same sex marriage, and the like are either accepted as Catholic teaching or they are not. This does not mean that such believers as individuals are not accepted by the Church, but to fail to state what Catholic teaching is on these matters, is more than equivocation; it is dishonesty at best and cowardice more likely. And to think of the irony that our once golden motto was Veritas. It is now and has become Ignavia et Pusillanimus.
      Bruce Olean, class of 1966

      • James Marinelli on

        I am merely reporting what I have seen and witnessed. I have no intention nor desire to go hunting for some letters that were not addressed to me to make my assessment. My family will be attending the Mass for the Class of 2022 tomorrow and I will certainly keep my ears open for any denial of Catholicism but I seriously doubt there will be any. In fact, I’m sure the liturgy will be perfect. Maybe you should consider attending Bruce so you can see what good is still being done by your alma mater.

  4. Why any publication would give air time to a histrionic 22 year old with an axe to grind against a major Catholic college is beyond me. Stephen Herreid just lost our family of long time listeners and readers who are all proud PC graduates.

  5. You may characterize him as a whistle blower. The reality is that is that he is blowing a whistle that only the dogs can hear, selling his story to sad little publications that have few followers and fewer still who are interested in this boy’s sophomoric rantings.

  6. I attended Mass at Providence College a month ago and I can attest to a holy and vibrant Catholic community of young people. I surely have no idea what Michael’s experience of Catholicism has been at the college but he seems to be focused on the negative rather than the beauty of the community with all of its very natural human flaws and frailties. I will keep this young man in my prayers that he finds a balm for his soul and a more realistic idea of what it means to be church.

  7. Why is your publication allowing this ridiculous young man to have a tantrum on your page? This reads like a spoiled child who doesn’t play well with others unless everyone does things his way.

  8. Michael should grow up and realize that organizations a human and this flawed. Every Catholic parish, every Catholic school and every Catholic college has flaws. Being so judgmental about Providence just makes him look like a foolish person.

  9. If Smalanskas really wanted to make a difference with the formation of his dorm mates it seems to me that he wouldn’t just keep putting up the same bulletin board over and over again. Instead he would probably have talked to them. He claims that the adminstesfion won’t dialogue with him about this and yet he, who was also a college employee, failed to dialogue with residents of his dorm. I’m sure that’s why all of this occurred. He stoked the situation to try to diminish PC’s status as a Catholic college. His game is obvious and disturbing. Phony whistleblowers like this are seldom successful especially as they devolve into begging for interviews.

    • I agree with the approach you suggest. Christian charity requires human interaction. This is probably why the bishop corrected him and told him to be more charitable and to use prudence in his approach. I think he should have lost his job as an RA for doing it in an ineffective way and continuing to try to cause disruption. That has to be grounds for dismissal.

  10. No comments from the college directly to the media about this issue tells me all Ineed we about this story. I think this is an attention seeking young who cannot be satisfied. This little perceived injustice occurred more than a month ago and he is still requesting media coverage. Catholic Vote, you are like a second run movie by running this story and interview. The show was over 30 days ago.

  11. I have followed this story since it appeared in some RI Catholic publications and withheld judgment at the time because, despite the fact that I support the cause of traditional marriage, something felt off about this situation. More than a month removed and now with a lot of video coverage of this young man, it appears to me that he is just beating a drum for a cause and that cause has less to do with being a good Catholic and more to do with self-agrandizement.

  12. Did the college really stand idly by while you were harassed?
    Aren’t you deliberately being inflammatory to make a more provocative case?
    That is what I suspect here. Mike stated in many other publications that he was provided with a safe dorm room and several meetings with administration. He also reports that none of the meetings were satisfactory to him. The college would not do what he commanded so he began a media crusade to defame the good people of Providence College. One look at this boy’s interview reveals a warped personality convinced that he is some kind of martyr. In the eyes of most, he is on a fools errand and will do little to advance the work or reputation of the Catholic Church in the world. Step off Mike and let the people who know how to do the Catholic thing keep on doing it, you know, those people you are bashing all over America.

  13. Catholic colleges long ago made a choice to accept federal and state funds (i.e., taxpayer dollars). By doing so, they are obliged to make their institutions welcoming to everyone. No one should be threatened for their beliefs. By the same token, posting materials that seek to isolate and/or exclude people on either side of the divide should not be tolerated. The LGBT community is not seeking to stop heterosexuals from marrying. They are merely looking for their relationships to be included in the institution. That’s why a post challenging their equality becomes more than a mere point of contention.It’s telling them their relationships don’t belong in the institution of marriage, nor do they themselves belong in the institution.

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