Providence College: Catholic or Counter-Catholic?

A college president’s peculiar remarks.

In an essay of mine from last week, I brought to readers’ attention the painful fact—particularly painful from this Catholic’s perspective—that even traditionally religious institutions of higher learning have succumbed to the leftist, Politically Correct ideology that dominates much of the Western academic world.

I mentioned the case of Michael Smalanskas, a Providence College senior and Resident Advisor who, while acting within his job description, created an exhibit on a dormitory bulletin board affirming the Church’s teaching that marriage is inherently heterosexual and monogamous: “Marriage…As God Intended It: One Man, One Woman.”

The theme of the display was buttressed by select Biblical quotations as well as quotations from Pope Francis.

It’s also worth noting that Smalanskas constructed his display approximately a month after other students created a display celebrating “gay marriage.”  Yet while the latter—at this Catholic college—encountered zero unpleasant consequences of any kind for their advocacy of a stance radically at odds with that of the Catholic vision that is the mission of their school to further, Smalanskas was subjected to harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence, including rape.  Things got so bad that at one point security had to move him from his residence on campus to an undisclosed location.

When Smalanskas and his faculty advisor met with the college’s administration and asked for them to publicly reaffirm Providence’s Catholic identity, publicly underscore that Smalanskas’ perspective on marriage is the Catholic perspective, and publicly and unequivocally disavow the treatment to which Smalanskas had been subjected, administrators—including, most tellingly, the school’s president, Father Brian Shanley—refused.

Smalanskas’ parents attempted to arrange a meeting with Providence administrators, but to no avail.

Smalanskas then went to Catholic media.  Consequently, thousands of indignant people flooded Father Shanley’s inbox and Providence College’s phone lines demanding that action be taken to address the indignities suffered by one of his Catholic students for affirming Catholic teaching.

A month or so after the harassment of Smalanskas began, Providence College’s president finally responded.  And while Father Shanley did indeed condemn the treatment that Smalanskas was made to endure, and while he did note that Smalanskas’ position on marriage is that of the Catholic Church (and, thus, of Providence College), Shanley’s statement actually further supports the charge, made forcefully by former Providence faculty member Anthony Esolen, that Providence has essentially abandoned their Catholic mission in favor of a PC “totalitarian diversity cult.”

First of all, Father Shanley didn’t issue a public statement at all.  He sent out a campus-wide email.

Second, that Shanley makes it a point in the second sentence to explicitly note that it is mainly “conservative social media sites” that are responsible for “much” of the “discussion and negative publicity” that “the College” has garnered is telling.  In framing the issue in these terms, one could be forgiven for suspecting that Shanley is adopting a political strategy designed to knock out two birds with one stone:

In subtly shifting the blame from his own inaction onto a bunch of “conservatives” with a political ax to grind, Shanley can give the impression that the controversy under discussion is in effect contrived by a bunch of trouble-making right-wingers. And at the same time, he can just as subtly signal to the leftists that threatened Smalanskas that Shanley is not one of those “conservatives.”

That he follows up by expressly saying that “much” of what is reported in media accounts “is not accurate,” and that the phone calls and emails that he’s received have been “angry, accusatory, and ironically uncharitable,” renders this reading of Father Shanley’s objective all but certain.

Third, it isn’t until the third paragraph of his email that Shanley expresses how “distressed” he’s been “by the way Michael Smalanskas has been vilified and ostracized by many of his peers.”  It’s in this paragraph that Shanley condemns the rape threat against Smalanskas as “odious and reprehensible.”

Yet while this sounds good on its face, what Shanley gives with one hand he takes with another, for his defense of Smalanskas is qualified by what are obviously concessions to the leftists who mistreated the beleaguered student. 

For instance, immediately after expressing his “distress” over the injustice that Smalanskas suffered, Shanley adds: “While some might not agree with how he tried to express Church teaching, he is entitled to the same respect, charity, and protection that is due any student.”

Notice, Father Shanley suggests in this sentence that disgruntled students could have grounds for taking issue with the manner in which Smalanskas, a student at a Catholic college, stated the Catholic Church’s position on marriage—as if there is anything objectionable about using a bulletin board to promote marriage.

He also implies, in claiming that Smalanskas deserves the same “respect, charity, and protection” as any other student, that it is Smalanskas’ view on marriage that is a minority or exotic perspective.

In other words, Father Shanley’s defense of Smalanskas and his institution’s Catholic identity is anything but robust. 

Fourth, to further elaborate upon this last point, in both the introduction and conclusion to Shanley’s email he identifies as the premiere challenge confronting Providence—as well as “every Catholic campus and…the Church as a whole”—the balancing act of retaining a Catholic identity while simultaneously being “inclusive.”

This is revealing, for “Catholic” means universal.  It is inherently inclusive of a great variety of practices and ideas.  In characterizing the relationship between Catholicism and inclusiveness as one of tension, Shanley endorses the same concept of “inclusiveness” shared by those who labored indefatigably for over a month tormenting a Catholic student at a Catholic college who affirmed the Catholic position on marriage. 

Referring specifically to those Providence students who are members of “the LGBTQ+ community,” Shanley writes: “What I hear…is not that they expect us to disavow the Church’s teaching, but rather to find a way to help them feel included in light of our Catholic identity and in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity as created in the image and likeness of God.”

“Our collective challenge,” he insists, “is to find a way to be faithful to our Catholic identity and to be inclusive.”

For some reason, I doubt that Shanley is especially concerned about being inclusive of traditionalist Catholics who reject the Vatican II, Southern students who express pride in their Southern heritage, NRA members, etc.

There’s a final point.  Father Shanley’s remarks concerning the LGBTQ+ community at Providence imply that its members who were irate over Smalanskas’ marriage display had a grievance after all.  Providence, so Shanley evidently thinks, has failed to make homosexual and other students who reject the Catholicism of Providence feel welcome. It has failed to recognize “their inherent dignity as created in the image and likeness of God.”

Presumably, Michael Smalanskas contributed to this exclusionary environment when he championed marriage via a bulletin board.  This is the message that is all too plausibly conveyed when one reads between the lines of Father Shanley’s email.

Ironically, Providence College’s commitment to its traditional Catholic identity is even more in question now that its president has spoken to the victimization of a Catholic student than when he was silent.