by Jessica Carreras
Aquinas College’s decision to stop public speaker and gay rights advocate Dr. John Corvino from coming to speak at their school has given rise to a movement of Aquinas students, Grand Rapids residents and local LGBTs who are determined to bring him to their city. Later this month, their efforts will come to fruition when Corvino comes to Fountain Street Church to speak to the community.
Last Thursday, Aquinas College President C. Edward Balog confirmed that Corvino’s visit to the college was officially canceled, according to a statement issued by Balog. Corvino was originally scheduled to come to the college on April 3, but the event was postponed because of the school’s inability to secure anyone who could present an opposing viewpoint.
The decision came after Balog met with members of the school’s Programming Board, students and other administration members Thursday morning.
“The policy has been in place where when we have a particular speaker addressing a topic and whose content generally opposes the teachings of the Catholic Church, typically the organization hosting the event have a responsibility to provide a balanced discussion,” said Director of College Relations Marty Fahey. “That was not done in this case.”
In fact, Fahey acknowledged that Aquinas administration was not even aware of the event until several days before it was supposed to happen. It was only when concerned members of the local Catholic community began to make calls to the school that Balog and others realized that the issue had to be addressed.
“Advocacy of homosexuality or comments regarding homosexuality are such that they are in direct opposition to catholic church teaching and therefore, it (Corvino’s event) should have required an individual or individuals on a panel to debate the topic,” Fahey continued.
However, no such policy was ever put in place in that regard at Aquinas. Instead, Fahey claims that there was an understanding between administration and students regarding controversial topics that oppose the Catholic Church, such as homosexuality. President Balog contended that the permanent cancellation is due to the fact that a comprehensive policy regarding that very issue needed to be in place before Corvino or similar events or speeches could occur. Balog said in his statement that was released to the campus last Thursday, that given the fact that the school year is ending soon, there was simply not enough time to form the policy and bring Corvino back.
The policy will be developed by a committee comprised of Aquinas faculty and students, who are expected to meet soon.
Fahey, however, did disclose that the local bishop was opposed to the event and suggested that the school cancel it, as did several community members.
Homophobia at Aquinas
In light of the cancellation, several Aquinas students decided that it was time to retaliate. Led by third-year student Bev Pels, they started the Autonomous Student Network the same day the announcement was made. “We were talking about how the school didn’t have the right to censor this material and their policies came across as very homophobic,” Pels said of the group’s formation.
Within a matter of days, the organization had sent out press releases, spoken to local media and created Facebook groups.
Their work, however, goes beyond Corvino’s visit. “There’s already the atmosphere of exclusion toward the gay and lesbian community (at Aquinas),” Pels said. She noted that students at Aquinas are generally accepting, and that many LGBT students are open about their sexuality.
But the administration, influenced by donors and local Catholics, are a different story, said Pels. Even the school’s Gay Straight Alliance was required to keep any LGBT reference out of their name. Though they have many members, Pels explained that “they’re really limited to what they can do on this campus.”
As for Corvino’s event, Balog told the Grand Rapids Press in regard to Corvino’s visit that the school would not provide an opportunity for someone to voice a position “counter to the basic moral teachings of the church.”
After forming, Pels and the Autonomous Student Network began to get a flood of phone calls and e-mails from several places offering to host Corvino’s presentation. In the end, they decided to go with Fountain Street Church because of its reputation for acceptance and its offer to waive their $500 rental fee. “We were pretty sure we wanted to have it at a church,” said Pels. “We thought that was really important.”
Corvino has agreed to come on April 23 free of charge, though donations will be accepted at the event. “Anything raised above and beyond my travel costs, I’m going to donate to a worthy organization,” Corvino promised.
“I really admire and appreciate what the Autonomous Student Network has done,” he went on to say.
He added that he felt Aquinas administration could have dealt with their displeasure at the possibility of him speaking there in more productive way. “A Catholic school, like any school, has the prerogative to invite whatever speakers it wants,” he said. “But in this case, I had been invited and then that invitation was revoked and I think it could have been handled better.”
He believes, however, that the Fountain Street Church event will more than make up for it, and hopes that those who opposed him will show up. “I want people to disagree and make their voices heard,” he said.
The voices in support of him are already rising. Pels said that the local response has been tremendous. Several groups in Grand Rapids are going to advertise the presentation. Local LGBT groups, including The Network community center, are working to spread the word and get people to the church – even if it means shuttling students from Aquinas to the event.
Pels is thrilled at the response, especially on her campus. “It’s good to see the student body mobilizing,” she said.