Academic Freedom and Catholic Theology

Providence College (PC) in Rhode Island is a small Catholic institution perhaps more famous for its prowess in basketball than for graduating former US Senator Chris Dodd (CT-D) and six term Chicago Mayor Richard Daly. Founded by Dominican Friars in 1917, the college lately finds itself split between its Catholic identity and its commitment to academic freedom and inquiry, especially on issues such as LGBTQ rights. The motto of PC is “Veritas” but truth is sometimes difficult to determine when science and society butt up against religion and dogma.

PC found itself in a bit of a kerfuffle last Fall when Wayne State University Professor John Corvino was disinvited from speaking at the college by Provost Hugh Lena because the Professor’s lecture in support of marriage equality was to run contrary to the principle that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”  Corvino, author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? and a prominent, national LGBTQ rights proponent has since been rescheduled and Provost Lena properly chastised after PC’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution by “an overwhelming majority” in defense of academic freedom, free inquiry and LGBTQ rights.

However, PC is back in the news this month as Doctor of Philosophy Matthew Cuddeback (who one might assume was not part of the “overwhelming majority” championing academic freedom) first planned and then cancelled a talk by Michelle Cretella, because of fears that “Dr. Cretella may be the object of animus were she to present at PC next week.”

Cretella is a founding member of NOM-RI (a local offshoot of NOM that failed to prevent marriage equality in Rhode Island), a board member of NARTH (dedicated to “curing” homosexuality through reparative therapies) and vice president of the American College of Pediatrics (a group that broke away from the American Academy of Pediatrics because the Academy decided in support of adoption by gay and lesbian couples). One wonders why Cuddeback would invite a person with such extreme and outside the mainstream views to speak at the college, unless he was trying to make a point.

Dr. Cuddeback’s particular brand of “philosophy” seems to be little more than Catholic flavored natural law theology, but then the line between philosophy and theology is often muddled when religion is involved. When he testified at the Rhode Island State House during the hearings on marriage equality, Cuddeback found his views on natural law and marriage being only possible between people of the opposite sex were not very convincing. State Senator Stephen Archambault was skeptical, saying, “In order for your argument to be valid, that love is somehow secondary to procreation, I’d have to fully embrace the natural law argument?”

Cuddeback claims that Cretella was to speak at PC on “her journey to navigate the controversial issue of homosexuality as a physician and a Catholic.” Though she was advertised on the flyer announcing her talk as a board member of NARTH, Cuddeback claims that her talk was going to somehow avoid the subject of reparative therapy. In fact, according to Cuddeback, Cretella “is not a therapist, and had no intent to speak as one. Her intent was to speak of her journey, as a physician, from rejecter to appreciator of the Catholic and natural law traditions concerning homosexuality.”

Never mind that Cretella still publishes articles (such as the one that appeared on LifeSiteNews the very week she was to speak at PC) defending “voluntary” reparative therapy for minors with language that sounds very much like a therapist, such as, “No therapy is free from harm. Regarding all forms of psychotherapy for any given condition a surprisingly high 14-24 percent of children deteriorate during psychotherapy.”

Despite the lies religiously-based anti-science skeptics foist on the public, reparative therapy is bad medicine, bad science and worse: it is little more than psychological and physical torture, a continuation, in its way, of the very worst depredations religion brings to society by way of sadists like Torquemada or apologists like Michelle Cretella.

Cuddeback, in first arranging and then canceling Cretella’s talk, seems to have attempted to generate a faux controversy to further a theological agenda and to muddy the argument over academic freedom, free inquiry and free speech. It’s impossible to believe that Cretella could have told her life story of “navigating the issue of homosexuality” without touching on her commitment to NARTH and reparative therapy. As “Paul M,” a commenter on PC’s blog, “Friarside Chats” put it, “If you brought in a doctor that gave a lecture on how cigarettes were good for you would that also be fruitful for the campus? I’m just asking because it’s the same exact principle.”

Honesty and a commitment to the truth are the cornerstones of academia. The faculty, staff and students at Providence College seem to understand this, with some notable exceptions. Perhaps Dr. Cuddeback should take some time to reflect upon the school’s motto.

Veritas indeed.

Steve Ahlquist is a writer, artist, filmmaker, Humanist activist and reporter for RI Future, a progressive political blog. He lives in Providence with his wife. Read other articles by Steve.