by Aidan Ryan and Kevin Daley, Griffin Editors
At 2 p.m. this afternoon Speaker of the Senate Eric Hammer brought down his namesake, narrowly missing junior VP of Programming Anne Continetti’s elbow, and convened an emergency meeting to allocate funds for Zach Wahl’s long-awaited appearance at Canisius College, scheduled for Tuesday, April 16 and quietly approved by the college administration late yesterday afternoon.
The Undergraduate Student Association office was packed, with several senators munching lunches and making time between classes to attend the emergency session. Earlier that afternoon, senior and outgoing VP of Business and Finance Brian Almendinger sent out an email informing senators of the situation and asking them to email him their votes on the issue; meanwhile Executive VP Anthony Kroese scrambled to organize an emergency session in the office.
In a unanimous vote lasting just under thirty seconds, the senators allocated the $5,626 needed to bring the LGBTQ equality activist to campus. ”That was the fastest vote ever!” said sophomore senator Kaitlyn Victor, before biting into a celebratory cookie.
The visit will be held at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16 in the Montante Cultural Center, and will be sponsored by the College Democrats, the Philosophy, Religious Studies, Computer Science, Art History, and Political Science Departments, as well as the Ethics, Justice, and Peace and Justice minors. The visit will be preceded by a reception at 7 p.m.
The Senate vote comes at the culmination of a two-year effort to bring the speaker to campus, whose advocacy of marriage equality doesn’t jibe with the Catholic tradition, as popularly interpreted. At first, Wahls was blocked because student leaders circumvented standard Canisius procedures for booking guest speakers; earlier this semester, he was blocked because the administration deemed his speech, which advocated same-sex marriage, “unacceptable,” according to Dean of Students and incoming VP for Student Affairs Dr. Terri Mangione.
Just over a month ago, senior Mariel Kein expressed determination after the latest failed effort to bring Wahls to campus. She explained,“I am by no means giving up on the issue and will be exploring alternate paths by which to bring Zach here.”
Klein’s prophecy, it seems, was self-fulfilling. The College Democrats co-president lost no time in soliciting faculty support for the visit, and participated in discussions with Mangione, outgoing VP for Student Affairs Dr. Ellen Conley, and President John Hurley, about how to negotiate the rocky straits between academic curiosity and fidelity to the school’s Jesuit mission and identity.
Last month the administration turned down the College Dem’s request after judging that the speaker did not fully understand their wishes. “We had added a clause to Zach’s contract,” Magione said, “that asked him to acknowledge that we are a Catholic, Jesuit institution and that he understood that.” Wahls responded with a new outline of an insufficiently modified speech, along with a note reading, “B T Dubs, I never expressly advocate for same-sex marriage.”
In the administration’s view, however, his advocacy was strongly implied, if not “expressly” stated: President Hurley still had concerns. And the coterie of concerned administrators who had the say on the Wahls affair – Mangione, Conley, and Hurley – were not alone in this sentiment. Junior William Freeman voiced his hope that, if Zach Wahls speaks, he remains respectful of “the Catholic Jesuit tradition of the school.” Freeman, who believes that the “Catholic” tradition and “Jesuit” tradition diverge significantly, did not offer an opinion as to which tradition he hopes Wahls will respect more.
Meanwhile, the others players in Canisius’ religio-political drama sought outside help and guidance. Mangione spoke with Fr. Michael Tunney, Director of Mission and Identity, to clarify the Catholic position. The two agreed that the school would not be best served in inviting a speaker whose sole purpose in coming was to contradict Catholic doctrine; but that the school also had an academic, intellectual, and Catholic obligation to foster discussion and stimulate even the toughest debates. Klein, for her part, drummed up the aforementioned faculty support.
For Mangione, the question was always simple to answer, even if the execution would be complex. “We tell students, ‘ask the tough questions,’” Mangione said.
After sending Wahls some basic information on the Catholic position regarding same-sex marriage, and asking him to present that position before “respectfully disagreeing,” the administration approved the Wahls lecture Thursday afternoon.
According to Mangione, the lecture will be an example of “what we do in academia very well: present the two arguments and let faculty and students come to their own conclusions.”
If the debate that’s sure to follow Wahl’s lecture is anything like the debate that preceded it, participants and spectators can hope for respect on both sides. Klein expressed a greater understanding for the administration’s position after the meetings in March, while Mangione sees Klein as an exemplary Canisius student, embodying both the old motto – “Where Leaders Are Made” – as well as the new injunction to “explore.”
That said, reactions from the Diocese and from Canisius alumni might not be so congenial. The administration remains attentive to the politics of alumni relations, and to navigating concerns from the Buffalo Catholic Diocese. Bishop Richard Malone, recently installed after a stint in Portland, Maine, dedicated significant time and capital to battling with same sex marriage activists as voters cast ballots on a referendum recognizing same sex marriages within the state. The referendum narrowly carried the day and was signed into law by Governor Baldacci in 2009. Speaking for the administration, Mangione expressed confidence that the Bishop is respectful and supportive of free academic inquiry, particularly in the context of a debate. “[President Hurley] would be comfortable defending [the lecture] if the Bishop had concerns,” she said.
The Griffin spoke briefly with Wahls, who confirmed he was confident he could present the Church’s doctrinal teachings regarding marriage fully and accurately. “I’m certainly not a scholar on Catholic teachings” Wahls said. “I think I should be able to present this particular teaching accurately.” He further expressed that he had no objections to the administration’s requests, and conveyed his abiding respect for deeply held religious principles. Wahls continued, “I’m more concerned in simply making sure that we’re recognizing each others’ relationships and treating people the way that we would like to be treated–even if we don’t necessarily want those relationships for ourselves.”
Less than a minute after USA approved the funding word spread and many students were ecstatic. ”I’m off my rocker!” shouted freshman tunnel-traveler Vance Stinson; while Victor, in the Senate office, expressed soberer, if no less earnest enthusiasm. ”This has been an ongoing issue for two years,” she said. ”I’m glad that the Democrats could finally find a way to bring him.”
Senior senator Alice Zicari agreed: “I think this is a great day for Canisius College,” she said.
While Wednesday’s script has yet to be penned, Tuesday’s is stamped and approved: administrators and students are finally – if not on the same page about Zach Wahls – at least wandering in the same library. While the administration will always be concerned with staying faithful to the school’s religious tradition, Mangione believes that that very tradition calls for Zach Wahls’s lecture. “It’s not despite, but because of the fact that we’re a Catholic, Jesuit institution,” Mangione said.