Pressure causes Madonna University center to cancel talk by theologian M. Shawn Copeland

Theologian M. Shawn Copeland speaks at Boston College in October 2012. (YouTube/Boston College School of Theology and Ministry Continuing Education)

A prominent theologian's lecture at a Catholic university has been canceled* over the issue of LGBT Catholics.

M. Shawn Copeland, theology professor at Boston College, was scheduled to speak at Madonna University's Center for Catholic Studies and Interfaith Dialogue on Sept. 20. Madonna University, in Livonia, Michigan, just west of Detroit, is sponsored by the Felician Sisters of North America.

But on the night of Sept. 18, the center posted on its Facebook page that the lecture had been canceled, "due to some messages in the media that misconstrued the content of Dr. Copeland's lecture."

Copeland had been set to give a talk titled "New Vision for the Church: Pope Francis' Agenda for Social Justice." Copeland is a former convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. She is scheduled to lecture and receive the prestigious Marianist Award at the University of Dayton on Nov. 1.

According to in the Facebook statement, Felician Sr. Nancy Marie Jamroz, director of the center, said that the faculty and staff at the university "remain unwavering in their commitment to living out the University's Franciscan Values," which include respect for the dignity of all people and education for truth and service.

"We are sorry for this lost educational opportunity for Madonna students, and for the heavy blow it strikes to academic freedom and to Pope Francis' vision for the Church," Jamroz said in the statement.

Jamroz told Global Sisters Report that Copeland was not uninvited; rather, after Jamroz shared articles with Copeland by a right-wing group called Church Militant, the two reached a mutual decision to cancel the event, Jamroz said.

"She said it was clear this group is not interested in dialogue and that it can only get uglier," Jamroz said. "So she said out of respect for the Felician Sisters and Madonna University, she was not going to put us through that."

Copeland is a Madonna University alumna.

Jamroz said Copeland's lecture had nothing to do with LGBT issues or homosexuality, and the Church Militant articles took Copeland's words out of context and attributed quotes to her said by others.

"That is not the church that Jesus founded," Jamroz said.

Copeland declined to comment.

Church Militant in an article Sept. 15 called Copeland a "pro-LGBT speaker" who "wants the Church to change her language and views on homosexuality." The group urged the Knights of Columbus and other Catholics to push for a cancellation "so that young, impressionable Catholics are not led into sin by anti-Catholic discourse."

A week before, Church Militant ran an article about the Felician sisters, saying the once-traditional order was no longer faithful after aligning itself with the "dissident" Leadership Conference of Women Religious, "who brought in pagan rituals, a pro-LGBT agenda and dissident speakers."

This was not the first time the sisters were under scrutiny by right-wing groups. In 2012, a group called TFP Student Action held street protests against the Felicians in Livonia for inviting Fr. Michael Crosby to lead a weeklong retreat, saying Crosby advocated positions at odds with the Catholic Church. Crosby, known for five decades of work encouraging corporate responsibility, died Aug. 5.

The cancellation of Copeland's talk follows a series of recent social media campaigns by right-wing Catholic groups such as Church Militant that say any acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people violates church teachings, legitimizes a sinful lifestyle and will lead people to hell. The groups have particularly targeted Jesuit Fr. James Martin since the publication of his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.

Richard Gaillardetz, chairman of the Theology Department at Boston College, where Copeland is a theology professor, said the only thing new in the attacks is their sophistication and use of social media.

"The practice of pressuring both bishops and leaders of Catholic institutions to rescind speaking offers has, sadly, been going on for over three decades now," Gaillardetz, a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, wrote in an email to Global Sisters Report. "What has changed is the sophisticated employment of social media to ramp up digitally manufactured rage against important voices in the church like Fr. Martin, and most recently, my esteemed colleague, Professor M. Shawn Copeland."

Martin was scheduled to speak to alumni Oct. 4 at Theological College at the Catholic University of America but was notified Sept. 15 the engagement was canceled. The seminary said it "has experienced increasing negative feedback from various social media sites regarding the seminary's invitation" to the popular Jesuit priest. 

Gaillardetz wrote, "Until bishops and leaders of Catholic institutions repudiate these tactics and stop following the path of least resistance simply to avoid conflict and bad press, militant church groups will continue to feel emboldened to further their character assassinations, oblivious to the extent to which they are undermining the very credibility and effectiveness of the church they claim to love."

"The recent success of these scurrilous tactics injures the reputations of fine theologians like Professor Copeland, but of even greater concern is the harm it is doing to the body of Christ, the church," he wrote. "A church which does not know how to handle conflict and disagreement with charity and a determination to impute only the best of intentions on those with whom we disagree, is a church deeply compromised in its ability to witness to the liberating power of the gospel."

*This article has been updated to clarify that Copeland was not uninvited from speaking at Madonna University.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]