Students, staff respond to controversial Catholic Studies department event



Story by Jane Johnston, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of The Saint

Protests occurred during the showing of the film “Desire of the Everlasting Hills” in an event put on by the Catholic Studies department. The film showcased three individuals who were attracted to the same sex but chose to live chaste lives in order to abide by Catholic moral teachings.

Dr. John Pinheiro, head of the Catholic Studies department, said that the event was never meant to cause controversy. “…Since it had been shown at Hope College with no problem, I hoped the Aquinas community would be hospitable and open-minded toward this award-winning, Catholic film.”

Dr. Pinheiro also mentioned that the film “premiered at a gay and lesbian film festival, where it was warmly received.” He was talking about Level Ground, Pasadena, California film festival. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, this was the “world’s first film festival connecting lesbian, gay and transgender sexuality with faith and evangelical Christianity.”

The film festival was supposed to be a sanctuary for conflicting opinions to come together and talk about their beliefs free of judgement. Dr. Pinheiro hoped this atmosphere would follow the film to Aquinas’s campus, but that was not the case.

In a letter to The Saint, Aquinas Senior Emma Wonsil wrote that many people (which she later estimated between 50 and 60 Aquinas students, staff and faculty) walked out of the showing of the film because “[they] do not appreciate a documentary that seeks to showcase only homosexual individuals in failed relationships, leading promiscuous lives, or lives filled with intense shame.”

Dr. Pinheiro, however, thought the protesters missed out on an opportunity for open dialogue. “I thought it was unfortunate that those students and staff members chose further to marginalize an already marginalized group of people,” he said. “And I was saddened that they were not there for the discussion, in which gay students, faculty, and alumni told their stories and the audience asked tough questions of our guests.”

Aquinas Senior Emily Southerton also attended the film and shared Dr. Pinheiro’s frustration. “I was disappointed,” she said, “that more people did not stay and watch the full film or engage in the Q&A session after. College is a place where we respectfully dialogue and listen to one another’s points of view.”

Wonsil wanted a chance for open, honest conversation as well, but felt administration was denying her of that. “I actually sit on the Speaker and Events Committee that approved it to go through,” Wonsil said. She said that she and others on the committee requested that another narrative was showcased exhibiting those who identify as LGBTQ but do not wish to remain celibate. This request, she said, was denied by the Catholic Studies department. Dr. Pinheiro had no comment on this.

“I don’t want to say this isn’t a chance for dialogue,” Wonsil said. “I just felt like it was a lost chance for dialogue, and for people to share their experiences. I didn’t want to invalidate these peoples’ narratives, because there is validity in this path for a lot of people. I just think that the way it was handled by administration was very insensitive.” Wonsil saw the walk-out as an opportunity to show her dissatisfaction with the event, but not entirely undermining the experiences shown in the film.

Southerton argued that the chance for dissent was more than welcome at the event. “…Dr. Pinheiro made sure the toughest questions were asked and gave three critics of the film all the time at the microphone they wanted.”

Amidst the backlash, Dr. Pinheiro stands by the department’s decision to show the film. “I am glad that at Aquinas, because we are a Catholic college, we can examine difficult, contemporary issues in light of Catholic teaching. And I am glad that we were able to screen this moving, award-winning film.”

Looking forward, Wonsil hopes that this will be an opportunity for change. “I would like to see a little bit more of a conversation on this. My ultimate takeaway is that regardless if you think [LGBTQ students at Aquinas] living outside of Catholic moral teaching or not, we’re here. We exist.”

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