Invitation of anti-transgender speaker sparks backlash, internal club conflict

By Abigail Chang

Abigail Chang
Newman Catholic Club organized a talk and Q&A with Dr. Peter Kreeft earlier this month.

At the height of midterm season, 50 people joined a Zoom webinar titled “Can We Reasonably Believe in God?” featuring Christian apologetic and Boston College professor Peter Kreeft. The event became a source of controversy after students — both inside and outside of Newman Catholic Club, which organized the event with co-sponsorships from the Department of Religion, Middlebury College Activities Board and Middlebury InterVarsity Christian Fellowship* — discovered Kreeft’s views about the transgender community. 

In an interview with The Catholic Sun — which he gave before speaking about “transgenderism” at a fundraiser for the John Paul II Resource Center for Theology of the Body and Culture — Kreeft compared a desire for gender reassignment surgery to a desire to torture or murder.

“The mind is not mutilated by educating it to accept its body,” he said in the interview. “The attitude toward one’s own body that is behind the demand for gender reassignment surgery is exactly the same as the attitude toward someone else’s body that is behind torture or murder.

Tensions on campus also mounted when Newman Club president Pedro Guizar ’22 referred to inactive members as having “gone rogue” or “anti-Kreeft” in an email response that was accidentally sent to the entirety of the club’s membership. In the fallout, several students criticized Guizar’s email and asked to be removed from the mailing list. 

Organizing the talk

Conversations about inviting Kreeft began in February, according to Guizar, who said he suggested the possibility to the other club officers and Religious Life Cluster Liaison Ellen McKay.

“Dr. Kreeft was an obvious choice as he is a world-renowned Catholic philosopher who teaches at Boston College [and] has written over 80 books…” Guizar said in an email to The Campus. “Peter Kreeft is also known to be a Catholic who is in agreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

When asked to clarify whether he knew about Kreeft’s stance regarding the LGBTQ community prior to inviting him, Guizar declined to provide more information and referred The Campus back to his original statement.

In order to invite and secure funding for speakers, organizations must seek the permission of their faculty or staff advisor. 

Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life and Presbyterian minister Mark Orten said he was the club’s advisor at the time, based on a list created by McKay. 

Orten said that transitions taking place during the 2019–20 academic year left a gap, and he became the advisor pro tempore until the group found a better fit. “We always prefer that a group has someone from within its tradition, speaking religiously, to be the advisor, so it was never preferable for me to be the advisor,” Orten said.

Newman was working with McKay to plan the event, according to both Guizar and Orten, up until the club needed to seek their advisor’s signature. Maddie Tango ’21.5, who served as president last year and treasurer this fall, said that the club often went to McKay for scheduling and administrative requests.

Orten said he decided to meet with Newman leadership to have a conversation about his concerns after learning Kreeft’s views about the LGBTQ community. 

At this point, according to Orten, he had not made a decision about whether or not to sign the speaker contract. In the meeting, he requested that Newman leadership reconsider their invitation. In an interview with The Campus, he clarified that this was not a request to “cancel” the speaker — referring to the idea that not inviting Kreeft might be perceived as a manifestation of “cancel culture.”

“I was very explicit with them that I was very seriously and intentionally asking them to consider the full weight of the implications of their invitation,” Orten said.

Following the conversation and after spending 24 hours thinking about the decision, Orten said he decided not to sign the contract.

“The decision that I made ultimately was out of conscientiousness about the multiple entities on campus for whom I have care and our office has care, and I came down on the side of not doing harm,” he said.

Guizar requested an advisor change to Professor of Mathematics John Schmitt in an April 7 and 8 email exchange with Director of Student Activities Amanda Reinhardt. McKay — not Orten — was also copied in Reihardt’s reply.

“He is a practicing Catholic, so we thought that the switch was a logical move for the Catholic club,” Guizar said.

Newman successfully changed their advisor to Schmitt, who Guizar said signed off on inviting Kreeft.

Schmitt declined an interview and did not respond to further inquiries.

To host speakers, clubs also must gain approval from the Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB) Speakers Committee by submitting a Presence form with information about the speaker, venue, budget and funding.

The Speakers Committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Names to call on

The day before the April 14 talk, Guizar replied to an email from professor of Political Science and Q&A moderator Gary Winslett with the subject line “Names to call on” in which Winslett had requested a list of Newman club members. Guizar’s response, which went to the entire club email list, included a list of nine “active members” and said that the inactive members had “gone rogue and are anti-Kreeft.”

Guizar apologized after two students condemned his email in replies to the chain. He also clarified that his email to Winslett was not on behalf of the Newman Club board and was instead a personal mistake. But several other members of the Newman email list, including some listed in the group of active members Guizar had sent to Winslett, announced their departure from the club following the apology.

Tango was the first to reply to the mistaken email and criticized Guizar’s response and Kreeft’s views, linking Kreeft’s Catholic Sun interview.

Others replied to the thread to indicate that they were not in favor of inviting Kreeft. Zoe Sipe ’23.5, who was named among Guizar’s list of active members, clarified that she was not in support of the event and asked to be removed from the Newman email list.

“I guess I was included on that list because I was attending Bible study and the student Masses,” Sipe said. “It was saying that the active members — it implied that we’re pro-Kreeft, which was really not OK.”

According to Guizar, he and Winslett made an effort to call on every attendee who raised their hand during the Q&A session.

The talk

Guizar introduced Kreeft and — in a conversation before the start of the event — had told Kreeft that he had heard from Middlebury professors excited that Kreeft would speak at the college.

Since the event was held as a Zoom webinar, attendees were only able to see Kreeft and could not see who else was watching. The chat function, which allows attendees to send messages to panelists and other viewers, was disabled throughout the event. The Q&A function — available for webinar-style Zoom meetings — remained open.

In the talk, Kreeft drew on the 20 philosophical arguments for the existence of God that he and a co-author presented in one chapter of his book, “Handbook of Christian Apologetics.” Every once in a while, he strayed from analysis of Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways or Blaise Pascal’s Wager to relay a personal — and occasionally playful — anecdote in support of his arguments.

“I know three ex-atheists converted by the music of Bach,” Kreeft said. “So, I formulate this argument very succinctly as ‘There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Therefore, there must be a God.’”

Eighteen minutes into the talk, an attendee who had changed their screen name to “Trans Rights” inquired about Kreeft’s views on women in the priesthood in the Q&A box. Winslett sent a reply asking the attendee to hold their question until the end and saying he would be happy to call on them then.

“I’m finished. Your turn,” Kreeft said at the end of his prepared remarks.

The Q&A

During the Q&A, nearly all questions were related to arguments for the existence of God. No one asked about Kreeft’s stance regarding women in the priesthood. Cameron Culwell ’23.5 asked the last question of the event.

“I am a believer in God who also firmly believes in the rights of transgender people to self-determination,” Culwell said. “I’m wondering if you think that’s a contradiction to my views and whether I can still be a Christian.”

Kreeft argued that science disproved the idea that gender is socially constructed, citing the human genetic structure as evidence for his claim.

Later in the several-minutes-long exchange, Culwell began to tell Kreeft that his presence had made some students on campus feel unsafe. Kreeft interrupted Culwell, asking how a “controversial issue” made Culwell feel unsafe.

“Because identity is different from an issue,” Culwell said. “It’s not something we can reasonably always have a divide on. This is who people are. It’s fundamental, and the problem with it isn’t that God is being used to justify these things — which sometimes is the case — the problem is rather that people associate certain religious beliefs with an epidemic of violence and persecution that takes countless trans lives every year.”

In response, Kreeft asked Culwell to cite the number of murders occurring each year. And when Culwell cited a number, Kreeft questioned why the media did not report on it.

“The Boston Globe is one of the most left-wing newspapers in the world, and I’ve never seen an article about the murder of a transgender person,” Kreeft said.

In an interview with The Campus, Culwell said they asked the question not because they hoped to change Kreeft’s mind, but because they hoped to reach other students in the audience.

“I wanted to give people an alternative to the speaker in my challenge,” Culwell said. “I guess my goal was to be sort of respectful enough in tone that I could kind of breakthrough to them a little bit.”

Father Luke Austin, pastor of St. Mary’s, and Nick Maille, who is employed by the church and responsible for faith formation and campus ministry, commended Culwell for the exchange with Kreeft.

“As we are created in the image of the triune of God, we are called to dialogue, not to cancel,” they wrote.

Guizar said that he had wanted to prioritize questions from Newman members since the club had organized the event, but noted that he and Winslett still called on all those who raised their hands. 

“As this was an event organized by the Newman Catholic Club, we wanted to make sure that active Newman members were able to ask their questions germane to the topic at hand,” he said in an email to The Campus. 

Guizar said that the club was glad to have called on every student who raised their hand, especially those with strong disagreements with Kreeft. “This was certainly a highlight of the event,” he said.

Club leadership

Newman has faced turnover among members of its leadership this year. Francis Shiner ’23, who was slated to serve as president of the club for the 2020-21 academic year, stepped down from the position at the beginning of the fall.

Tango, the fall semester treasurer, said she had begun to notice changes in Newman’s culture and membership during her time as president the year before.

“I noticed the club starting to get a bit more conservative and just like not very inclusive, and it was starting to be dominated by white male athletes,” she said.

Tango said she had hoped to take the club in a different direction in the 2020–21 academic year, but when this did not happen, she served out the semester as treasurer and left Newman at the end of the fall.

Instead of remaining in Newman, Tango is working with Sipe and Culwell to restart and re-envision Gather. The club — a self-described “progressive community for Christians and friends” — had paused operations for the spring. But following the invitation of Kreeft, Culwell and Sipe saw a need for a progressive Christian space.

“Many progressives and leftists see their views as incompatible with religion, and some religious people believe that, whatever their own personal beliefs may be, the conservative stances of their religious authorities are accurate and correct,” Culwell said. “But there’s an intersection between progressivism and religion, and I think more and more people, particularly Christians, are discovering that the Bible is a radical text that is deeply at odds with the modern construction of some churches and worldviews.”

Tango said they plan to start holding meetings in the fall.

* Editor’s Note: Following the publication of this article, a user emailing from the Middlebury InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) account denied that the club was an “official sponsor” of the event. However, Newman president Pedro Guizar ’22 told The Campus that IVCF did serve as a co-sponsor for the event in communication both before and after the article was published. Guizar said that IVCF was not listed on event posters because they had already been sent to print before the club became a co-sponsor. The sponsors listed on the event posters are Newman Catholic Club, the Department of Religion and MCAB. 

For clarity, this article has been updated to reflect the complete list of sponsors according to the posters and Guizar’s statement. Given that IVCF’s specific role is disputed, the caption has also been updated.