Controversial Catholics…and the third coming of The Georgetown Academy

October 23, 2008

A few weeks ago, unassuming stacks of 8” by 11” pamphlets appeared around campus beneath the racks that hold the Voice and the Hoya. The Georgetown Academy—which in its past incarnations has ranged from a straightforward Catholic journal of opinion to an acerbic, conservative work of satire that claims to have taken a lawsuit all the way to the Vatican—was back. Most Georgetown students were probably unaware that it had ever come and gone in the first place — petering off around 2001 after its heyday in the late nineties.

David Gregory (COL `10), a Catholic from New York and a member of the Knights of Columbus, is primarily responsible for reviving the Academy and serves as its newest Editor-in-Chief. The independent publication, which first appeared in 1991, is essentially a collection of essays on campus issues often written from a Catholic viewpoint, and is staffed by a largely conservative group of Gregory’s friends, most of whom he knows through campus ministry. According to the Academy’s Staff Editor Matt Cantirino (COL `11), the publication’s mission is to convey Georgetown’s identity as a Catholic one.

“I’ve heard Blue and Gray tour guides apologize time and time again for the school’s Catholic identity. They say, ‘the school’s Catholic, but you won’t really notice it. There’s nothing to worry about,’” Gregory said. “I’m worried for [Georgetown].”

Indeed, in the September “back to school” issue which sought to introduce students to the Academy, Gregory wrote an article titled “A University On the Edge,” in which he called the 51 percent of Georgetown students who are Catholic “an ominously slim majority,” and criticized the University for giving nearly free reign to professors whose views are not in line with those of the Church. In the article, Gregory recalled his shock upon hearing his Introductory Biology professor say that the human being is purely material.

“The University can make students aware of these views,” Gregory said in an interview with the Voice. “But for a biology professor to say the body is purely material … A professor can say, ‘this is what my research has led me to believe.’ But to tell students that ‘this is the truth,’ that’s a little bit offensive.”

Though Academy staff members have already outlined their themes for the rest of the year, including their October issue, “Faith and Citizenship,” which will appear this Friday, “Real Feminism” in March, and an April issue about secularism, they are still grappling with what they want their publication’s role to be.

“We have a lot of scattered ideas,” said Caitlin Devine (COL `10), a member of Georgetown University Right to Life whose writing will appear in the Academy’s October issue.

The newest version the Academy resembles the publication in its first few years of existence, from 1991 to about 1993: a conservative but largely apolitical forum for Catholic views on Georgetown specific issues. What Gregory knows for sure is that he does not want to recreate the caustic Academy of the late 90s.

When the Academy’s founding editors graduated, they left few clear provisions for succession. The heirs to their legacy were a much more politicized group than their predecessors had been. It was during this second incarnation of the magazine, which lasted from about 1994 to 2001, that the Academy earned an infamous reputation for outspoken conservative ideas that many students found offensive.

“They did have some really good articles. But some of the stuff is just terribly offensive against faculty, students, and administrators,” Gregory said.

In fact, some Georgetown professors and Jesuits are happy to see the Academy return because it may eclipse the memory of the old one.

“I’m glad to have an additional Catholic voice in discussions on campus, but I think that it’s particularly welcome that it’s not so polemical and angry as it was at various times in the past,” Fr. John Langan said.

In the late 90s, Georgetown was becoming a world class university and experiencing “growing pains,” according to Dr. Penny Rue, the former Director of Student Programs who is now an administrator at the University of California in San Diego. The second incarnation of the Academy, she said, existed at a time when the University was shedding its strictly Catholic identity because its student body was growing more diverse.

Written not only from a Catholic perspective but also from a professedly conservative angle, Gregory said that the old Academy, which purported to be “Georgetown’s Independent Journal of Satire and Opinion,” (or later, “Advocacy and Reason”), could be extremely petty. One of the Academy’s regular features, “Attic Salts”—a phrase that means “delicate wit”—often incorporated ad hominem attacks against administrators, professors, and students with whom the Academy disagreed.

“But We’re Not Saying that Meaghan Keeler Is Stupid,” reads the headline of one November 2001 “Salt” about a Georgetown University Student Association representative.

Cain Pence (COL `98), a colorful former Academy Editor-in-Chief whose dossier includes “Cainpence.com,” which chronicles his road trip to each of America’s 435 Congressional districts, and whose voice reaches impressively high notes when discussing topics he feels strongly about, defended “Salts” as “hilarious” and said that the paper’s satirical tone was what engaged its readership in the first place.

“We did offend some people, we tried to offend some people, we wanted to offend people. That’s part of the game,” Pence, who edited the Academy during its second, politicized incarnation, said. “There were a lot of people on campus who didn’t like us, but boy, did they read us.”

Indeed, the old Academy seems to have been the center of campus controversies at least as often as it covered them.

When a 1998 Academy article decried Rue’s “Safe Zone Program,” which invited professors to place a sticker on their office doors to indicate that they were available to talk about gay students’ concerns, stacks of the Academy around campus began to go missing.

“We ended up filing a report with the police and University and met with a response that was very tepid,” former Editor-in-Chief Brooken Smith (COL `00), said. “We expected them to come out with a strong message that said, ‘Even if you don’t agree with someone’s viewpoint, the right response to that is not to become a vigilante.’”

Angered by the University’s complacency, Academy writers looked outside Healy gates to bring attention to their stolen papers. The events eventually earned mention US News and World Report. In a 1999 column, “The 1999 Sheldon: The coveted annual prize that goes to a wimpy college president,” John Leo criticized then-University President Leo O’Donovan as “craven” for “looking the other way” during the theft.

It was not the first time the Academy had sought to bring campus issues to national light. Academy leadership routinely mailed copies of their publication to national media outlets, dioceses, and influential alumni. Addressing controversial issues like the University’s decision to fund GUChoice, an abortion rights group, “really put the Academy on the map,” Pence said.

In February of 1991, the University, under President O’Donovan’s leadership, announced that it would fund GUChoice as an informational (as opposed to advocacy) group for abortion rights. Catastrophe ensued. Alumnus and The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty (COL `50) wrote an open letter to alumni encouraging them to resign from fundraising positions and to write letters of protest to O’Donovan. The Academy responded with similar outrage—the cover of their next issue featured O’Donovan’s picture on a milk carton with the caption “Warning: Drinking this may be hazardous to your faith”—and also considered suing Georgetown, according to Manuel Miranda (SFS `82), a conservative activist who once served as counsel for Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and helped found the Cardinal Newman Society, watchdog group for Catholic higher education.

As the lead attorney in the Academy’s 1991 canon lawsuit against Georgetown, Miranda and the Academy took the case all the way to the Vatican, ultimately forcing the University’s hand in ceasing funding for GUChoice. Canon law is Catholic Church’s equivalent of a legal framework, to which Catholic institutions are traditionally expected to adhere.

Miranda recalled that members of the Academy approached him with the idea of suing the school in civil court for a breach of contract with the idea being that they had come to Georgetown “expecting to attend a Catholic school that turned out to be doing anti-Catholic things.”

“I didn’t know much about canon law, but I know a lot about civil law, and I convinced them not to go that way,” Miranda said. “I just happened to be on the phone with a client in Ohio that morning who knew a lot about canon law, so I suggested it to him and we talked it over.”

Miranda said he spent the bulk of the next several months studying canon law and had a paralegal at his law firm dedicated to the subject.

In April of 1992, the case appeared as a canon lawsuit before the Vatican, which ruled that Georgetown should cease funding GUChoice immediately. The University has since denied submitting to Church pressure on GUChoice, but according to Miranda, a high-ranking member from within the Jesuits soon appeared on campus to oversee O’Donovan’s compliance with the decision. GUChoice disbanded but was succeeded later that year by H*yas for Choice, a birth control and abortion rights group that is not funded by the University.

As for the revived Academy, Gregory said that Miranda has not been involved with the publication beyond suggesting members for its board of advisers and contacting Academy alumni to solicit financial support. But Miranda has often been a target of criticism from those who see him as over-involved in his alma mater. A 1999 Washington City Paper article painted him as an instigating alumnus who can be found behind many conservative campus organizations. According to former Voice reporter Kathleen Miller (COL `00), he is one of several possible links between the Academy and the Stewards, a once-secret society that the Voice exposed in 1988.

“The Stewards are a private association, and they have nothing to do with the Academy,” Miranda said. “On the editorial board, there’s almost always been a Steward or two involved for some time now.”

Current Editor-in-Chief Gregory is a Steward himself—since their organization was brought to public attention, Stewards can divulge their membership but not the names of other members—but he said that the main reason he revived the Academy is his interest in Catholic campus issues.

“The Stewards have helped me bring this about, but … they didn’t ask me to do it. This is something of my own volition that I’m really interested in,” Gregory said. “The Academy was never a Steward publication, and the Editors-in-Chief are never going to be a steady stream of Stewards. It’s just something that I started because we [have] always supported it traditionally.”

Even though the Academy holds all of its meetings at Gregory’s O Street house and its web adviser Greg Nelson (COL `07) is a recent Georgetown graduate who still sleeps at the house two nights a week (www.thegeorgetownAcademy.com should be up and running by the end of the semester), the newest incarnation of the Academy is by no means a small-scale operation. It has received donations from Academy alumni, secured funding from the Leadership Institute in Virginia, which gives startup grants to independent school newspapers, and the Collegiate Network, which funds conservative college publications and was a large provider for the old version of the Academy. Its board of advisers is filled with prominent Catholics and conservatives, including Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly, famously outspoken Catholic League President Bill Donohue, and Bridget Wagner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C. think tank.

“The board can definitely have some very scary conservative names on it,” Gregory said, pointing to Reilly and the CNS. “They’ve condemned Georgetown in the past, and they’re in the same vein of the old Academy. But he’s definitely an instant credibility. Manny suggested Pat. They’re good friends, he’s definitely a valuable source of information, and he doesn’t have a lot of control over content, so no harm.”

Reilly has more than a few bones to pick with Georgetown—among other things, he is appalled that groups annually stage the Vagina Monologues, and that “pro-abortion candidates [such as Hustler magazine founder Larry Flint and Bill Clinton] are allowed to use Georgetown as a platform to garner young, Catholic votes”—but agrees that his role has little to do with content.

“My primary activity is to comment constructively and support and promote the publication,” Reilly said.

Fr. Robert Araujo, a Jesuit at Boston College and a close family friend of Gregory’s, is also a member of the board, and according to Gregory, the only member of the board with whom he communicates regularly. He is best known to other Georgetown students for his February letter to the editor in the Hoya, in which he criticized a Hoya editorial promoting safe sex and questioned the formation of the LGBTQ Center in passing. Araujo found the first issue of the Academy to be “sensible and sincere.”

Gregory probably won’t mind if the new Academy isn’t the monumental success that the old one was, as long as his Academy stays out of the past publication’s shadow. He said he took a risk by keeping the name, but said that the recognition it would bring the new publication was worth it.

The new staff does not yet have a targeted distribution list, but is in the midst of forming one, though their board of advisers already allows for a wide circulation. Gregory was surprised to find that Cardinal Edward Egan of New York had read the September issue of the Academy.

Devine said the name might not hinder the new Academy because many student are not familiar with the old version. Where they may need to rebuild their credibility, she said, was with faculty remaining from the 90s. But so far, it doesn’t look like that will be an uphill battle.

“What I objected to before was their absolute incivility of discourse, hiding behind their independence,” Sens, the Classics professor, said. “So I think it’s great if they’re not going to be like that and instead engage in civil discourse.”

Some organizations are even looking forward to the publication of the new Academy. Debbie Reichmann, the program coordinator of Georgetown’s Jewish chaplaincy, said that her understanding of the new Academy is that it’s “all about building bridges and expanded dialogue, and I think that serves all faiths.”

Sivagami Subbaraman, the director of the new LGBTQ Center, which Academy writers say they will be keeping an eye on, is also intrigued.

“I’m glad this publication is getting revived. Because if they have an honest question, I have an honest answer,” she said.

Other than the name, what survives in the new Academy from the old incarnation remains to be seen. The Dante quote that editors have used since the publication’s inception—“The hottest place in hell are reserved for those who, in times of conflict, remain neutral”—remains the same.

Pence has suggestions of his own to offer Gregory. While he says the decision to abandon satire in the revived Academy may be a boon to campus perceptions of the publication, he questions the new Academy’s ability to rival the popularity of the old one.

“I wish him well, but I should tell him, I want him to use some humor,” Pence said. “And when I’m reading about him in the New York Times, then we’ll see how well he’s done.”

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