Georgetown is great, just not Catholic anymore

April 23, 2009

Although varying in tone, the condemnations of the University’s decision to hide the “IHS” symbol in Gaston Hall last Tuesday at the White House’s request have one thing in common: they’re all wrong.
From the vitriolic to the sympathetic, every critic who has shamed Georgetown for masking the Jesuit emblem—which includes the Latin letter for Christ—during Barack Obama’s speech is under the impression that Georgetown is a Catholic school.
But in reality, Georgetown has not been administered as if it were a Catholic school for quite some time now. For angry Catholics to expect Georgetown to do so now is foolish.
If Georgetown were administered like a Catholic university, it would tout its Catholicism to prospective students with the same enthusiasm that a school like Notre Dame does (on their website, they devote as much space to the topic of “soul” as they do to “mind”).
Its students would graduate with some knowledge of Catholicism, not with a handful of credits that, depending on the Problem of God or Bib Lit professor, don’t guarantee that Catholic thought will be a part of their education.
If Georgetown were committed to its Catholic identity, the University would make you get a Catholic education, and that’s the Pope’s honest truth.
A Catholic school doesn’t need an overwhelmingly Catholic student body or to proselytize to its non-Catholic students in order to be Catholic, but it does have to insist that its values will play a role in student’s education—and Georgetown does not. And these values would not be optional when it comes to the University’s operation.
Administrators would either “act Catholic” or not: covering the religious symbols in Gaston Hall would be non-negotiable because the symbols would represent the institutional identity of the school.
That’s the kind of school that would demand that Obama take his show elsewhere if it couldn’t leave the Jesuit’s emblem emblazoned above his head while he spoke.
Georgetown would need to embody those principles in the first place for accusations that the University “compromised” its principles to be legitimate.
I do not mean to insist that Georgetown doesn’t have a Catholic community—it does. With prestigious Catholic thinkers on its faculty, a 51 percent Catholic student body, strong Mass attendance, and a robust campus ministry, Georgetown is a great place to be for a Catholic of serious faith.
But that’s as far as Georgetown’s Catholicism will go. Call it a shame, call it a blessing, just don’t call it Catholic.

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I wouldn’t say that Georgetown isn’t Catholic, but it definitely isn’t as Catholic as some other Catholic schools.

Let me put it this way: it’s definitely not secular. Compare the experience here — from official exposure to Catholicism to discussion of religious issues to the strong presence of “Catholic values” of social justice, cura personalis, etc — to what you’d get at a state or secular school. There’s a vast difference. We may not be ultra-Catholic, but we’re not secular by a looong shot. As in most things, we fall somewhere in the middle.

Call us Catholic Lite, call us “Jesuit,” just don’t call us not-Catholic!


Molly, save your op-ed until they start selling condoms in Vittles.

Seriously though, I understand we’re not the same place as Catholic Univ, but honestly, you should try reading a few copies of their campus paper and the viewpoints in their editorial section. I’m sorry, I’m a devoted Catholic, but that place is pretty much bonkers. They’re afraid to say anything outside of a very tightly controlled box — and it’s to their detriment.

Catholicism isn’t just one monolithic thing. The people of Oscar Romero’s parish were living a Catholicism that was quite a different flavor than the folks in one of those Opus Dei parishes — and yet, it’s the same faith.

And what exactly do you mean by not getting a “Catholic education?” Should all students be required to take a course in Catholic theology, or Catholic history, or just spend time learning the details of the liturgical calendar and the order of the Mass?

I thought the Church “bows down before Creation,” and that includes a strong education in the sciences and arts — and that’s definitely an area in which GU has ND and CUA beat, hands down.

Dave Gregory

Hi Molly,

You’re dead-on in a lot of your critique, but we can’t dismiss Georgetown’s Catholic identity simply because Georgetown isn’t like Notre Dame or Catholic U. A Jesuit priest named John Piderot wrote a book on different kinds of Catholic schools, and Georgetown falls into a small contingent of universities that are termed “cohort” institutions. The Catholicity of cohort institutions depends on a relatively small number of students, faculty, and administrators who advocate for its identity and animate its ministry.

However, such a model for a Catholic institution does not make it any less Catholic, but it does make it less noticeably Catholic. I completely agree with you; Georgetown needs to step up its advertising, advocate for its Jesuit identity more when promoting the school to prospective students. I would also prefer a tighter curriculum pushing for an educational style more in line with the “ratio studiorum” model of early Jesuit schools that existed through several decades ago, as such a model would introduce students to a more strictly conception of theology and philosophy.

Georgetown’s identity is nothing like that of Notre Dame or Catholic University, nor does it need to be in order to be authentically Catholic. The fact of the matter is this: Jesuit-Catholic ideals resonate throughout every aspect of academics and Catholic life. While there is always room for improvement, Georgetown is solidly Catholic; it can neither be classified as non-Catholic or even “Catholic lite”. Admittedly though, as I stated above, there is much room for critique, but its Catholicity is not easily understood.


Georgetown is unquestioningly Catholic, just not THAT Catholic. It’s a matter of degrees, saying that we’re “not” implies it’s a binary state.

I agree that we could be more Catholic, but I think Georgetown has a damn good balance. It’s a type of Catholic/Jesuit institution and the Jesuit philosophy definitely has a huge impact on the campus, the students, the teachers, the mission, etc. I agree with the commenter above — it’s definitely not secular, either. I like that Georgetown has a very strong Catholic spirit but that it doesn’t actively force it down anybody’s throat. My experience on campus as a non-Catholic has actually been fantastic as a result; I’ve participated in Mass, had Jesuit professors, see the Jesuit influence on my lay professors, and appreciate the university’s commitment to social justice.