The Case for Catholicism

October 31, 2013

On Oct. 4, the Archdiocese of Washington submitted a canon law petition organized by William Peter Blatty (COL ’50) asking the Church to require that Georgetown abide by Pope John Paul II’s directives for Catholic universities, Ex corde Ecclesiae, or else disallow Georgetown from designating itself as Catholic. Though the petition is a request to the Church and does not require signatures, according to a group that Blatty founded in support of the petition, the Father King Society, over 2,000 Catholics, including members of the Georgetown community, have signed petition mandates and statements in support of its claims.

In response to the 200-page petition, which documents “23 years of scandals and dissidence” according to Manuel Miranda (SFS ’82), legal counsel to Blatty, the University maintains that it has stayed loyal to its Catholic identity.

“If you take away Catholic and Jesuit from Georgetown, we cease to be the university that we have been over 225 years, and that is a university committed to the integration of learning because we’re a university, faith because we’re a Catholic university, and service because we’re a Jesuit university,” said Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ’88), vice president for mission and ministry.

Since its founding in 1789, Georgetown has undergone a transformation from small Catholic academy to global research university. Despite its rich history and tradition, Georgetown has struggled with the changes imposed on it through time—in fact, Blatty’s petition fits into nearly half a century of soul-searching by the University in response to contemporary challenges to Georgetown’s purported Catholic identity.


Fr. Gerard Campbell, S.J., the 44th president of Georgetown, is quoted in R. Emmett Curran’s History of Georgetown as saying, “Tradition, however glorious, is useless, even detrimental, if it serves as an anchor; it is of inestimable value as a rudder. … If we are heirs of the past, we are no less the trustees and brokers of the future.”

Campbell, who passed away in August 2012, became president of Georgetown in December 1964. During his tenure, he was responsible for spearheading what many historians identify as a major change in the way Georgetown perceived itself and its role as a University—the transition in Georgetown’s governance from an internal all-Jesuit board to an external board of directors including laypeople unaffiliated with the Church. This new external board had ultimate authority in institutional operations, including in the appointment of the University’s president. As a result, Georgetown became an autonomous institution independent of any external authority, including the Church.

This break was influenced by the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which occurred between 1962 and 1965.

“Vatican II affected the structure of Catholic universities by its implicit recognition of the autonomy of the intellectual enterprise that is at the heart of higher education,” Curran wrote in an email to the Voice. “That recognition indirectly involved a rejection of the notion that religious individuals (bishops) or communities (religious orders such as the Society of Jesus) ‘owned’ the institutions of higher education that they legally governed through boards.”

However, Roman authorities as well as select campus Jesuits were displeased. In response, the provincial superior of Maryland Jesuits at the time, Fr. Edward Sponga, S.J., defended Georgetown by contending that “the Society of Jesus should permit its name to be identified with an institution which adheres to the Jesuit Education Association, and in which it is able to place responsible Jesuits … since a group of such responsible men can exercise a truly Jesuit apostolic influence within the institution.”

The Vatican approved Georgetown’s external board in 1966 and the addition of laymen the following year. By 1970, the majority of board members were non-Jesuits.

In altering its governance structure, Georgetown consciously recognized that, as a University, it was experiencing and reacting to a time of enormous change. In 1968, the University’s board of directors charged a working group with the task of defining the distinctive character of Georgetown’s education. The resulting 1969 report identified six characteristics of University identity, including that Georgetown was “Catholic but ecumenical in thrust,” as well as “Jesuit in tradition.” Specifically, the latter included a “critical core” of Jesuits involved in the educational, administrative, and pastoral aspects of University activities.

Campbell’s vision was complemented by that of Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., Georgetown’s 46th president from 1976 to 1989. According  to Curran’s History, Healy believed a Catholic university like Georgetown needed a critical mass of Christian and Jesuit faculty in order to preserve Catholic intellectual tradition in teaching. Nevertheless, he maintained a strong conviction that, at its core, the University was and needed to remain secular and autonomous in nature.


Although Healy was a proponent of free dialogue, his conception of what that meant and what its implications were for Georgetown’s Catholic identity were challenged when the University faced a lawsuit concerning its refusal to grant gay-rights groups official recognition or access to benefits. In 1980, the Gay Rights Coalition of Georgetown University Law Center and the main campus group Gay People of Georgetown University sued the University on the basis of the District’s Human Rights Act of 1977, which prohibits an educational institution from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

After a seven-year legal battle, the District Appeals Court ruled that Georgetown did not have to recognize the groups but had to give them equal benefits and access to facilities.

Unhappy with the ruling, Georgetown appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. Healy accepted the ruling, although some commentators speculated that he did not appeal further out of fear of risking $127 million in tax-exempt construction bonds from the District. Georgetown would then grant access to benefits for its gay-rights student groups, a decision that had repercussions among Catholics opposed to homosexuality on the basis of Church doctrine.

Two years later, in 1989, President Healy was to be succeeded by Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J. The question of Catholic identity, so recently stirred up by the lawsuit, did not take long to surface once again—this time, around access to benefits for a pro-choice student group.

In the fall of 1990, during the second year of O’Donovan’s administration, the newly-formed undergraduate student organization GU Choice applied for University recognition and benefits. Cognizant that some of the goals of the group ran counter to Catholic doctrine, then-Dean of Students John DeGioia worked with GU Choice to develop a constitution that addressed such concerns. DeGioia approved the group in February 1991.

“The students of GU Choice recognize that they will be conducting their activities in an institutional context in which the matter of abortion is settled. … There can be no cooperation of the club in the advocacy and practice of abortion,” DeGioia wrote in a letter to the Georgetown University community at the time. In spite of this restriction, Georgetown became the first Catholic university in the nation to approve a pro-choice group.

The outrage from some in the Georgetown community was immediate. In the fall of 1991, under the name of the Georgetown Ignatian Society, over 1,500 Georgetown alumni, professors, and students filed a canon law petition asking Cardinal Hickey, then-Archbishop of Washington, to require Georgetown to comply with Catholic teachings or else be stripped of its Catholic identity.

This petition was filed in light of the recently-released Ex corde Ecclesiae, “From the heart of the Church,” an apostolic constitution in which Pope John Paul II outlined the defining characteristics of Catholic universities. The guidelines would take ten years to apply to American universities but provided those opposed to GU Choice a framework to challenge DeGioia’s decision nevertheless.

“The present active support of GU Choice, if continued, will have the corrosive effect of suggesting that the moral character of abortion is a debatable issue even on the hilltops of the Church,” the petition stated. “Georgetown’s example, left to fester, will make impotent and ineffectual the Holy Father’s recent promulgation of Ex corde Ecclesiae.”

Although Cardinal Hickey criticized Georgetown for funding a group which, according to him, was inconsistent with the aims of a Catholic institution, in December 1991 he stated that only the Pope had the authority to grant or deny Georgetown Catholic status.

In early April 1992, the Ignatian Society sent the petition directly to Pope John Paul II. This submission came on the heels of O’Donovan’s visit to Rome in March of the same year. Though the extent to which the Vatican pressured the University’s administration remains unclear, on April 24, O’Donovan and DeGioia announced that Georgetown would no longer financially support GU Choice. According to DeGioia’s message to the community, “separating speech from advocacy proved unmanageable.”

While supporters of the petition saw this as a clear victory, the issues brought up by the GU Choice episode inspired a second working group on Catholic identity in the early 90’s. The findings of the group stressed the importance of maintaining a strong Jesuit presence, both physical and intellectual. Two years later, acknowledging this essential aspect of Georgetown identity but aware that conforming to its Jesuit heritage did not require Jesuit leadership, the University board of directors elected John DeGioia to succeed O’Donovan as Georgetown’s first-ever non-Jesuit president.


In May of last year, Georgetown announced that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius would deliver a keynote address at the Public Policy Institute’s Tropaia awards ceremony. The decision evoked outrage from Catholics upset with Georgetown for inviting a well-known pro-choice advocate.

A few days before Sebelius was scheduled to speak, DeGioia defended Georgetown’s decision. “The Secretary’s presence on our campus should not be viewed as an endorsement of her views,” DeGioia wrote in a statement addressed to the University community. “We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas.”

In light of Sebelius’s invitation and other grievances, including the founding of the LGBTQ Resource Center in 2008 and the covering of the IHS symbol in Gaston Hall for President Barack Obama’s address in May 2012, in May of this year Blatty announced that the Father King Society had submitted a petition to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C. The petition, which, according to Miranda had been in the works since 2010, asked the Church to require Georgetown to comply with Ex corde Ecclesiae or lose its Catholic status.

Though Cardinal Wuerl has not expressed his support or rejection of the petition, on Oct. 4, the petition reached Rome. To date, the Vatican has not issued a response.

On the website of the Father King Society, Blatty publicly charges the University with multiple instances of non-compliance with Catholic guidelines. The primary charge is that Georgetown has not complied with Ex corde Ecclesiae, which mandates that in Catholic institutions of higher learning, Catholic teachers should constitute a majority and that these educators should respect Catholic doctrines and morals in their teaching and research. The constitution also asserts that “freedom in research and teaching is recognized and respected … so long as the rights of the individual and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

In his argument for pushing Georgetown to be true to its Catholic identity, Blatty cites the recent decree ordered by Pope Benedict XVI in July of last year to strip the Pontifical University of Peru of its right to call itself “pontifical” or “Catholic” since it long allowed the teaching of liberation theology, which it views to be inconsistent with the Church’s teachings. Liberation theology, a school of Catholic thought that stresses the Church’s duty to justice and the poor, has been criticized and dismissed by the Vatican as Marxist and out of step with true
Catholic doctrine.

Blatty has decided not to release the formal petition to the public, claiming that canon law process is traditionally kept under wraps. According to Miranda, in the petition “there are witness statements and evidence that is highly confidential. For example, a letter from family of a young man who was seduced by a gay Jesuit.”

Miranda maintains that he does not believe that open dialogue is equivalent to advocating moral relativism, which the petition accuses Georgetown of doing. “GU should encourage the marketplace of ideas, while not being a bargain basement,” Miranda wrote in an email to the Voice. “Moral relativism means that there are no absolute truths, and nothing has an intrinsic moral content derived from a source of authority, whether God or civil law. Anything that is Catholic is necessarily in opposition to this. But remember that it was the Catholic universities of Europe that held the great debates and appointed the ‘Devil’s Advocate.’ The Church is quite comfortable with open dialogue.”

The University has rebuked the petition’s criticisms. “Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger,” Rachel Pugh, director of media relations, wrote in an email to the Voice. She cited Georgetown’s requirement that undergraduate students take two semesters of theology and two semesters of philosophy over the course of their education as well as its multiple service and social justice programs as evidence of this identity.

In a recent interview with The Hoya, Fr. Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a visiting professor at the Georgetown Law Center and an expert in canon law, said that the petition has no binding power over Georgetown. Orsy refused to comment when asked by the Voice.

Miranda disagrees, claiming that the Church owns the University, an institution erected by the Vatican on land offered by Catholic donors prior to 1789, and that the Society of Jesus holds an apostolate at Georgetown. “The notion that GU is somehow independent of the Church is a myth fostered by people who have come to believe their own lie,” he wrote.

Regardless of the extent of the petition’s weight on Georgetown, some community members believe it addresses real concerns.

“In order to really engage in dialogue, I feel Georgetown has to make clear what the Church’s stance is,” said Kelly Thomas (SFS ’15), co-director of the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. She referenced what she perceives to be a vague stance on contraceptives by the University. “Honestly, I believe that there’s a concern of the backlash. … I think one of the University’s greatest faults is trying to please everybody, and they’re turning away from the Church’s teachings in doing that,” she said.

Others believe its concerns are not justified or cannot be justified by Catholicism.

“Blatty is part of a vocal, tiny minority within the community who wish to go back to the glory days when, as his petition site refers to, ‘the many men of my generation’ dominated society in a way that is no longer useful,” Erin Matson (COL ’02), who volunteers with and mentors students through the Women’s Center, wrote in an email to the Voice. She does not see any conflict between Catholicism and contraception as a matter of public health.

Some students sympathize with the petition’s concerns but do not believe the petition is the solution.

Chris Cannataro (MSB ’15), deputy grand knight of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus, agrees that sometimes there is a disconnect between Catholic teaching and the University’s actions. Nevertheless, he says, “I don’t like talking about the petition because, for me, I see Georgetown’s Catholic identity as a dynamic that the students need to take a hold of.”

Despite the multifaceted reactions to the petition and its implications for Georgetown, considering the debate around Catholic identity that the petition has rekindled in the last year, O’Brien is optimistic. According to him, the dialogue highlights a perpetual effort to define Catholic identity.

“Of late, [the frontiers] are more cultural, intellectual, and religious as we strive to bring the Catholic intellectual tradition in conversation with a range of people in a host of places,” he said. “On these frontiers, whose markings are not always clear, we sometimes get it right, and sometimes wrong. But we who are in the privileged work of Jesuit education know that the frontiers are where we are meant to be because that is where the Church calls us to go.”


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