Don’t Stop Believing: The Catholic perspective on Georgetown’s religious identity

By: and
10/30/2014

Early yesterday afternoon, three unidentified men approached the front gates and set up camp in Healy Circle. They carried black signs with white lettering that read “Repent and Believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15),” “Fear Him Who Has Power to Cast You into Hell (Luke 12:5),” and “Jesus Christ is Lord,” the latter in all capital letters. The men claimed to be members of a hyper-Calvinist, biblical All Grace Church. The men shouted that the souls of Georgetown students must be reborn again and said that every time Catholics go to Mass, they “crucify Christ all over again.” They continued to harass students with their anti-Catholic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-abortion rhetoric even after Georgetown University Police Department officers escorted them away from the front gates and onto the street.

In the past year, Georgetown University has come under public scrutiny of its Catholic identity from all sides. Whether it’s the Calvinist protesters gathered outside the front gates or alumni like William Blatty (COL ’50), who submitted a petition to the Vatican last fall claiming that Georgetown is not Catholic enough, it seems as though Georgetown cannot escape criticism of its religious identity.

Caught in the middle of this debate are the students of Georgetown, particularly those who are practicing Catholics. Catholic students on campus widely reject the claim that Georgetown is not Catholic enough. “I think my time at Georgetown has been the time my faith has grown the most,” Kelly Kimball (NHS ‘16) said. Kimball attended public high school and said that Georgetown’s Jesuit values made the university stand out from the other schools she considered. “Coming to Georgetown was a new experience for me because I had never seen so many Catholic people, especially people my age,” she said.

Kimball, who lives in a house on Magis Row that focuses on Catholic Women and Spirituality and is also a member of the Catholic Daughters, says that at Georgetown, Catholicism cannot be compartmentalized because Catholic identity is integrated throughout all aspects of the Georgetown community.

I think that Georgetown does a really good job of having the Jesuit values pervade everything,” she said. “Everything is done with the Jesuit values in mind. It can be more subtle, for example, everyone here is encouraged to be women and men for others. I think Georgetown operates through its Jesuit values and it’s not something that can be separated from what it does.”

“It’s hard to imagine that we are not a Catholic university,” said Grand Knight of the Georgetown chapter of the Knights of Columbus Christopher Cannataro (MSB ’15). Cannataro attended a Jesuit high school and is currently in his eighth year of Jesuit education. He attends Mass multiple times a week and comes from a family background steeped in Catholicism.

Cannataro cited a class he took with Fr. Stephen Fields, S.J., entitled “Newman and the Catholic Way,” as a particularly formative experience in his Georgetown education. “God in all things is a Jesuit mantra we learn a lot about. How [John Henry] Newman lays out this proof of God which to me is pretty compelling,” he said. 

Aside from his personal convictions, which are largely based on Catholic theology, Cannataro views the role of the Knights of Columbus at Georgetown as one of lay ministry to the campus community. “I see Georgetown as a parish. I see Fr. O’Brien and Fr. Schenden as pastors, and they need lay ministers to help in different ways … I see the Knights of Columbus as a bunch of guys who come together and give back.”

Both Kimball, who is studying to be a chiropractor, and Cannataro, who is planning to pursue a career in law, find that Georgetown’s Catholic values have helped inform their career paths. Kimball said that the School of Nursing and Health Studies teaches its students to be men and women for others and to care of the whole person by providing all-around care for its students. “They care for us more than our grades. The NHS lives Jesuit values,” Kimball said.

As a student in the McDonough School of Business, Cannataro hopes that his faith will help him rise above the stereotypes given to those in the business world in his own professional life.

“There are unethical people out there. It doesn’t matter if you are an investment banker at Goldman Sachs or a theology professor at Harvard. We are all challenged by sinning. Some of the crimes of bankers, the Bernie Madoffs of the world, are so egregious that they give a bad name to the profession everywhere. It’s the frontier of where the theology needs to go. It’s the frontier of how the world works because business is the cutting edge,” he said.

According to President of Campus Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., Georgetown aims to help students see the value in the career path they choose that goes beyond power, money, or prestige. “Any good thing can be corrupted. At the end of your life, you will not carry your job. Your job will end. And at the end of your life, you’re responsible for who you are and the choices you made,” he said. “Power and privilege and money, they can be temptations to self-aggrandizement. They can be temptations to self-involvement, self-promotion.”

Luke Schafer (COL ‘15), who is a member of the Knights of Columbus, said that his faith is a grounding influence for him as he grapples with the challenges and pressures of Georgetown life. “Even though you might be busy or you might be doing a lot, you take the time each day to recenter yourself and be very reflective and ask yourself ‘Why am I doing what I am doing? Is what I am doing for the greater glory of God?’ Keeping that focus is what centers me.”

*     *     *

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17

*      *      *

Travis Richardson (COL ‘15) has experienced a long journey with his faith. The son of a Baptist minister and a non-practicing Catholic, Richardson did not become religious until his father and twin brother died during his late childhood. At that point, he and his mother took up Lutheranism together.

Richardson eventually became disenchanted with the Lutheran Church and its politics, and had a crisis of faith at the age of 17. The crisis led to a two-year period of self-discovery in which Richardson read every major religious text, including atheistic and scientific texts like The Origin of Species.

Richardson officially converted to Catholicism at the age of 19.

“It was my own reasoning that got me from atheism to theism, and then from theism to monotheism … and then from that down to Abrahamic religions. And then it was more thought, deduction, and faith that got me to where I am today,” Richardson said.

Today, faith grounds Richardson’s identity and informs every part of who he is, including his identity as a gay Catholic.

“Faith is the most integral part of my many different identities,” Richardson said. “I identify as Catholic, but I also identify as a cisgender male, and I identify as white, and I identify as gay, and I identify as all these different capacities. But I guess that my faith is the number one identity that I have.”

Richardson now wants to join the Jesuit order and help gay people discover their faith, but he didn’t always know his true calling. He first came to Georgetown not because of its Catholic community, but because he thought it would give him a great start in politics.

Fr. O’Brien, who practiced law immediately after graduating from Georgetown, also took a winding road to his vocation as a Jesuit. “I think God works uniquely with each person. That was a very central principle for St. Ignatius. God works with each person uniquely and specially,” he said.

Richardson eventually found meaning and selflessness at Georgetown’s nightly Catholic Mass community.

“There is anywhere from about 30 to 40 people who go nightly, sometimes less, sometimes more, but you see the same people every night,” Richardson said. “And it’s kind of like a class that you have daily. You just naturally gravitate toward those people. You get to know them in a more intimate setting, and that’s what really roped me into the Catholic community.”

Soon, becoming a priest was something Richardson could not get out of his head. He picked apart every priest’s homily and wondered what kind of priest he could be. He contemplated how he could serve a community of faith.

“I realized that there was a deeper calling there, perhaps,” Richardson said.

Being gay has not stopped Richardson from embracing the Catholic faith, but reconciling his sexuality with the beliefs of some religious people is not easy and remains a daily challenge.

“I, for one, don’t think that faith and homosexuality are incompatible,” Richardson said. “I think it’s completely the opposite. I’m here advocating for gay people to become active members because I found such a welcoming atmosphere in my church setting, as far as my sexuality goes.”

“But, at the same time, I am confronted with the Westboro Baptist Church’s messages or the people who were outside the front gates today with their signs, and things of that nature, which, I know, those things don’t come from God,” Richardson said. “I want to let gay people know that you are loved, you are affirmed.”

Eventually, Richardson found religious brotherhood in Georgetown’s Knights of Columbus and is now their chancellor, coordinating the group’s social justice work in D.C. Joining the Knights, however, was not easy. Richardson initially felt intimidated by the group’s reputation as a conservative student group.

“We definitely had our ups and downs,” Richardson said. “We definitely have disagreements, but all of the Knights really mean well. I’m sure they do. They’re all just looking after people on this campus.”

According to Richardson, the Knights want to improve their image on campus and connect with more student groups. Richardson is working toward dialogue between the Knights and both GU Pride and H*yas for Choice.

Richardson also thinks the idea that Georgetown is not Catholic enough is completely unfounded.

“I’m completely against that argument in every single way because I found my Catholic identity at Georgetown,” Richardson said. “And if Georgetown wasn’t Catholic enough, there is no way that I could do that.”

*      *       *

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” Luke 6:37

*      *       *

Criticism of Georgetown’s Catholic identity largely focuses on the university’s openness to dialogue on campus, which often includes opinions that differ from Church doctrine. “Georgetown allows for faith questioning and constantly challenges those with faith to reflect on one’s faith.” Brian Monahan (COL ‘15) wrote in an email to the Voice. Monahan is  an active member of Georgetown’s Catholic community as a Eucharistic Minister. “I feel that this is why many people criticize Georgetown for not being Catholic. Georgetown encourages dialogue about one’s faith and how it relates to the larger global faith community.”

Cannataro thinks that the diversity of thought on campus has been beneficial to his faith formation. “I never felt uncomfortable as a Catholic student, I felt challenged at times at the diversity of thought on this campus and I think that makes my faith stronger,” he said.

“Georgetown definitely doesn’t push any type of Catholic agenda on people. I think that’s a good thing,” said Kimball. Kimball went on to comment on the message of the protesters from All Grace Church. “Those protesters are not interested in dialogue at all, but I think that Georgetown is.”

Georgetown’s support of dialogue, however, does not stop it from taking a strong stance on moral questions. For example, H*yas for Choice, a pro-choice student group that advocates for the use of contraception and reproductive rights has long fought the administration to receive status as an officially-recognized student group. “For me, a lot of the roadblocks that we’ve encountered are pretty upsetting because, regardless of what half of Americans think, their moral ideology has more value because it’s rooted in longstanding institutions,” H*yas for Choice President Abby Grace (SFS ‘15) said.

Catholic students are also open to dialogue with groups such as H*yas for Choice, but struggle with the question of giving the group official recognition from the university. “I think in any sort of university setting there should be a right to dialogue on these tough issues. I think that H*yas for Choice has a view that should be represented on the campus,” Cannataro said.

“I think that we should be having dialogue about those issues, but I understand why Georgetown as a university can’t support that group,” Kimball said.

Ultimately, regardless of the university’s position on contested topics, Catholics like Fr. O’Brien find solace in working toward the fulfillment of God’s mission.

“In the end, I think that God will ask me ‘whom did you love and whom did you serve?’” O’Brien said. “I think those are questions that are great to ask ourselves every day. When I look back over this day, ‘How did I love today? How did I allow myself to be loved by others? How did I serve? And how was I served by others?’ Those are very good questions to measure a life by: love and service.”

Additional Reporting By Elizabeth Baker

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Caitriona Pagni


4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Don’t Stop Believing: The Catholic perspective on Georgetown’s religious identity”

  1. Avatar cpaz1 says:

    Love this. Am applying and hoping to be accepted. This piece made me 100% sure Georgetown is my first-choice.

  2. Avatar david brown says:

    Father O’Brien’s comments in the last paragraph should guide all members of the Georgetown community everyday.

  3. Avatar mike mulcahy says:

    OK, so Georgetown is neo-Jesuit. That’s not the same thing as being Catholic. Try these: Does Georgetown defend homosexual marriage? Does Georgetown support abortion? Does Georgetown promote fetal stem-cell research? Is Georgetown antithetical to the principle of subsidiarity? Or even: Did Georgetown cover its crucifixes at the behest of the most pro abortion POTUS? Aye, aye, aye and aye. I DO judge Georgetown guilty on all charges!

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