Soul Searching: Navigating Georgetown’s Catholic Identity

Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Georgetown University Photo by Brooke Dudek

by Lilah Burke, Isaiah Seibert, and Liz Teitz

In 2012, it was Kathleen Sebelius. Setting aside her pro-choice politics, Georgetown University invited the then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to speak at the commencement of its Public Policy Institute. The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic group, gathered 26,000 signatures in a petition to the University to disinvite her.

“Georgetown insults all Americans by this honor,” the petition read. “The selection is especially insulting to faithful Catholics and their bishops, who are engaged in the fight for religious liberty and against abortion.”

In 2016, it’s Cecile Richards. The President of Planned Parenthood, invited by the students of the Lecture Fund, is scheduled to speak in Lohrfink Auditorium on April 20. Groups including the Cardinal Newman Society and the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property have started petitions calling for the event’s cancellation. Authorities including the Archdiocese of Washington have issued statements urging the University to reconsider, claiming that supporting her visit through a recognized student group is in defiance of Catholic doctrine.

At the center of both debates lies the University’s Catholic and Jesuit heritage and identity. They address the fundamental question of balancing the function of a university with the values of Catholicism. “Everyday and every generation of students and faculty here, we carry that inherent tension between being a university in all its fullness, and being Catholic and Jesuit,” said Vice President for Mission and Ministry Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ‘88).

“Is Georgetown Catholic enough?” The question finds itself recurring every year, with every potentially provocative speaker. “Is Georgetown too Catholic?” others ask, who find the institution too restrictive. Every day, the Georgetown administration is asked to balance these two forces, to navigate the waters between its roles as a university and as a Catholic institution. Often, these roles are complementary. Sometimes they are at odds.

What is necessary now is to investigate what it really means to be a Catholic university, and what these words have come to mean practically and spiritually for Georgetown. The answer is not simple, but the issue deserves to be addressed in all of its nuance. The spirit of the Jesuit education would require nothing less.


“Every Catholic school, every Catholic institution needs to be a place where those who attend can authentically encounter the Risen Lord,” said Tom Burnford, Education Secretary for the Archdiocese of Washington.

There is no single Catholic governing body charged with evaluating Georgetown’s actions and policies, though the Vatican participates in significant “quality assurance” with pontifical universities, such as the Catholic University of America. Within the Catholic Church, however, several authorities express expectations of Catholic universities, which Georgetown seeks to meet.

Among these is the local Archdiocese, led by CardinalDonald Wuerl, which oversees parochial K-12 schools, but not higher education. Burnford highlighted four traits he believes should be present in all Catholic institutions.

“First is that it teaches the authentic Catholic faith, in whatever capacity,” he said. “The second is that it celebrates the sacraments, provides opportunities for people to encounter the Lord through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. The third, it has an appropriate ecclesial communion with the Church, that it relates to the local bishop in an authentic and healthy way, to ensure that community of believers that is the Church. And then the fourth element is that the educational environment of the school is permeated by the Gospel, so that the message of the Gospel permeates the entire Catholic educational institution.”

In a 1990 apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II also outlined the roles and responsibilities of Catholic universities. “Besides the teaching, research, and services common to all universities, a Catholic university, by institutional commitment, brings to its task the inspiration and light of the Christian message. In a Catholic university, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes, and principles penetrate and inform university activities.”

These responsibilities are carried at Georgetown through university’s administration. Administratively, the secular Board of Directors has overseen University affairs since the late 1960s. “However, as a Catholic university and as a Jesuit university we are always in conversation with the local Bishop or Cardinal in this case, and the local Jesuit superiors,” O’Brien explained. “We are also engaged with different congregations or offices in the Vatican.” These conversations, which range from formal occasions to informal discussions of academic life and initiatives, play a guiding role in shaping the administration’s actions and align with the instructions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

That being said, the University regularly provides a space for the discussion of views that are contrary to the Church’s official teachings. This commitment is seen as a part of their duty as an institution of learning. “We’re a university, and like the best of universities, we are committed to the relentless pursuit of truth,” O’Brien said. “We are committed to the free exchange of ideas, where questions can be proposed and no answer’s off limits.” O’Brien frames the decision as indicative that the administration is secure in their trust of Catholic doctrine. They do not believe that Catholic thought can be weakened simply with the presentation of other views. “We trust in that free exchange of ideas,” O’Brien said. “The truth will prevail when those ideas are tested.”

This is where the university deviates from the Archdiocese’s advice. In the wake of the Richards invitation, the Archdiocese made a statement arguing that the invitation reflects an ignorance of moral values. “The apparent unawareness of those pushing the violence of abortion and the denigration of human dignity that there are other human values and issues being challenged in the world lends credence to the perception of the ‘ivory tower’ life of some on campus,” the release reads.

Burnford echoed this, stating that “I think that when an institution publicly proclaims something that is offensive to the Catholic Church, that it’s an attack or an offense against ecclesial communion. I think we also need to acknowledge that in the case when something happens on campus, or a speaker or presenter presents something that is offensive to Catholics on campus, I think then you have a problem.”

John Carr, Director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, sees the commitment to pluralism as a central part of the university’s Catholic identity. “It seems to me there are a couple ways to be Catholic,” Carr said. “One way is you hunker down and try to preserve and protect things. Or you open up and try and engage and persuade the world. Georgetown is an ‘engage and persuade’ kind of Catholic university.”

It is also with this reasoning that the University has chosen to create and fund non-Catholic ministries on campus. Religious instruction at Georgetown goes beyond Catholic dialogue, incorporating other faiths and doctrines. Georgetown was the first Catholic university to provide an LGBTQ Resource Center in 2008, after more than two decades of activism around the official recognition of LGBTQ students, breaking with tradition of other Catholic institutions. Student groups with views directly in contrast to Catholic tradition, such as H*yas for Choice, though unrecognized, are permitted to have a visible presence on campus.

The University does, however, privilege Catholic values in that exchange. “The University does endorse certain positions,” O’Brien said. “If you want to look for … where a university stands, look at staffing and funding and publicity. Look at where the university is communicating itself.” For example, O’Brien noted that the University provides funding and publicity for the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, as well as funding and staffing for the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

“We spent 10 million dollars renovating Dahlgren, 17 million dollars building a retreat center, showing our commitment to students’ spiritual lives. We fund the largest campus ministry in the country, ” O’Brien added. “While there are different expressions on campus where students enjoy free speech, the University can privilege or emphasize certain expressions, certain commitments stemming from our Catholic tradition.”

Georgetown’s Catholic identity is further complicated by its affiliation with the Society of Jesus. Though the Jesuit order lies within the Church, a historic and continuing difference in focus and application of beliefs makes understanding where Georgetown fits even more challenging.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II exemplified this divide when he reprimanded the Jesuit order, saying that a priest’s job “is not that of a doctor, a social worker, a politician or a union leader.” In a criticism of then-recent liberal trends in the order, the Pope suggested to more than 100 Jesuit leaders gathered at the Vatican that “the necessary concern for justice must be exercised in conformity with your vocation as priests and brothers.” He referred to the Jesuit’s liberal leanings as their “regrettable shortcomings.”

Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, has countered this emphasizing that the Church should take a more active role in serving those in need. “I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope,” he said in his 2015 address to Congress. “The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.” Throughout his papacy, he has emphasized inclusivity and service as a crucial part of Catholicism, drawing a closer bond between the history of Jesuit values and service and the Catholic institution.


The university’s Catholic identity informs more than just its policies. For some students, it is a major influence on campus life. “Being a Catholic student here I can engage in all kinds of services: in reconciliation on Mondays, nightly mass,” said Max Rosner (COL ‘18), Grand Knight of the Georgetown’s Knights of Columbus Council. In that role, he said, “I try to offer as many resources for the Catholic community.”

Kari Nelson (COL ‘16), Program Coordinator for The Francis Project: Hoyas for Human Dignity and Life, found that getting involved in the Catholic community transformed how she looked at all aspects of Georgetown. “I think people see being Catholic as a way Georgetown is restricted by something,” she said, “but I think that’s a really limiting way to look at it.” She highlighted her interactions with her professors and the robust campus ministry.

The Catholic identity also extends into the classroom, in keeping with the University’s papal charge to balance rigorous academic search for truth with the moral values of a Catholic education. Michael Khan (COL ‘18), president of GU Right to Life, pointed to the influence of Jesuit values such as cura personalis in his biology class through initiatives like the Engelhard Project, which seeks to include health and wellness lessons in courses throughout all disciplines. “I think that a lot of what we do, our Jesuit values give us an extra stepping stone to understanding the world around us and to living out what we believe in,” Khan said.

While Khan feels that the Catholic identity manifests itself in many different ways on campus, he believes there is room for improvement. “When they remove crosses from the classrooms, when they removed crosses for President Obama’s speech in Gaston, when they at one pointed funded the H*yas for Choice group [in 1991], and coming up, allowing Cecile Richards to speak on campus unchallenged,” said Khan. “I think all those examples are kind of us not living up to our Jesuit and Catholic values so I think that’s unfortunate, and I think we could do a lot more to show that we’re really committed not only to Church teaching and Catholic values, but the Jesuit ethos of creating a culture of life, of caring for others.”

For other students, Catholicism and Jesuit values affect their experience on campus in a less spiritual way. “I really like that Georgetown is Jesuit,” said Mallory Vial (COL ‘18), president of the Secular Student Alliance. She believes that the values translate easily to secular principles. “The fact that it’s Catholic is less important to me, but I like a lot of the Jesuit ideals, especially the ones that are more secular: being men and women for others, academic excellence, and things like that.”

Vial believes that the Catholic influence on the University isn’t entirely positive, however. “I think there are some negative things that come out of it … I think H*yas for Choice should be allowed to be a student group. I think contraceptives should be allowed to be sold on campus, but I think [students have] found good ways around it and so I think all and all, it has a neutral effect,” she added.

The Catholic identity of the University is perhaps most often discussed in relation to groups’ access to university benefits and formal recognition. H*yas for Choice is the most prominent example, as they are not able to receive any funding from the University, and all supplies and events must be funded by donations or grants.

In a March 2015 post on their blog, members of the group explained why they chose to attend Georgetown, despite their strong positions in opposition to the Catholic pro-life position: “As a pro-choice individual, I chose to come to Georgetown for a number of reasons — the academic and extracurricular opportunities, the Jesuit ideals, the location, and the community’s commitment to reflective and relevant dialogue,” wrote Yijin Yang (COL ‘17). “I did not choose Georgetown because it was perfect. I came to this school knowing that there would be policies with which I would not agree, people with whom I would not share the same views, and things I would like to change. This is the case with any place that values positive change and healthy debate, and Georgetown is no different.”

Dr. Jeanne Lord, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, also believes the Catholic identity contributes to diversity of reasons of attendance a significant part of the University. “I think people are drawn to this place, this very special place, for many reasons: academic rigor, international character, the location, but in large part because of this very old and profound philosophical underpinning of all that we do.”

Another prominent case of groups not receiving access to university benefits due to the University’s Catholic identity is Greek organizations. “Honestly, we operate just fine without Georgetown’s recognition of our fraternity.  We believe that our fraternity very closely and very strongly embodies Georgetown’s values such as cura personalis … and men and women for others,” wrote Devin Baker (MSB ‘17), president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, in an email to the Voice.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Tucker Cowden (MSB ‘17), president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, said, “there are Catholic schools that do have Greek life so it’s certainly not a unanimous ruling as far as whether or not it’s okay with or in line with Catholicism and Catholic universities to have Greek life be a part of that experience. I think at Georgetown, we talk about our Jesuit identity and the ideals that overshadow all of campus life … I personally wouldn’t say that those are things that are antithetical to the reasons I joined SAE and the reasons I’ve continued to be really involved in it.”

Compellingly at Georgetown, those with views contrary to conservative Catholic teaching, or some of Georgetown’s more conservative policies, often choose to situate their arguments within the ideological framework of Catholic and Jesuit social thought. The Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), appropriates Jesuit vocabulary, such as the concept of cura personalis, to bolster their arguments for worker justice. Criticizing the University’s treatment of its workers, GSC’s recent “Work with Dignity” rally called on the University to revisit its 2005 Just Employment Policy “to show that the rhetoric around Jesuit values is more than just a marketing scheme.”

Others, with even more contrary views, use the language in a similar way. “I came to Georgetown because, to me, it is evident that cura personalis is in line with my pro-
choice views,” wrote Lily Westergrad (COL ’15) on H*yas for Choice’s blog on March 2, 2015. “In a perfect world, ‘care for the whole person’ would extend to sexual health, reproductive justice, and bodily autonomy. Our Jesuit identity should serve to bolster these principles, not as a reason to repress an important part of the human experience.”


Carr, in a discussion of Catholic education, explained the applicability of the Jesuit values in conversation with a variety of viewpoints and arguments by saying that a Jesuit education gives students the “moral vocabulary” necessary to have complex discussions about topics such as faith, service, and reason.

And so, as speakers like Cecile Richards continue to receive invitations to speak at Georgetown, the debate between the religious and academic aspects of this institution will continue. But this dynamic, with its simple dualism, fails to capture the depth of this question of identity at Georgetown. As groups such as H*yas for Choice adopt the language of Catholic social thought, and others call for an increased adherence to Catholic doctrine, the line blurs between what is religious and what is not. Georgetown University, founded by an order that has long walked the line between old-school Catholicism and an embrace of liberal values, faces the challenge of holding its unique ground within the myriad of competing conceptions of modern Catholicism.

 An error with regards to the opening of the LGBTQ Resource Center has been corrected. The Center was opened in 2008, not in 2000.

An error with regards to Tom Burnford’s statement has been corrected. His first quote should include, “Risen Lord,” in place of “written Lord.”

Elizabeth Teitz
Liz Teitz is a former News Editor of The Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the college in 2016.

Lilah Burke
Lilah Burke is the former executive news editor of the Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service in 2018.

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Ryan M

I am faculty at another Catholic institution, and have no affiliation with Georgetown.

I find it very curious that, according to the quotes from members of the Georgetown community presented here, there seems to be a strong sentiment that one can treat the Jesuit and Catholic aspects of Georgetown’s identity as separate.

However, I don’t think you can reasonably deny that being Catholic is necessarily contained with the definition of being Jesuit.

How would members of the Georgetown community respond to this apparent contradiction?

al leluia

^^^excellent point.

It seems as though the students who are “appropriating” Jesuit vocabulary to justify their secular/non-Catholic causes are conflating what they mean to say and what the Jesuit principle actually is. Cura Personalis and being a person for others isn’t as simple as taking care of every single whim an individual has or just being nice to other people. They are principles rooted in Catholic theology that would most certainly not defend abortion, contraception, or “reproductive justice”