Reform O’Connor Conference, confront Georgetown’s identity

January 24, 2020

For the 21st year, Georgetown will host the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, which the university website touts as the nation’s largest student-run pro-life conference. For the last two decades, the conference has operated under the name of a homophobic leader, invited harmful speakers to campus, failed to promote pro-life ideology across the entirety of the program, and used school resources for the benefit of mainly non-Georgetown students. This editorial board believes the conference should be reformed to honor the Jesuit values of which Georgetown claims to be proud.

In 1989, Cardinal John O’Connor, the former Archbishop of New York after whom the conference is named, spoke against distributing condoms and syringes to stem the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. That same year, the number of AIDS cases reached 100,000 in the United States. Despite the potential benefit of offering protection and clean syringes to sexually active people and intravenous drug users, O’Connor said that “good morality is good medicine” and advocated against implementing these programs for at-risk communities. Looking the other way when people are suffering is not a Jesuit value, nor is blaming their suffering on sin. Georgetown should not continue to allow the conference to operate under O’Connor’s name.

O’Connor is not the only cardinal associated with this conference who promotes harmful ideology. Last year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York gave the event’s keynote address. Six years prior, in 2013, the Telegraph reported that Dolan had arranged to hide millions of dollars away from sexual abuse survivors seeking damages when he was archbishop of Milwaukee. If Georgetown hopes to react to the Catholic church’s sexual abuse crisis responsibly, the university should denounce, not enable, officials who have actively prevented survivors from receiving aid. 

This year’s speaker lineup includes Catherine Glenn Foster, who worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) from 2009 to 2019. The ADF is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and according to NBC News, “has been linked to efforts seeking to criminalize homosexuality, restrict transgender people’s access to sex-segregated facilities and permit businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people.” In the past, the ADF has sponsored the Cardinal O’Connor Conference. By allowing this organization and one of its former employees on campus, Georgetown is fostering an intolerant space for its queer students and acting in direct contradiction to the Jesuit value of “Community in Diversity,” which it frequently expresses publically.

The conference also fails to address pro-life issues adequately. This editorial board does not dispute Georgetown’s right to allow a pro-life conference on campus; however, programming should reflect the spectrum of pro-life issues. Nowhere on the 2020 conference’s listed schedule is any information about capital punishment, though Pope Francis has renounced the death penalty as “inadmissible.” A “pro-life” conference must inherently also be anti-death penalty, or it fails in its mission to promote the dignity of human life. In the future, this editorial board hopes to see the Cardinal O’Connor Conference incorporate programming on capital punishment.

Finally, the conference is a poor use of university resources. According to the minutes from the Jan. 13, 2020 Student Activities Commission (SAC) meeting, roughly 20 percent of the conference’s attendees are Georgetown students. It is a waste of university resources to spend money from the Student Activities fee on a conference that caters mostly to a non-Georgetown audience. As outlined in SAC’s budget guide, SAC funds events according to the percentage of Georgetown participants. If the Cardinal O’Connor conference cannot engage the student body, they should rely on outside fundraising to sponsor the event.

Georgetown’s tradition of Catholicism is deeply important to the university’s history, and the Jesuit values Georgetown advertises are valuable to students of every religion. In 2008, Georgetown became the first Catholic University to open a LGBTQ Resource Center, demonstrating a commitment to being an LGBTQ friendly campus. This conference in its current form, however, does not represent these ideals of acceptance. In order to be both a Catholic university and supportive of queer students and survivors of sex abuse, Georgetown must reckon with the troubling aspects of Catholic teaching, and this Cardinal O’Connor conference provides a unique opportunity to do so. It is time for Georgetown to decide what kind of Catholic institution it wants to be. Will we continue to permit archaic teachings that alienate the LGBTQ community and survivors, or will we push the Church as a whole to move forward and improve? This editorial board implores Georgetown to do the latter.

On the LGBTQ Resource Center’s page, a letter from Georgetown’s Office of Campus Ministry reads that “respect and reverence for the dignity and worth of each person are at the very core of Georgetown’s identity as a Catholic and Jesuit university.” We hope that Georgetown can begin to actively live out this messaging by confronting the Catholic teachings that do not promote human dignity, and the Cardinal O’Connor conference is a critical place to start.

Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead. The Board strives to publish critical analyses of events at both Georgetown and in the wider D.C. community. We welcome everyone from all backgrounds and experience levels to join us!

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