“The report of my death has been
Michael Orsi argues in a June 4, 2012
article for Crisis that, although
Exorcist author William Peter
Blatty’s contemplated canonical action against Georgetown University “is both
noble and correct,” it nonetheless “will be dead on arrival.” Father Orsi does
well to point out some of the hurdles that an action like this one faces, but
in the final analysis, his judgment is too defeatist and too pessimistic. Blatty’s
Georgetown action is by no means “DOA.”
begin, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am a canonist
and have consulted with some of the organizers who are assisting Mr. Blatty.
However, I have never spoken with Mr. Blatty and have not been asked to
month, Blattya writer and filmmaker who graduated from Georgetown in 1950launched a website devoted to collecting
signatures for a petition expressing “grave concerns” about the university’s “twenty-one
year refusal to comply fully with the law of the Church through the
implementation of the general norms of Ex corde Ecclesiae and its eleven year non-compliance
with certain particular norms adopted for the United States.” Blatty also
posted a letter on the site stating that he is looking into canonical measures
against Georgetown “that will include, among others, that Georgetown’s right to
call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time.”
believe that any judgment on Blatty’s action against Georgetown is premature
for the simple reason that there is no such action yet. He is indeed
contemplating a canonical procedure against Georgetown, but his public letter
makes clear that a formal petition is only a possibility at this point (“We may choose to file…” [emphasis added]).
Moreover, that public letter also suggests that Blatty is willing to engage in
a dialogue with Georgetown about the issues. In fact, I suspect that he greatly
would prefer, not to deprive Georgetown of its Catholic identity, but rather to
see his alma mater once again embrace
that identity with affection and ardor.
do some Georgetown students and alumni believe that their university has
compromised its Catholic identity? One could point to several recent events
that mark the nation’s oldest Catholic university as more of a counter-witness
than a witness to its faith:
has repeatedly staged The Vagina
Monologues on campus.
university covered up a symbol of Christ the Lordthe Christogram IHSfor a 2009 speech by President
Obama at Georgetown.
- During this
year’s commencement weekend, Georgetown honored Kathleen Sebelius, the US
secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, by having her address
its Public Policy Institute. Sebelius is the author of the federal mandate
that attacks the religious liberty of Catholic employers by requiring them
to provide health-care plans covering contraception, sterilization, and
Orsi is correct that bishops are reluctant to strip a university of its Catholic
identity, even when the administration’s disregard of Catholic sensibilities is
flagrant. The difficulty is that bishops have relatively few canonical
sanctions that they can impose upon an erring university, and the main one that
they do havedeprivation of Catholic identityis such a forceful measure that
bishops are indeed hesitant to impose it.
it is surprising that Father Orsi would argue for the absolute futility of this
remedy, given that less than two weeks before his Crisis article, Orsi himself was
cited for the proposition that the Blatty action against Georgetown enjoys
canonical precedent. Orsi referred in particular to the 2010 decision of
Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted to deprive a hospital in his diocese of its
Catholic identity after an abortion was performed there.
Orsi also might have referred to the case of Marist College in Poughkeepsie,
New York. Following Marist’s 2003 selection of then-New York Attorney General
Eliot Spitzer (a proponent of abortion) to deliver its commencement address,
the Archdiocese of New York declared the college “no longer Catholic.”
the precedent closest to home for Georgetown alumni is one from 20 years ago.
In the early 1990s, Georgetown’s dean of students announced that the university
would provide financial funding to G.U. Choice, an abortion advocacy
organization. More than 1,000 alumni joined together to file a canonical
petition, and eventually Georgetown was forced to withdraw the funding. (The dean
of students who announced the funding for G.U. Choice was John J. DiGioia, who
in 2001 became the 48th, and current, president of Georgetown University.)
a result of these facts and Father Orsi’s own public statements, it is
astonishing that he so definitively would pronounce the Blatty action hopeless.
Moreover, most of the substitute remedies that Orsi recommends are likely to be
ineffective or unworkable.
Orsi suggests some extra-canonical remediessuch as denouncing college
administrators and withholding alumni supportand these are fine as far as they
go. They do indeed raise public awareness and enable concerned alumni at least
to prevent their own contributions from being used to advance an agenda that is
inconsistent with the faith. However, measures like these do not appear ever to
have provoked a “Nineveh moment” for a single Catholic college or university.
Orsi also suggests some canonical remedies, but the ones he identifies are
problematic. First, he suggests the remedy of excommunicating university administrators.
He does not specify the canonical crime (or delict)
that he has in mind, but he seems to be thinking of heresy or apostasy. The
difficulty is that heresy and apostasy primarily are crimes of speech or
written expression. Heresy involves a denial of a truth of the faith, and
apostasy is the repudiation of the faith itself (cf. canon 751). The invitation
to Sebelius, however, does not necessarily entail an outright denial or
repudiation of the faith, certainly not an express one. It is a deed, more than
a declaration of a belief. The Sebelius invitation is offensive, but one must
not blithely assume that it amounts to heresy or apostasy. The reason is that
the Church demands that one give a narrow reading or strict construction to
laws imposing a penalty (cf. canon 18).
Orsi also suggests interdict as a
remedy, which he describes as a prohibition on priests exercising their
ministry in a given place. This notion may be familiar from history and
literature, but in the current law of the Church, this idea no longer exists.
The penalty of interdict remains, but with the publication of the 1983 Code of Canon
Law, interdict became a penalty to be imposed only on a person, and no longer on
a specific geographical area.
Orsi closes his article by describing universities like Georgetown as “already
lost to the Church,” and he advises his readers to turn instead to one of the newer
and more faithful Catholic universities (presumably including the one where he
teaches, Ave Maria). Perhaps he is correct. Perhaps each of the venerable old Catholic
universities in our country is indeed a Gomorrah determined to go its own way. If
this is the case, however, then the deprivation of Catholic identity cannot
come quickly enough, so that the affiliations of these schools will correspond
to the grim reality of their life and teaching.
Then again, however, perhaps things are not yet
completely hopeless. Perhaps oneor even more than oneof the old Catholic
colleges yet may prove itself to be a Nineveh rather than a Gomorrah. So long
as there are alumni who hold this hope and are willing to act upon it, should
we not give them our encouragement?
Editor’s note: A previous version of this
article mentioned canonical “penalties” being sought against Georgetown
University; those references have been changed to the more precise terms “canonical
action” and “measures.”