What To Do About GU?

Some are ready to declare a canonical action against Georgetown “dead on arrival.” They shouldn’t be.

“The report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”  — Mark Twain

Father 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.”

To 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 represent him.

Last month, Blatty—a writer and filmmaker who graduated from Georgetown in 1950—launched 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.”

I 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.

Why 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:

  • Georgetown has repeatedly staged The Vagina Monologues on campus.
  • The university covered up a symbol of Christ the Lord—the Christogram IHS—for 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 abortion-inducing drugs.

Father 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 have—deprivation of Catholic identity—is such a forceful measure that bishops are indeed hesitant to impose it.

However, 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.

Father 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.”

Perhaps 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.)

As 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.

Father Orsi suggests some extra-canonical remedies—such as denouncing college administrators and withholding alumni support—and 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.

Father 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). 

Father 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.

Father 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 one—or even more than one—of 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.”

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About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.