Is Georgetown Catholic?

A Canon Law petition filed with the Vatican requests that Georgetown be denied the right to be called "Catholic"

Concluding that his alma mater “takes pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful,” William Peter Blatty, author of the best-selling book, The Exorcist, filed a Canon Law petition with the Vatican earlier this week asking that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic. Calling Georgetown a “Potemkin Village,” Blatty complained that “at alumni dinners, they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.” For Blatty, Georgetown is the “leader of a pack of schools that are failing to live up to their Catholic identity.”

Mr. Blatty’s 200 page papal petition contains more than 480 footnotes, 99 appendices, 124 witness statements. It also includes a commissioned 120 page institutional audit of Georgetown. According to Manuel A. Miranda, who serves as Mr. Blatty’s counsel, “We have documented 23 years of scandals and dissidence—more than 100 scandals in the most recent years alone.”

The petition—with the signatures of more than 2,000 Catholics—asks Pope Francis to require that Georgetown implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 papal document requiring all Catholic colleges to teach “in communion” with the Church.  The goal of Blatty’s petition is to revoke Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic–unless it complies with Church teachings. 

Since 1967, when Catholic college leaders gathered in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin to create a manifesto that declared their “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical,” most Catholic college presidents have ignored any attempts by their presiding bishops to bring the Catholic colleges and universities into communion with the Church.

For more than four decades, many Catholic colleges and universities have operated as if Church teachings were social constructs contingent on the specific historical, cultural and institutional contexts in which they emerge.   Flouting Catholic doctrine on marriage and reproductive rights, Catholic college faculty members have served as advocates for same sex marriage, while student groups like “Hoyas for Choice” have emerged to promote access to abortion.

Last year, in defiance of  Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the presiding bishop of the Washington DC Diocese, Georgetown honored Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-choice Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the creator of the controversial contraception mandate that has been denounced by the bishops.  An editorial published in the Catholic Standard, the official Archdiocesan newspaper representing Cardinal Wuerl, concluded that “Georgetown has undergone a secularization, due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching…they reflect the values of the secular culture of our age.”

It is difficult to predict how Pope Francis will respond. As a Jesuit, he may be reluctant to remove the Catholic designation from one of his own Jesuit institutions. But, as head of the Argentine bishops’ conference and as chancellor of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, he implemented Ex corde Ecclesiae, and he approved then-Pope Benedict’s 2012 decree removing consent from the University of Peru to call itself Catholic.  Like Georgetown, the University of Peru has spent more than two decades refusing to comply with papal guidelines for Catholic universities, including, most recently, the granting of an honorary degree to Gianni Vattimo, a gay supporter of same sex marriage.

Catholic colleges in the United States have been doing this for years. Defiant from the earliest days of the release of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, most Catholic college presidents have refused to implement it.  When it was first released in 1990, Notre Dame’s then-president, Fr. Edward Malloy, along with Fr. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, published an article in America, calling the document “positively dangerous.”  The faculty senate at Notre Dame voted unanimously for the guidelines to be ignored.

In a speech to United States Catholic college presidents in 2008, Pope Benedict warned those gathered that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the church betray the university’s identity and mission.  Yet, a congratulatory headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that “Pope Benedict Thanks Educators and Addresses Academic Freedom in Talk.”  Mary Lyons, president of the University of San Diego, declared the Pope’s speech “affirming and generous,” and pronounced the controversies surrounding Ex Corde Ecclesiae as “so ‘90s.”

Well, maybe not.  Peter Blatty’s petition is actually not be the first petition filed with the Vatican—his is just the most high profile petition.  Rome recently received a petition from attorneys representing the alumni of at least one other Catholic college.  There will be more.  In fact, the Vatican pronouncement that the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru is neither Catholic nor pontifical may be just the start.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)

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