In 1791, Georgetown’s founder, John Carroll, wrote of Georgetown saying that “on this Academy is built all my hope of permanency and success of our Holy Religion in the United States.”

While always open to persons of many faiths, Georgetown’s tradition has from the beginning been serious about forming Catholic young people who can make a difference in the life of the United States and in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

No small task, that.

In most ways, it’s easy for Georgetown to educate and form leaders for the secular life of our Republic. Civic engagement calls for skills and knowledge that smart young people can readily learn from smart older people. In addition, being an active participant in American democracy is something that the secular humanist ethos of academia will grant is worthwhile.

Forming lawyers and diplomats, bankers and accountants, doctors and nurses, scholars and critics comes easily to Georgetown. Forming and educating men and women of intelligent Catholic faith who are ready to help shape the life of the Roman Catholic Church is a much more difficult task here. Difficult, but important.

Like St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, Jesuit schools have been looked at askance from time to time by some corners of the Church. Those who like spirituality to be black and white – and orthodoxy to be a simple matter of memorization – always have been and always will be dissatisfied with Jesuits and Jesuit schools. Jesuits and Pharisees will never be good playmates.

At the same time, its strikes me that Jesuits and Jesuit schools have over the past few decades occasionally given our students the impression that there is some sort of comforting distance between us and the Roman Catholic Church. Such an impression is wrong. And dangerous.

In fairness, some of this sense of distance has been thrust upon us. There are now, as there have been for centuries, plenty of folks who would happily define the Jesuits out of the Church. Like St. Ignatius, we are no strangers to well-funded and powerfully connected opponents. Some would gladly see us and our way of proceeding permanently distanced from the Church.

Honestly, there is a certain understandable attractiveness to such distancing. The Church has not always shown its best face to the world over the past 30 years, and it has not always been just a matter of bad press.

Over the past few decades, faithful dissenters to non-infallible Church teachings or questions of Church organization have been vilified and even demonized in the Church, ecclesiastical power has been increasingly centralized and concentrated in the hands of a few, access to ecclesiastical corridors of power has been limited to a narrow group of those deemed ideologically pure – a combination which some have called the “Sovietization” of the Church.

For some time in this country, ham-handedness and tone-deafness have characterized many of the Church’s actions and statements in the public arena.

The truth is that over the past few decades, it has often been painful for many American Catholics, some Jesuits among them, to be publicly identified with the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s small wonder that marketers and admissions experts encourage our schools to advertise themselves simply as “Jesuit” and refer only to our “Ignatian” tradition. “Catholic” is not a politically correct word these days, especially in the vaunted halls of secular humanism and the American educational system, private and public, which it dominates.

Not all of the blame for that lies outside the Church.

Still, the perpetuation of this sense of distance has been and is a disservice to our students.

It has led us to miss opportunities to invite them to claim the Catholic heritage as their own and to take active responsibility for it.

It has contributed to the recurrent refrain that Georgetown is not Catholic enough, when in fact we are in many ways more authentically Catholic than the self-proclaimed academic bastions of orthodoxy in our country.

Georgetown’s tradition calls us to embody the age-old aspect of healthy Catholicism that has welcomed theological debate and sought to accommodate varying views of what it means to be Catholic not because such accommodation is politically correct, but because it reflects the reality of the Catholic faith as it is living and growing and evolving around the world – and because it gives the Holy Spirit room to work.

My hope is that Georgetown will make a conscious and concerted recommitment to educating and forming Catholic men and women determined to make a difference in the life of the Roman Catholic Church – intelligently, passionately, faithfully – without yielding to the temptations of the easy Phariseeism or the simplistic relativism offered to them by many.

John Carroll would expect nothing less. Today’s Catholic Hoyas deserve nothing less.

Fr. Ryan J. Maher, S.J. (CAS ’82) is an assistant dean in the College. As This Jesuit Sees It . appears every other Friday.

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