Before his death last month at 89 years old, author William Peter Blatty (CAS ’50) cemented a legacy at Georgetown as the writer of the 1971 horror novel “The Exorcist” and its Academy Award-winning film adaptation, which featured the university and surrounding neighborhood as the film’s backdrop.

However, for all his contributions to Georgetown culture — most famously, the eponymous “Exorcist Steps” near Car Barn — Blatty’s relationship with his alma mater was fraught. As the founder of the Father King Society, Blatty petitioned both Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl and the Vatican in 2013 to potentially revoke Georgetown’s credentials as a Catholic University, particularly in light of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an apostolic constitution on Catholic universities issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

Blatty’s indictment of Georgetown charged that the university had strayed from Catholic doctrine by failing to recruit Catholic teachers and students, inviting speakers who supported abortion rights and neglecting to instruct students on Catholic morality.

In January, the nonprofit Catholic organization Cardinal Newman Society released an updated 124-page dossier that delineated these grievances from the 2013 canon law petition. Some of the complaints advanced an overly narrow definition of a Catholic education that runs contrary to the university’s commitment to pluralism and intellectual diversity. But despite some misguided generalizations, the petition is correct about one thing — Georgetown’s Catholic pedigree is an integral component of Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage that all students ought to engage with during their years at Georgetown.

Among the purported abuses of Georgetown’s Catholic identity, the report condemns the invitation of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to speak at the 2012 commencement following the 2010 contraception mandate. The mandate required religious employers to provide employees with contraception coverage under stipulations dictated by the Affordable Care Act.

The report also denounces the hiring of certain faculty whose prior employment or public stances may conflict with established Catholic doctrine. Some professors are specifically singled out by name, including former Sec. of State Madeline Albright for her pro-choice activism and Jewish Civilization Program Director Jacques Berlinerblau for his advocacy of secularism.

In attempting to stifle the diversity of viewpoints represented at the university through speakers and faculty, the lawsuit neglects to recognize that Catholicism does not abide by one narrow definition and that, more than any other facet, the university’s particular Jesuit tradition strives to promote authentic human understanding and compassion guided by Catholic social teaching. This includes promoting dialogue among different groups, even if official church doctrine diverges from their ideas.

No part of the petition failed to grasp this more than the section criticizing Georgetown’s placement within Newsweek’s top-25 “gay-friendly” colleges in the country in 2010— the only Catholic university to be included — and contending that the school’s LGBTQ Resource Center and recognition of LGBTQ student organizations countered Catholic teaching.

Yet while misguided in its attempts to root out ideas which compete with Catholic teachings, the lawsuit is correct in wishing to preserve Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage. The report notes students can graduate from the university without directly enrolling in a class focused on Catholic teaching and that the presence of Jesuits on campus has decreased from 122 in 1975 to 64 in 2011.

Unlike our Catholic peer institutions such as Boston College, Notre Dame and Villanova, Catholicism does not explicitly play a role in Georgetown’s core theology curriculum; even the university’s hallmark course offering, “Problem of God,” depends almost entirely on the preferences or academic background of the professor.

Georgetown’s students and Catholic identity would be better served if Catholic thought was more integrated into the core curriculum. Though every professor should reserve the right to tailor the syllabus as they see fit, the theology department should ensure Catholic teaching is integrated into each required introductory theology course, including “Problem of God” and “Biblical Literature,” so that all students encounter and engage with the Catholic faith tradition so formative to the university.

Blatty, members of the Father King Society and the Georgetown community have every right to defend the university’s Catholic identity, and the university ought to ensure all students receive exposure to the rich religious tradition which informs its values. Yet, in the truest spirit of Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage, the university should not acquiesce to demands for an overly narrow interpretation of Catholicism demanded by the petition.

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9 Comments

  1. Pingback: EDITORIAL: Redefine Our Catholic Identity | CredHatch

  2. Mary Wareham says:

    “Narrow” …?? The author of this article uses the word in a perjorative sense. Is authentic Catholic teaching “narrow” ? What did Jesus say? “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. Matthew 7:13.

    There is surely a way to expose students to various and conflicting view and values on many topics in the academic setting and it is good that they can be exposed to what they will be faced with as they enter the work force and society at large. A Catholic institution can shed the light of Christ on these ideas and bring out the truth that lies within each of them, to a greater or lesser degree. It can prepare people to dialogue effectively with respect and by using reason instead of emotion. Love the truth! Be tenacious for the truth! Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life. A Catholic institution of higher learning is invaluable in shedding the light of Christ’s truth on all aspects of living, on every situation and on every person in the world.

    Grandma

  3. William Jakinovich says:

    What a silly commentary. I mean, why does every paragraph have to start with or include some kind of knock on Blatty’s lawsuit (i.e. “narrow interpretation of Catholicism” or “misguided generalizations”). It’s as though the apparatchick who wrote this piece is forced by decorum to say a nice statement about Blatty, in light of the man’s death, but only at the cost of completingly dismissing his opinions. Oh yeah….so the board agrees that the Theology department should provide a modicum authentic Catholic teaching in the intro courses..Big Deal. I guess they are finally “getting it” that a university which so vociferously applauds itself for its engagment with “different ideas” appears rather hypocritical if it excludes some poor, old, unhip Catholic ones.

  4. Obviously, this whole article is insulting.

    Be a Catholic university. That is what you were founded to do. Don’t become a creepy secular university and then tell us you are Catholic. You are not. You have abandoned Catholicism for the praise of the world. You are secular, and proud of it. Come on, denounce Catholicism. You know you want to.

  5. Secular schools answer the question “Who do people say that I am?” A Catholic school answers the question, “Who do you say that I am?”… And they answer it the same way Peter did. There is not a hint of the latter at Georgetown as far as an outsider like me can see.

    Also, that the author appeals to Boston College, Notre Dame, and Villanova as curricular foils is telling.

  6. Michael Newhouse says:

    The Editorial Board is correct that Georgetown shouldn’t foist a ‘narrow’ interpretation of Catholicism on students and faculty. They are also correct that all students should be exposed to Georgetown’s Catholic tradition.

    This is not a zero sum game.

    I don’t think Blatty and the Father King Society want a narrow Catholicism foisted on anyone. Georgetown’s Catholicism isn’t just a musty tradition that students should be ‘exposed’ to.

    The ancient faith of the Church is a living and vital and rigorous thing. Students who come to a Catholic university should know that they are in a different kind of university, not just because of historical footnotes from centuries before or because their are crucifixes in the classrooms (ahem), but because, whether they are Catholic or not, they encounter the living faith during their time on campus, are touched and formed by it, and leave appreciating its power and integrity.

    As with too much of our nation, universities and churches fall into partisan thinking and politics.
    Let us find a better way.

    • William Jakinovich says:

      Well said. It’s amazing: the way the editorial board speaks in this article it is clear that they are clueless about the intellectual tradition of Catholicism. They speak like there are different types of Catholicisms. Obviously, Peter Blatty and the Cardinal Newman Society represent one type, a narrow type etc. Liberal minded Catholics tend to speak this way. For them the term Catholic is a kind of rhetorical football that gets tugged back and forth, between the competing interests of left and the right, in a morally relativistic game of mundane politics. The problem, which they can not see, is there is only ONE Catholicism, as there is ONE Church. Further, they don’t grasp that the Catholic intellectual tradition is the deepest, the most subtle and sublime, but also the oldest continuous observed human tradition on the Earth (with the sole exception of Judaism and maybe Hinduism.) It is the central grey matter of our whole Western civilization or what’s left of it. The editorial board talks, as though, somehow, Jesuitism allows them to stand apart, like they were given this progressive counter to the musty, hide bound Catholic perspective. How absurd. Ignatius Loyola would simply roll over to hear that his ideas were being applied against the world view of the faith which devoted his life to.

  7. Where to begin??? This article offers up some interesting insight as to how far secularism has It made its way into the author’s point of view. The idea that there is a “narrow” approach verses “other” approaches is a flawed premise. The Church is not like a buffet where some teachings can be embraced and others diminished or disguarded and yet still others twisted into a secular world view. Even with a rudimentary understanding of Church history It is very easy to see that for two thousand years the Church has been dealing with challenges, differing opinions, and competing ideas. So the idea that there is an attempt here to “root out competing ideas” is simply false. This situation and situations like it at the “peer” schools mentioned and those not mentioned like Providence College should not be confused with “celebrating” points of view that are at odds with Catholicism. Georgetown has crossed that line too many times. How many times have these “competing ideas” actually been honestly challenged with the understanding that the Lord’s teaching and His Church IS truth, not just “one version of truth.” I also wonder if, in the name of false diversity, that Catholic teaching can freely be put forth without the risk of intervention by the “thought police” that have taken root at many “Catholic” schools. All too often, Georgetown and schools like it, have demonstrated that there is little difference between them and other secular universities. As much as the author would like the reader to believe that the Blatty case has little merit, it didn’t end up at the Vatican by accident.

  8. Pingback: Theology Majors and Catholic Universities | Catholic Moral Theology

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