Apostate Catholic Universities?

In a recent piece (to which this one is a sequel) I quoted the mission statement of the Cardinal Newman Society of Virginia, founded in 1993, with the intention “to help renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education… by assisting and supporting education that is faithful to the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church.”

But, I asked, can they possibly win? Have they, in fact, had any success in persuading the authorities of any officially Catholic university to “disinvite” a speaker with anti-Catholic beliefs it was intending to honour? This was, I said, a real question: if they have been successful in this way, I’m at least partly wrong. But, I continued, I am pessimistic about this. Not about the renewal of the Church herself: that is already happening. But in the case of universities like Georgetown, has not the whole process of secularisation gone too far?

Well, I asked the question, and I have had an answer direct from the Society: so the least I can do (having gloomily cast doubt on the possibility of doing anything) is to pass it on:

In 2007, The Cardinal Newman Society successfully pressured Roberta Wilhelm to withdraw from giving a commencement address at the College of St Mary in Nebraska, and in 2008 Presentation College in South Dakota withdrew a commencement invitation to then Senator, Nancy Turbak Berry.

The Cardinal Newman Society opposed then-New York Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer…as a 2003 commencement speaker at Marist College in New York, which led Marist to give up its Catholic label. Same thing in 2005: Marymount Manhattan College abandoned its Catholic label and heritage after The Cardinal Newman Society objected to then-Senator Hillary Clinton (now US Secretary of State) as a commencement speaker.

The bishops have responded to our concerns, sometimes by boycotting commencement scandals. In 2003, the bishops of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, refused to attend commencement ceremonies at the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Scranton, both of which honored leftist television commentator Chris Matthews.  Cardinal William Keeler’s boycott of Loyola University Maryland’s 2005 commencement featuring “pro-choice” former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the result of The Cardinal Newman Society’s efforts. So was Archbishop Alfred Hughes’s refusal to attend the 2005 commencement at Loyola University New Orleans because it featured Senator Mary Landrieu. Again in 2009, bishops boycotted commencement ceremonies with political operative Donna Brazile at Xavier University in Louisiana and activist Kerry Kennedy at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

This year was special: even before The Cardinal Newman Society had reported on the scandal, Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts, convinced Anna Maria College to rescind its invitation to Victoria Kennedy as commencement speaker. Likewise, Bishop George Murry, SJ, persuaded Mercy College of Ohio to rescind its commencement invitation to State Rep. Bob Hagan. And the Archdiocese of Washington publicly scolded Georgetown University for honoring “pro-choice” Catholic Kathleen Sebelius.

The real question I was asking, I think, was this: is this not a battle that has actually been lost? Would it not be better to concentrate on the renewal of the Church; and in the meantime take the necessary measures to prevent institutions like Georgetown from fraudulently describing themselves as Catholic, luring in Catholic students who have decided to study at a particular university because of its Catholic “heritage” into an impossible situation? One such, Chiara Cardone, writes that “Georgetown’s Catholic identity was one of the many outstanding attributes that appealed to me…I was excited by the freedom of thought and the purposeful inquiry promised by a private, Catholic, liberal arts institution…Unfortunately, I found that Georgetown today lacks the integrity to consistently live the Catholic identity it claims…Far beyond nuanced scrutiny or respectful debate, my convictions, especially those regarding the dignity of human life, were instead the subject of sweeping condemnation, even at university-sponsored events. My cultural identity was insulted; my intellectual autonomy and personal agency were denied in order to render my voice inconsequential. On those occasions I came to wonder why, at a Catholic institution, I was so ridiculed for my Catholicism.”

Does that make your blood boil, or what? Chiara Cardone’s words come from a letter she wrote to the academy award-winning writer William Peter Blatty (magnum opus, The Exorcist, 1971; he was given an Oscar for his screenplay of the novel) who graduated from Georgetown in 1950 when it really was undeniably a Catholic institution, and who is now waging a rather impressive-looking campaign for its regeneration. He is beginning by asking Georgetown alumni to curtail their donations (in the US, alumni are generous to their alma mater, which in many cases are partly dependent on them financially). His reason is very simple:

“Like many men of my generation, I owe much to the Jesuit fathers and to Georgetown University…Throughout an undeservedly wonderful life, I have been guided by the light of my Georgetown education, grounded firmly, as I knew it was even in my youth, in the unmatched intellectual wealth of the Catholic Church. Each time I faltered, as I often did, that guiding light never failed me.”

The campaign to save Georgetown and other major US Catholic institutions has been going on for at least two decades now. It has had the support of the last two popes, and now, more and more, from the Catholic bishops, on whom campaigners, in the past, have not always been able to rely. Mr Blatty rightly insists on the organic unity between Church and university that a Catholic university must by definition exemplify if it is to continue to call itself Catholic. He says in particular that for 21 years now. Georgetown University has refused to comply with Ex corde Ecclesiae (“From The Heart of the Church”), and, therefore, with canon law. Perhaps he was thinking in particular of §27, which says that “Every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a University, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity…One consequence…is that the institutional fidelity of the University to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.”

I was clearly wrong to imply that this fight is virtually over now and that US Catholics must simply get used to it: but it has to be said that the possibility certainly exists that Georgetown and institutions like it can’t in fact now be saved: there is, of course, the additional complication here that Georgetown isn’t merely a Catholic institution but a Jesuit one: and that though the Church under the last two popes has palpably begun a process of renewal.  The same cannot be said of the Society of Jesus (though of course there are still Jesuit priests entirely faithful to the true Jesuit tradition). But if Georgetown has gone past the point of no return, the place really must be prevented from ensnaring Catholics who are looking for a real Catholic education. The Blatty petition takes this into consideration. “We,” he writes, (he is working with the Cardinal Newman Society) “may choose to file a canon action…seeking…forms of relief that will include…that Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended…”  Of course, he continues, “what we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked.”

Indeed, it clearly hasn’t: but the battle, it seems, is still on. A luta continua; and at least, Georgetown alumni from the generations who, as William Peter Blatty has, have been “guided by the light of [their] Georgetown education” will go down fighting if all else fails. I wonder if he’s thought of having the place exorcised.

This article first appeared at CatholicHerald.co.uk


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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