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.