A university is a place of conversation. Last year, discussion about the 2010 Campus Plan dominated much of Georgetown’s dialogue. This year, with campus plan negotiations behind us for now, Georgetown begins a new conversation, one of the most important that can be had: a dialogue on the Catholic and Jesuit identity of this university.
The Father King Society is a group of Georgetown alumni and benefactors, led by the well-known Exorcist writer and filmmaker William Peter Blatty (C ’50). Taking inspiration from deceased Georgetown Jesuit Fr. Thomas King, S.J., and a similar effort led in 1991, the Father King Society wants Georgetown to implement more faithfully the papal encyclical “Ex corde Ecclesiae,” a Pope John Paul II document that helps govern Catholic education.
Ultimately, the critiques and recommendations of the Father King petition may be engaged at the highest levels of Church hierarchy and university administration. The questions raised in this petition should concern all Georgetown students, lest the fires rage uncontrolled around us. No matter one’s opinion of the Father King Society or the nuanced details of the petition, every student should appreciate one thing: This petition has created an opportunity for a broad conversation on a fundamental aspect of Georgetown.
The dialogue on Georgetown’s Catholic identity and Jesuit heritage is beneficial and necessary. Each generation of students that passes through these gates must wrestle with how that identity and heritage should be lived out in the present day. No matter one’s background or beliefs, every student can agree that a Georgetown divorced of Catholicism and the Jesuits is not the Georgetown we love.
Since its founding in 1789, Georgetown has been a Catholic university. The names of the Jesuits who built it are engraved on many of our buildings: White and Gravenor, Carroll and Healy, Poulton and Walsh, as well as countless others remembered or lost to the annals of time. Georgetown was raised on Catholic principles, with a Catholic mission and a cohort of black-robed Jesuits to shepherd the university along.
But Georgetown exists in time and space. Throughout the years, our Jesuit school has grown and changed. Georgetown has had this conversation before and has tried to reaffirm its Catholic identity and Jesuit heritage again and again.
A conversation on the Catholic DNA of Georgetown presents the chance to increase our understanding of our heritage and values, expand our appreciation of what sets us apart from other universities and strengthen our community. If handled poorly, such a conversation could tear us apart, pitting students of different backgrounds and perspectives against one another in strife and hubris. Any institution that lays claim to a religious truth, as a Catholic and Jesuit institution must, runs such a risk. As the insightful Fr. James Schall, S.J., would say, among men and women, there is always the great risk that we might come to know the truth and choose to reject it.
By far the worst outcome of this scenario would be one steeped in apathy and indifference. To ignore this conversation, however difficult it may be, would spell the end of the Georgetown generations have known and loved.
At Georgetown, each student gets a Jesuit education, no matter his intention. With respect and civility, energy and conviction, every student should speak up. Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit nature will not be the only matter of importance this year, but it will be significant. And so we must be ready.
MICHAEL FISCHER is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.