The George Washington University has been in uproar about the role of religion on campus after two seniors launched a campaign to remove a Catholic priest for his anti-gay and anti-abortion views earlier this week.
Fr. Greg Shaffer, the head chaplain of the Newman Center, a GWU-affiliated Catholic center, has been criticized for his anti-gay and anti-abortion stance, which a group of at least 12 students — including Damian Legacy and Blake Bergen, who began the movement — have found to be alienating.
In particular, some have taken issue with Shaffer’scounselling sessions in which he allegedly advised students attracted to those of the same sex to live celibate lives, according to The GW Hatchet.
Additionally, Shaffer has taken heat for calling gay relationships “unnatural and immoral” in a blog post last May.
The Newman Center houses the on-campus Catholic group, GW Catholics, and receives funding from the university’s student association, which Legacy and Bergen are seeking to have reduced. However, the center’s priests are appointed by the Archdiocese of Washington and the center itself is part of the Roman Catholic Church.
The archdiocese issued a statement affirming Scaffer’s doctrine as consistent with that of the Catholic Church April 5.
“Fr. Greg Shaffer, chaplain at the Newman Center on the campus of the George Washington University, shares the teachings of the Catholic Church in a welcoming and joyful manner,” the statement read. “His ministry is a vital component of the vibrant faith community on campus.”
The archdiocese also noted that the Catholic Church’s doctrine does not necessarily have to be aligned with popular opinion.
“Despite the current cultural beliefs about homosexuality, the teaching of the Catholic Church remains unchanged,” it said. “Priests have a commitment to educate people in the truths of our faith, regardless of cultural trend.”
Georgetown theology professor Fr. Stephen Fields, S.J., agreed that Shaffer’s rhetoric is representative of the views of the Catholic Church.
“His job, it seems to me, is twofold. First and foremost, it is to educate people about the teaching of the church on sexuality. It’s very simple: We believe that sexual relations should be between a man and woman in a marriage that has been blessed by God. [Schaffer] has a moral responsible to teach that,” Fields said. “His second obligation is to offer pastoral care, to offer charity and love to absolutely everyone.”
Maria Wilhoit, a sophomore at GWU unaffiliated with the Newman Center, does not believe the students’ concerns to be widespread enough to warrant Shaffer’s removal.
“I find that these two men’s complaints are still too isolated and singular to give real weight to removing Father Shaffer,” Wilhoit said.
Wilhoit also believes that the complaint should ultimately be resolved by the Catholic Church, notGWU.
“Ultimately, I think the final decision should rest with the Archdiocese of D.C., not [GWU],” Wilhoit said. “[GWU], if it feels the need to act, could address a more formal complaint to the archdiocese.”
Chris Cannataro (MSB ’15) a deputy grand knight with the Georgetown chapter of the Order of the Knights of Columbus who has been in conversation with Catholic colleagues at GWU, says the events have raised uncomfortable questions about the place of religion on that campus.
“We all feel that this might lead to a bad precedent for intellectual and academic freedom,” Cannatarosaid. “Priests have the right to teach the faith, and it may not be popular, but it’s what they’re called to do.”
Ian Campbell (SFS ’15), a member of the Georgetown Secular Student Association, does not see a clear-cut solution to the issue.
“I think anywhere [GWU administrators] go, they’re walking the line between censorship with respecting their students need for a spiritual life and making sure that everyone that attends GWUfeels included,” Campbell said.
Campbell supports the free speech granted to Shaffer, even though he disagrees with his views.
“His speech is legal, even if it is offensive, and while I don’t personally support it, that is the Catholic doctrine,” Campbell said.
Fields added that he believes the role of a Catholic priest is the same on a secular campus as it is on a religious campus like Georgetown and that Shaffer should not back away from expressing his personal views.
“I think the teachings of the moral church can’t be compromised no matter where they’re taught, whether it’s at Georgetown or on the campus of George Washington,” Fields said.
Nonetheless, Wilhoit believes that the unfolding of events reflects the larger issues endemic to Catholic doctrine.
“What [Legacy and Bergen] are showing, I think on a bigger level, is the rhetoric still in the Catholic Church that, intentional or not, ostracizes gay people from the community,” Wilhoit said.