Editor's note: This article was updated on April 10, 2013]
WASHINGTON — Father Greg Shaffer, a Catholic chaplain at George Washington University, has been the subject of attacks by two university students who have same-sex attraction and charge that his “anti-gay” and “anti-abortion” positions have “alienated” a number of students.
On April 4, the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet, reported that the students were upset with Father Shaffer’s “counseling sessions [in which he] advises students who are attracted to members of the same sex to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.” The students say that such counsel, among other issues, has been emotionally damaging to them and others. The Hatchet reported that the two students have called on the university, founded in 1821, to remove Father Shaffer.
Four days later, the two students, Blake Bergen and Damian Legacy, released a statement that said they did not seek the priest’s removal, but only requested that George Washington admnistrators "assess any violation of university anti-discrimination policies on behalf of Father Greg and the Newman Center."
The two students said they also proposed that the university "vet and confirm campus religious leaders of all faiths, and thus better hold them accountable to university standards."
The attacks against the chaplain were picked up by Internet news sites, prompting a strong defense from Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who called the campaign against Father Shaffer a “serious civil-liberties issue.”
The Archdiocese of Washington then issued an unsigned statement defending Father Shaffer’s right to uphold Catholic teaching on sexual ethics and marriage.
“Catholic teaching, the statement added, cannot be “tailored to an individual’s personal beliefs. Thus, priests have a commitment to educate people in the truths of our faith, regardless of the current cultural trend,” read an April 5 statement issued by the archdiocese.
After Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor reported on the story, George Washington University spokesperson, Michelle Sherrard, told the Register in an April 9 email message that Father Shaffer was “employed by the Newman Center, which is not formally affiliated with the university, ” and that it had not initiated a “review” of any allegations against the chaplain.
Meanwhile, Chris Crawford, 21, a junior at GW and the director of pro-life ministry at the Newman Center, has established a blog with testimonials from a growing number of students who have endorsed Father Shaffer as a loving, effective and open-minded university chaplain.
During an April 4 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Crawford rejected the negative characterization of Father Shaffer and explained why students like him have returned to the faith with the priest’s encouragement.
When did you first get to know Father Shaffer?
I got to know him at the beginning of my freshman year.
Back home, we had a priest who was the pastor of our parish from my childhood until I left for college. But as time went on, he got angry, and you couldn’t feel the love of Christ in his homilies anymore.
So when I left for college, I thought I might become an atheist. But a cute girl on my floor asked me to go to church, and I did.
Father Greg was there, and his homily was all about living out God’s love and what it takes to live the Gospel on campus. The way he spoke reminded me of the joy I used to feel at church. He brought me back.
I started to go to Mass, but I really got to know him on spring break when we went on a service trip to South Carolina. …He had an openness that was very welcoming and that allowed me to open up to him during confession. It’s not about him. He is willing to humble himself in any way to help us.
How does he help students experience the love of God?
One of the defining things about Father Greg is that he leaves cards with his contact information at the Newman Center that tell students: “Call me anytime.” Some of us have called him at 1am. And he actually left the rectory in the middle of the night to talk to students. He is always there to listen.
Why do college students need someone to talk to?
As a freshman, you feel a void when you arrive at college, and that needs to be filled.
It’s a high-pressure environment in the middle of this big city. People face intense pressure to be successful.
In the face of those challenges, a lot of friends turn to other things to fill the emptiness. You can see it in the way the students act. They have no foundation, and they float from place to place, trying to see where they belong. They don’t have a family figure here. He meets us at our level. We’ll smoke cigars up on the roof here and have a relaxed conversation about faith.
Father Greg is in your corner. This year, I did something wrong and thought I would go elsewhere to confession. But I ended up going to him, and he told me, “Never feel as though you can’t talk to me.” And the sin that was weighing me down was lifted. I was so thankful that he was able to handle the situation with such grace, and he helped me to make it through that very difficult time in my life.
What kind of activities do you host at the Newman Center?
Throughout the year, we have a multitude of events, like retreats, and he often puts us in different groups for these activities, and that helps us develop bonds with people through Christ. My closest friends have come from the friendships that bring me closer to God. That’s the key to the family atmosphere at the Newman Center.
We have weekly Tuesday dinners with about 70-80 people; they are open to everyone on campus. The evening includes Mass, dinner and a guest speaker, and students take turns cooking the meal. People open up in an entirely different way when they know God is involved.
The chaplaincy offers daily Mass at noon and Eucharistic adoration on Wednesdays — students take a half-hour slot throughout the day. On Palm Sunday, we had about 400 people. Overall, we have doubled the number of people who go to Mass every week since Father Greg arrived.
What was your reaction to the charges against Father Shaffer published in the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet?
The statements weren’t fair about Father Greg. He will help anyone on campus, no matter their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The notion that he is a close-minded person is laughable.
The news stories promote a narrative suggesting that he is trying to push gay people out of the Newman Center and that he is out of touch. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If he could, he would have every student on campus in the Newman Center.
We are on a liberal campus, and some people who come to the Newman Center disagree with him about certain teachings. But when he is attacked, they have his back. Last week, in the middle of midterms, 20 people showed up at midnight to pray a Rosary for him to find peace among the chaos that some people on campus were creating.
What makes for a successful college chaplaincy?
I would draw a comparison in style between Pope Francis and Father Greg. The key is humility. In the Church, every leader — from the priests of the smallest parishes all the way up to the Pope in Rome — must humble himself in order to find the lost sheep and bring them back to the flock. This is a metaphor that Pope Francis consistently uses, and it is spot on. If people can be welcomed with an open heart, we will have success in the Church.
What kind of impact has Father Greg had on your plans for the future?
I have told him that my freshman year was a miracle. I started college thinking that I might become an atheist, and, eight months later, I was considering the priesthood. But I quickly realized that I want to have a family. I feel called to become a father and raise a good family. Father Greg has helped me come to that realization.
We all had a conversation one night, and he asked each of us what we wanted to do. And every person’s answer was about family and faith, not a materialistic answer. That speaks to our community here at GW. My biggest goal in life is to have a good family that makes me happy.