WASHINGTON — Last September, William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist and an alumnus of Georgetown University, sent a canonical petition to the Vatican, requesting that the Church “require that Georgetown implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a papal constitution governing Catholic colleges.”
If that effort proved fruitless, his petition called for “the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit in any of its representations.”
Many months later, Blatty and the 2,000 other men and women who signed his petition have received a response from the Congregation for Catholic Education, sparking cautious hope that the Holy See will press the Society of Jesus to address festering problems on the Washington campus.
In an April 4 letter, Archbishop Angelo Vincenzo Zani, the secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, stated that technical impediments prevented the department from granting the petitioners’ request for “hierarchic recourse.”
But Archbishop Zani offered hope that the Vatican would pursue the matter further.
“Your communications to this dicastery in the matter of Georgetown University … constitute a well-founded complaint,” wrote Archbishop Zani. “Our congregation is taking the issue seriously and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”
Archbishop Zani’s response fell short of Blatty’s request for a formal assessment of Georgetown’s adherence to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Catholic Universities), St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution that directs Catholic universities to adhere to Catholic teaching and advance the mission of the Church in their institutional culture, faculty hiring and retention, curricula and student affairs.
However, Blatty remains optimistic that his ultimate goal — the revival and strengthening of Georgetown’s Catholic identity — will gain traction as the Holy See’s talks with the Society of Jesus move forward.
"I am deeply gratified that the prayers of my 2,000 fellow petitioners have been answered,” Blatty told the Register.
“There is still more work to be done, and I promise them that we will persevere.”
Blatty contacted the Register to report this new development, and his legal adviser, Manuel Miranda, pointed to Archbishop Zani’s letter as a positive first step in what would likely be a lengthy process.
“We looked to the law of the Church, and we applied the facts. The Vatican has accepted our complaint as well-founded.”
Vatican Action at Peru University
While the outcome is far from certain, Blatty and Miranda have already gained hope from the Holy See’s stepped up efforts to resolve a separate dispute at a university in Peru, formally known as the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
In August 2012, Pope Benedict XVI stripped the university of the titles “Catholic” and “pontifical.”
However, the university has resisted the Vatican’s directives.
On April 30, it was disclosed that Pope Francis had formed a “commission of cardinals, whose mission will be to find a definitive consensual solution” within the framework of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, according to the administrator of the nunciature in Lima, Father Jose Antonio Teixeira Alves.
A critical element of the Vatican’s efforts to address the Peruvian university’s problems, said Miranda, is the fact that Ex Corde Ecclesiae is presented as normative. This finding could strengthen Blatty’s complaint, as his petition argues that Georgetown has failed to incorporate John Paul II’s apostolic constitution in its bylaws and faculty-recruitment policy.
“The facts are undeniable. ... Like the University of Peru, Georgetown is ... persisting in numerous institutional practices inconsistent with a university that could claim communion with the Church,” said Miranda, noting that such practices are documented in materials that accompanied the petition.
According to Father Luis Gaspar, the canon lawyer representing the Church in the dispute with the university, Miranda’s view of the situation in Peru has merit. The priest, who is also president of the Ecclesiastic Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Lima, told the Register, “The decision taken by the Holy See regarding the former Pontifical Catholic University of Peru is a very significant precedent [for] … other Catholic universities around the world. What happens here will in some way set a standard to deal with other rebellious Catholic universities.”
‘Faint Hope’ for Change
University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley, the past president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, welcomed the fresh news regarding Blatty’s petition but expressed only a “faint hope” of any substantive changes at Georgetown or other self-identified “Catholic” universities with similar problems.
“The vast majority of America’s Catholic colleges — which constitute a majority of all the world’s Catholic colleges — have been operating contrary to canon law for decades (and here I am referring mainly to Canons 810 and 812),” Bradley told the Register.
Canon 810 states that, when hiring faculty, Catholic university administrators should appoint individuals who are "outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life."
Canon 812 states that anyone who teaches theology at a Catholic university must obtain a mandate from the local ordinary.
Blatty’s petition notes that Georgetown does not require its theology professors to obtain a mandate and that the ranks of self-identified “Catholics” represent 22% or less of the total number of faculty on the Washington campus, based on a survey that was conducted a decade ago.
The Register contacted Georgetown for information on a number of issues related to the petition, including updated figures on the percentage of Catholic faculty, but did not receive a response.
The Register also contacted the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus to request a comment about the Georgetown petition, and Sheila Welton, a communications associate, said that Georgetown should comment.
“Typically, the province does defer to the local ministry to provide the update,” Welton told the Register.
Last October, when the Register reported on Blatty’s decision to send the petition to Rome, Rachel Pugh, a spokeswoman for Georgetown University, rejected assertions that the university had moved away from its Catholic roots.
“Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger. Academically, we remain committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition,” Pugh told the Register.
“Georgetown supports the largest campus ministry in the country,” she added, noting that the university requires undergraduates to “take two semesters of theology and two semesters of philosophy before graduation.”
But, over the past decade, the university has drawn sharp criticism for a number of high-profile actions that raise questions about its adherence to Catholic teaching.
In recent years, it has opened a LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) resource center and hosts an annual “Lavender” graduation ceremony.
In 2012, Kathleen Sebelius, then the Obama administration’s secretary for Health and Human Services, was invited to speak at a graduation event after she approved the contraception mandate, condemned by the U.S. bishops as an unprecedented threat to religious freedom.
Strengthening Catholic Identity?
Yet disgruntled alumni also have noticed a few promising developments on campus. Last fall, Georgetown announced a new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which has organized events that brought together Church leaders, scholars and journalists to address a range of issues.
“Georgetown appears to have added some high-visibility ‘Catholic identity’ features lately, which may or may not signify real and lasting change for the better,” said Russell Shaw, a Georgetown alumnus and the author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.
“Meanwhile, I don’t think there’s much to be gained by a legal, canonical approach, nor do I imagine the Society of Jesus can do much, given the university’s quasi-autonomous status. Positive encouragement seems the best way to go in the circumstances.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington did not respond to a request for comment from the Register, but his public statements and involvement in events at the university suggest that he shares Shaw’s judgment about the most realistic path for engaging Georgetown.
Cardinal Wuerl frequently appears at conferences and panel discussions at Georgetown, and, on May 5, the archdiocese and the university co-sponsored a concert marking the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II.
However, in 2012, when Georgetown announced that Sebelius would speak at a graduation event, the archdiocese released several sharply worded statements. And Cardinal Wuerl’s office forwarded Blatty’s petition to Rome, according to Miranda.
William Dempsey, who leads the Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni working to strengthen the Catholic identity of their alma mater, told the Register that the “bishops face formidable difficulties in dealing with Catholic universities.”
“The Catholic identity of the great majority has been badly compromised … and the fateful surrender of control by dioceses and orders has disabled the bishops,” said Dempsey. “They are reduced to persuasion or pressure or a combination of the two.”
‘Last Line of Defense’ for Catholicity
Blatty’s canon-law petition and additional legal documents comprise more than 200 pages, including witness statements and an institutional audit of Georgetown commissioned by the petitioners.
The petition forcefully argues that the rapid advance of moral relativism on U.S. campuses has made the reform of Catholic higher education based on Ex Corde Ecclesiae all the more urgent.
While critics of Ex Corde Ecclesiae often oppose it as a threat to academic freedom, the petition argues that the papal document will prove to be “a last line of defense of academic freedom against the dictatorship of relativism and other new orthodoxies invading America’s colleges and universities” and that the U.S. bishops must do more to enforce the apostolic constitution.
The petition includes testimony from Chiara Cardone, an alumnus who graduated in 2010, who states that her “Catholic manner of worship was always accepted, but my Catholic lifestyle and convictions were sometimes attacked by student organizations and staff members, themselves underpinned by tacit and even explicit university endorsement.”
Blatty and Miranda’s ambitious effort underscores the mounting frustration and sadness of Georgetown alumni like Cardone, who fear the university’s culture will soon be indistinguishable from many elite secular universities — even as Pope Francis calls for the deep reform of Church-affiliated institutions to better advance the New Evangelization.
“In all his examples and in his final salvific sacrifice,” states the petition, “Jesus our Lord did not teach us to say: ‘It is too late.’”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.
Alejandro Bermudez, the Register's Latin-American correspondent,
contributed to this report.