‘Exorcist’ Author’s Canon Law Case Against Georgetown Continues

“Only firm Church action can save Georgetown and make it a great university. It is our only recourse. Our only hope.”

Georgetown campus in Washington, D.C., taken around 1910.
Georgetown campus in Washington, D.C., taken around 1910. (photo: Register Files)

William Peter Blatty, best-selling author and Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Exorcist, died Thursday at the age of 89 after battling a form of blood cancer. But his final work is still underway: a petition to the Vatican, seeking the enforcement of canon law to reform Georgetown University’s Catholic identity, is still in front of the Church’s highest court.

Although Bill Blatty is appreciated widely for his writing talent, great humor and one of the scariest movies ever made, we should also remember him as a faithful Catholic and a passionate advocate for Catholic education.

In many of his works, Blatty explored the depths of good and evil, psychology, theology and spirituality with great respect for his subject matter. And as he explained often, his objective was never “horror.” His was an inspiring human quest to catch a glimpse of God amid extraordinary experiences that test the soul.

In his last years, Blatty’s appeal to the Vatican to correct Georgetown’s wrongs demonstrated that his Catholic faith remained strong, as did his deep concern and love for the sincerely Catholic university that he attended in the 1940s.

Petition at Vatican

Manuel Miranda, a Georgetown alumnus who helped Blatty organize the petition, told me Monday that Blatty made arrangements before his death to keep the Vatican petition alive.

Blatty named Miranda his “alternate” in the canon law case. Miranda, a former president of The Cardinal Newman Society, served as Blatty’s legal counsel and helped him found the Father King Society of concerned Georgetown alumni, students, parents and faculty members. The case has worked its way through the Catholic hierarchy to the Vatican’s highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and the King Society’s canon lawyer will meet with the Signatura about the petition this week.

In May 2012, Blatty wrote a letter urging friends of Georgetown to join his canon law petition. “For 21 years now, Georgetown University has refused to comply with Ex corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), and, therefore, with canon law,” Blatty wrote. “And, it seems as if every month GU gives another scandal to the faithful!”

The petition, which Blatty began thinking about filing a few years prior, was announced on the heels of Georgetown’s announcement that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was invited to speak at the university’s 2012 commencement. Sebelius, a Catholic, had expressed public support for abortion and led the implementation of the HHS contraception mandate. The mandate — which is still being fought in the courts — threatens the religious freedom of Catholic institutions and had been vigorously opposed by the U.S. bishops in numerous public statements before Georgetown invited Sebelius to campus.

At Blatty’s request, the Newman Society produced a dossier documenting the numerous Catholic identity abuses at Georgetown. Many but not all of these abuses have been reported, but the full dossier and petition have not yet been made public.

“Each of these scandals is proof of Georgetown’s non-compliance with Ex corde Ecclesiae and canon law,” Blatty wrote in 2012. “They are each inconsistent with a Catholic identity, and we all know it. A university in solidarity with the Church would not do these prideful things that do so much harm to our communion.”

In May 2013, the petition was submitted to Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington with the support of more than 1,200 “alumni, students, parents, teachers, and other laity from around the world.”

“After one year of work, the petition we submit today is 198 pages, 476 footnotes, 91 appendices, 124 witness statements, a commissioned 120-page institutional audit of Georgetown, a sworn certification of facts, and a legal opinion,” Miranda announced. “We have documented 23 years of scandals and dissidence, over 100 scandals in the most recent years alone.”

The Archdiocese of Washington advised that the petition be sent to the Vatican, and in October 2013, Blatty announced that the case was submitted to several dicasteries in Rome. The petition then had 2,000 supporters.

“What is profoundly interesting is that the very first remedy that we asked of the Archbishop of Washington, His Eminence, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, was: ‘If the Holy Spirit leads you to it and your conscience will allow it, to declare publicly that Georgetown University is compliant with Ex corde Ecclesiae, orients its institutional initiatives according to standards that are consistent with the norms and morality of the Church, and lives up to the title ‘Catholic,’” Blatty said in a statement at the time. “His Eminence opted not to do that.”

Impact uncertain

On April 4, 2014, Blatty received a response to the canon law petition from Archbishop Angelo Zani, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. “Your communications to this Dicastery in the matter of Georgetown University. . . constitutes a well-founded complaint,” wrote Archbishop Zani. He added, “Our Congregation is taking the issue seriously, and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”

The petition has since been appealed to the Apostolic Signatura. It is not clear what communications have resulted between the Vatican and Georgetown University, but the Catholic identity abuses at Georgetown have continued with no indication that administrators will conform with Ex corde Ecclesiae.

Last March, for example, the Archdiocese of Washington chastised the university for hosting Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards on campus — a woman responsible for the deaths of almost three million babies. The Archdiocese said Georgetown lacks an “environment of morality, ethics and human decency” on campus, and the archdiocesan newspaper went even further in denouncing the decision.

“Welcoming an ardent supporter of the violent taking of an unborn human life is deeply offensive and heart-rending to other Georgetown students, teachers, alumni and community members who believe in the Catholic teaching that all human life has God-given dignity from conception to natural death,” the paper stated in an editorial. “Apparently to some, the one group of people that it is acceptable to offend, even at a Catholic university, are Catholics.”

Richards used her platform at Georgetown to rally support for Planned Parenthood and the moral evils of abortion and contraception, potentially endangering students’ souls according to the Newman Society, which called on Georgetown to rescind the invitation. 

Unfazed by criticism about giving a platform to America’s top abortion activist, Georgetown hosted a day-long strategy session for abortion activists in November 2016 who gathered to discuss the “injustices” of legal barriers to abortion. The event was capped off by a presentation meant to gather support for legislation that would force taxpayers to pay for abortions.

‘Our only recourse’

The scandals at Georgetown were heartbreaking to Blatty, who attended Georgetown on a full scholarship and had great respect for the Jesuits of his day. Matt Archbold wrote in 2013, “Blatty’s love of Georgetown runs deep and back to the time when he attended the Jesuit university. Georgetown wasn’t just the setting for the book and the classic film. ‘The film is in many ways a hymn to Georgetown,’ William Friedkin, the film’s director, recently told USA Today in an interview with him and Blatty to mark the film’s upcoming 40th anniversary.”

The canon law petition was not intended to punish Georgetown for its swing away from a once-strong Catholic identity, but instead Blatty wanted to spark reform.

“I believe [a canon law petition] is the only thing that can stop Georgetown in its path,” Blatty told The Cardinal Newman Society in a May 2012 interview. “Only firm Church action can save it and make it a great university. It is our only recourse. Our only hope.

“And not just at Georgetown,” he said. “I hope alumni from other colleges will contact me for help in submitting petitions regarding their colleges. I hope that Georgetown will see the light and alter its course.”

William Peter Blatty, requiescat in pace. It now remains for other good Catholics to continue your noble effort.

Newman Society Editor Adam Cassandra contributed substantially to writing this report.