WASHINGTON — When William Peter Blatty won a four-year scholarship to Georgetown University in the 1940s, he arrived at the Jesuit campus with a sense of relief.

During his childhood, Blatty and his mother suffered through more than 20 evictions for non-payment of rent. For the first time, he knew he could stay put without unwelcome interruptions.

More than a half century later, after winning an Academy Award for the screenplay adaptation of his bestselling novel The Exorcist, Blatty still calls Georgetown “home.”

But his love for the pontifical institution has inspired him to support and sign a canon-law petition that asks the “Catholic Church to require that Georgetown implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a papal constitution governing Catholic colleges.”

If that effort fails, the petition signed by Blatty and 2,000 other Catholics calls for “the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit in any of its representations.”

Asked to explain why he has backed a petition that could damage the reputation of his alma mater, Blatty told the Register, “Today’s Georgetown isn’t Georgetown, but more like a living Picture of Dorian Gray.”

“Remember that wonderful line in the film The Princess Bride, when Mandy Patinkin says, ‘I want my father back?’” Blatty asked. ”Well, I want my beloved university back, not just alive, but totally beautiful — and healthy.”


Collecting Evidence

The canon-law petition has been simmering on the backburner, as Blatty’s legal counsel, Manuel Miranda, another Georgetown alum, developed a legal document of more than 200 pages, with more than 480 footnotes and 99 appendices.

Miranda has collected 124 witness statements and commissioned a 120-page institutional audit of Georgetown. These documents accompanied the petition, which has been delivered to the Vatican's Secretariat of State, Congregation for Education and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

The timing of the petition could be providential, said Miranda, because Pope Francis, during his previous roles as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the head of the Argentine bishops’ conference and chancellor of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, implemented Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Blessed Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic colleges and universities.

Further, he reported, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio also backed Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 decree that removed consent from the University of Peru to call itself “Catholic” — a high-profile case that ended with the university losing its designation as a Catholic and pontifical institution of higher education.

Miranda said his petition focuses on related issues, including Georgetown’s failure to incorporate Ex Corde Ecclesiae into its bylaws and implement a faculty recruitment policy that gives priority to Catholics. And he noted many similarities between the Peruvian and U.S. universities, including their statuses as pontifical and Jesuit institutions.


Georgetown Defends Its Catholicity

Thus far, Rachel Pugh, Georgetown’s director of communications, has repeatedly challenged any suggestion that the university has drifted away from its Catholic mission. Yet Pugh’s statements have skirted questions dealing with the full implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

This week, when the Register sought further clarification from Pugh, she stated that the “Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger. Academically, we remain committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

“Georgetown supports the largest campus ministry in the country. On Sundays, we offer as many as seven Masses in Dahlgren Chapel, one of five Catholic chapels on our campuses,” she reported in an email message that noted a range of student service activities.

Further evidence of Georgetown’s commitment to its Catholic roots, said Pugh, was the fact that all undergraduates “take two semesters of theology and two semesters of philosophy before graduation.”

Blatty wasn’t impressed.

Gray-haired Catholic alumni like himself, he said, would be “appalled to learn that a low percentage of Georgetown’s theology faculty are actually Catholics, and so we have  a plethora of theology courses such as ’Buddhism and Politics’ and ‘Muslims and Politics.’

“And over in the philosophy department, where once we studied logic, epistemology, cosmology and ontology in an effort to intellectually defend Catholic beliefs, we now have the likes of ‘Democracy and Star Trek.’”

Meanwhile, Miranda said he had received “guidance” and a “green light” for the canon-law petition from the Archdiocese of Washington, during a recent exchange with the vicar for canonical services, Msgr. Charles Antonicelli.

However, when the Register contacted the archdiocese, Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman, provided the following statement that fell short of an endorsement of the petition.

“The archdiocese received the petition and continues to work with Georgetown to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae. We have no further comment on this,” stated Noguchi in an email message.

The petition marks the growing dismay of Catholic alumni like Blatty and Miranda who have long expressed concern about Georgetown’s increasingly secular drift and embrace of positions that contradict Catholic teaching on life and marriage.


Past Catholic-Identity Tensions

Back in 1991, it was Miranda who led a successful, but more limited, canon-law action --— based on Ex Corde Ecclesiae — that forced Georgetown to drop its funding and support for a pro-abortion student-advocacy group.

“It was a success that reverberated, as other universities announced the defunding of similar clubs,” Miranda recalled. 

More recently, some alumni were stunned by the introduction of a "lavender commencement event" for students with same-sex attraction. And, last year, Blatty was shocked by the news that the Georgetown Public Policy Institute had invited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at the graduate school’s 2012 commencement, just months after the longtime abortion-rights-supporting Catholic had approved the contraception mandate.

The ensuing controversy sparked by Sebelius’ appearance exposed the fissures that have developed in the university’s relationship with Church leaders. After Georgetown announced that Sebelius would speak at the commencement event, the Archdiocese of Washington rebuked the university's administration.

“Georgetown University has, historically speaking, religious roots,” stated one stinging editorial in the Catholic Standard, the archdiocese’s newspaper.

“So, too, do Harvard, Princeton and Brown. Over time, though, as has happened with these Ivy League institutions, Georgetown has undergone a secularization, due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching. … Thus the selection of Secretary Sebelius for special recognition, while disappointing, is not surprising.”

The editorial offered a cautionary reminder that Georgetown was headed down the same path that led Ivy League schools founded by Christians to discard their religious missions.

Since then, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has continued to engage the university community. He has participated in academic events that provide an opportunity for a holistic presentation of Catholic teaching, including, most recently, an Oct. 1 event that introduced Georgetown’s new Catholic Social Thought and Public Life initiative and examined questions raised by Pope Francis’ recent interview in America magazine.


‘Out of Love for the University’

At present, it is not clear how long it will take for the petition to get a hearing, let alone a definitive judgment from the Holy See. But Blatty has no regrets about waging a legal battle with unpredictable consequences.

“As a one-time comic novelist and screenwriter, I came to a point where I asked myself, ‘What am I really doing for anyone else? What am I doing that has any lasting importance that would help me, at the end of my life, to squeeze through that ‘narrow gate?’” he said.

“The result was six novels and two motion pictures that, as an affirmation of our belief in the Resurrection and the life, were designed to give comfort, hope and strength,” he said, referencing novels and films that deal with religious themes, including The Exorcist, Legion and Dimiter.

“Whether or not I succeeded, I have no idea,” he said. “But I tried. And this petition, if you will, is not only out of love for the university that gave me nearly all that I value, but, in my view, far exceeds any novel or film that I have written in its potential to produce a lot of ‘gate grease.’”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.