Cardinal Wuerl Ramps Up Support for George Washington Chaplain

During an April 14 Mass with George Washington University students, Washington's cardinal commended chaplain Father Greg Shaffer.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington (photo: David Kerr/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington stepped up support for a Catholic chaplain at George Washington University, amid efforts by two homosexual students to press for the priest’s removal.

In recent weeks, two students have petitioned university administrators to evaluate whether the chaplain’s articulation of Church teaching on same-sex unions violates George Washington’s anti-discrimination policies. They have proposed that the university should “vet” future chaplains before they begin to serve the campus community.

During a rousing homily at a packed April 14 Mass for students near the campus, Cardinal Wuerl celebrated the chaplain, Father Greg Shaffer, as an inspirational practitioner of the New Evangelization and urged the congregation to stand up for religious freedom.  

“The idea that the pastor of a parish today or the chaplain of a religious community and campus ministry today should simply be silenced because he faithfully announces the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that he should not be allowed to engage in dialogue with our culture, even in a place that is dedicated to the free and diverse expression of ideas, may seem somewhat radical today, but you have to remember there have always been those who try to force their totalitarian views on all of us,” said Cardinal Wuerl, who received a standing ovation from the students.

He specifically addressed the challenges to Catholic teaching on marriage: “When we talk about marriage, when we speak about the dignity of human life, when we teach about the natural moral order, these are all elements that we find deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” said the cardinal.

“Just because someone wants to change all of that today does not mean that the rest of us no longer have a place in this society,” he continued. “Remember, after someone says you cannot speak here, then comes the sentence, ‘And you do not belong here.’”

Cardinal Wuerl served as the chief celebrant for a Mass at St. Stephen Martyr Church, a parish affiliated with the university Newman Center, and the liturgy drew Father Shaffer’s many supporters.

“All of us have come here this evening for two purposes: to celebrate Mass and to stand in solidarity with a good priest,” the cardinal stated at the opening of a homily that encouraged students to welcome every person hungry for God's love.

The Washington Archdiocese’s newspaper, The Catholic Standard, also published an editorial April 14 defending the embattled chaplain, in the wake of growing media coverage of the two students’ campaign.

“The spurious claim that people who voice the Church’s teaching on moral truth and the nature of the human person engage in hate speech should never be used as justification for attempts to silence and exclude from public life religious institutions and people of faith,” stated the editorial.

The campaign against Father Shaffer drew public attention after an April 4 article in the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet, reported that a group of 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 reportedly claimed 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 administrators “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.”

After Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor reported on the story, George Washington University spokeswoman 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 George Washington 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, 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 the Register, Crawford rejected the negative characterization of Father Shaffer and explained why students like him have returned to the faith with the priest’s encouragement.

This week, The Catholic Standard editorial described “the GW case” as the latest troubling “example” of efforts to silence religious speech that affirms inconvenient moral truths. The editorial called on all university administrators to “resist the increasing demands to silence the voices of faith or to otherwise assert control over the Church’s ministries on campus or in the world.

“The Church not only has the fundamental religious liberty to engage in the public square, but, by doing so, we contribute greatly to the common good, as Americans and as people of faith.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.