William Peter Blatty is the author of the deeply thoughtful novel The Exorcist. (The movie tried, but didn’t quite, capture the depth of theology in the novel; the movie is now remembered mostly as a rather graphic horror flick, but it really was far better than that.) Now Blatty has taken up a massive cudgel against his (and my) alma mater, Georgetown University, for its repeated affronts to people of Christian and particularly Catholic faith which — after including the draping of the Jesuit cross in order for President Obama to speak on campus — has culminated in yesterday’s featured speaking role for HHS Secretary and religious-freedom assault queen Kathleen Sebelius. As Jenna Johnson reported in the Washington Post, “An invitation to be seated on the commencement stage is one of the highest honors a university can bestow. Especially coveted is the opportunity to address the graduating class.” Yet Georgetown’s increasingly radical President Jack DeGioia, in direct defiance of the Archdiocese of Washington, has defended the Sebelius invitation and basically thumbed his nose at every Catholic bishop in the country and at all the faithful following.
Blatty is justifiably incensed. He offers a petition drive against Georgetown, asks those who ordinarily donate to the school to withhold contributions for at least a year, and promises a canon lawsuit against the university. Among the potential outcomes from the lawsuit would be “relief that may include a declaration by the appropriate ecclesiastical authority that Georgetown University is no longer entitled to call itself a Catholic or Jesuit university.” This would be big stuff. Frankly, my understanding is that it is within the Pope’s authority to order the Jesuits out of Georgetown entirely.
In addition to these potential actions, I would suggest consideration — not a conclusion yet, but definite consideration — of another one: Fire Jack DeGioia.
I write this with heavy heart. Jack and I have always been friendly, ever since my first day on campus as a resident of the building he then served as Resident Director. In many ways he has served Georgetown well in various capacities for something like 35 years. But he has gone well beyond the pale. His defiance is outrageous.
Despite an absurd editorial by the increasingly anti-Catholic-leaning Washington Post, the Sebelius speech has nothing to do with “the free exchange of ideas.” It is patent dishonesty to somehow suggest that a speech at a diploma ceremony does not carry with it a rather explicit honorific. This is not an in-semester speech sponsored by the College Democrats or by an on-campus debating society. This is a university sponsored and sanctioned event — as Johnson wrote, “one of the highest honors a university can bestow.” DeGioia knows this. The Post knows this. To suggest otherwise is errant nonsense, so much a prevarication as to be beneath contempt.
As the Archdiocese noted, DeGioia is being deliberately and flagrantly misdirectional by making the excuse that the invitation to Sebelius went out before the January announcement of the final decision on abortifacient mandate. The fact is, as the statement indicates, that “the mandate was published last August” as a near-final draft rule for public comment. In fact, it was way back in September that the bishops objected and called it “an unprecedented threat to individual and institutional religious freedom.” That was long before the invitation from Georgetown was issued. DeGioia knows this.
It is not just the defense of the invitation by DeGioia that raises the issue of his fitness to continue as president; it is the intellectuall dishonesty represented by the above-described evasions of the truth.
Again, this isn’t just some debate about contraception or even about abortifacients. This mandate is a direct frontal assault on religious liberty — and not just that of Catholics, but of every faith and denomination in the country. It is the very essence of tyranny to force somebody to financially support that which his faith teaches is among the gravest of all sins.
When I was at Georgetown and writing 200 articles for the Georgetown HOYA newspaper, the single biggest feature I did was on the role of the Jesuits at Georgetown. I was/am a Catholic-leaning Anglican, but I was fascinated by the additional moral seriousness at GU that seemed to stem from its Catholic identity. I wish I had the story in front of me, but one of the interviews I did has stuck with me until this day. The legendary Fr. Joseph Durkin, S.J., founder of the school’s American Studies program, author of a multi-volume history of the university, and beloved, active member of the campus community until his death two weeks after his 100th birthday, told me in words that I can repeat almost verbatim from memory even a quarter-century later:
“We are a Catholic and Jesuit University. Because we are a university, we welcome and encourage freedom of thought and of speech. Because we are Catholic and Jesuit, we take specific positions on certain issues. You have every right to speak up against those positions of ours, openly and without fear of repercussion. But we reserve the right to explain to you why you are wrong, and to insist that while you are perfectly free to keep being wrong, we will continue to say publicly why we are right. An example of this is the Communist philosophy, which teaches atheism. It is wrong, and we will say so.”
Jack DeGioia not only is failing to step up and say that Kathleen Sebelius is wrong, but is going in the other direction by providing her a speaking slot that carries with it a widely understood honor (even if not officially an honorary degree). DeGioia thus has moved nearly 180 degrees away from Father Durkin’s wisdom. Shame on him. And shame on the university’s board if it lets him get away with it.