(Photo Credit: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
By Marjorie Jeffrey (@MarjorieJeffrey)
In the spring of 2012, a series of questionable events at Georgetown University culminated with the University’s decision to invite Kathleen Sebelius, architect of the infamous HHS mandate, as a commencement speaker. This bold move arrived in the midst of an ongoing battle between the American Catholic Bishops (as well as various Catholic schools and other organizations) and the Obama administration over the mandate itself. Inviting a controversial pro-choice figure like Kathleen Sebelius as a speaker at a Catholic school might have been overlooked a few years, or even a few months before. But the HHS mandate had touched off a firestorm, and every single Catholic bishop in the U.S. had spoken out against it. Such solidarity on the part of Catholic clergy in the United States, in the name of religious freedom, has ushered in a new era for American Catholics. Georgetown soon discovered that they wouldn’t be let off the hook so easily, and was publicly rebuked by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Despite petitions of protest from students, alumni, and faculty, Sebelius spoke at the Georgetown School of Public Policy’s diploma ceremony. This was the last straw for Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty, author of the book and screenplay The Exorcist. Blatty began to prepare a canon law action against Georgetown University, to be filed with the Archdiocese of Washington, and launched a website for the Father King Society, where Catholics could sign the petition and offer their own testimony or evidence in the case being prepared against Georgetown.
Today, Blatty submitted his case to Cardinal Wuerl and the Archdiocese of Washington. According to the press release, the petition “prays that the Catholic Church will grant several remedies, including, if made necessary, the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit in its fundraising and representations to applicants.” The case is based on the failure of Georgetown University to comply with Ex corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Apostolic Constitution for Catholic Universities. The petition also “cites a Vatican Decree issued on July 11, 2012, at the request of the Archbishop of Lima, that ordered the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, a very prominent Latin American university, to cease calling itself “Catholic” and “Pontifical” while declaring that it continued to be ecclesiastical property and subject to the requirements of Church law.” That decision by Vatican officials was based upon the University of Peru’s failure to comply with Ex corde Ecclesiae.
The canon law petition is not being made public at this time, but it consists of “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. We have documented 23 years of Scandals and dissidence, over 100 Scandals in the most recent years alone,” according to Manuel A. Miranda, a member of Blatty’s legal counsel who also stated that the Father King Society had consulted with multiple canon lawyers about the petition.
The question remains if this canon law suit will go anywhere. Georgetown was faced with a similar canon law action from 1991-1992, also based on Ex corde Ecclesiae. The man who is now president of the University, John DeGioia, was then the Dean of Student Affairs, and had authorized official school funding for a pro-abortion student organization. Cardinal James Hickey publicly rebuked Georgetown, but similar to the more recent rebuke from Cardinal Wuerl, it went unheeded. The petitioners then appealed directly to Pope John Paul II, but a few weeks later the decision on support for the student group was reversed, and the case became moot. It was hailed as a victory for faithful proponents of Catholic identity at Catholic universities. But supporters of this new action say that it is “larger in scale and potential consequences” than the 1991-92 petition, as it cites two decades of scandals, and comes on the more recent urging by Benedict XVI to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae faithfully in the United States.
The best case scenario would be one similar to the result of the 1991-92 investigation: a meaningful reform taking place at Georgetown University, upon the urging of Church officials. The stripping of Georgetown’s Catholic status (which is what happened to the University of Peru) might be a kind of Pyrrhic victory for faithful Catholics; if Georgetown refuses to reform, it could be perceived as yet another sign of the weakness of authority in American Catholicism, and rather than setting a positive example for reform to other Catholic universities, it might cause the opposite chain reaction. However, regardless of the public reaction, the submission of this case to the Archdiocese of Washington is a powerful step towards calling Georgetown University to account for its fecklessness.