On Abortion, Speech, and the Catholic Campus: Vatican Responds to Petition Against Georgetown

A recent petition by William Peter Blatty—a Georgetown graduate who's best known for writing The Exorcist—is aimed at forcing the university to conform to a strict and exclusionary vision of Catholic identity, and it's been yellow-lighted by a Vatican representative.

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In a move that could lead to repercussions felt far beyond a Washington hilltop, a Vatican official has lent credence to a petition started by William Peter Blatty—a Georgetown graduate who’s best known for writing The Exorcist—to force Georgetown University to conform to a strict and exclusionary vision of Catholic identity.

The petition, which has garnered about 2,000 signatures, suggests that the Vatican require Georgetown to implement the papal decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae. If not successful in addressing concerns, it calls for “the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit in any of its representations.” The Vatican declined to do so, but still gave Blatty and his fellow hardliners a pat on the back. A letter from Archbishop Angelo Zani, who serves as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, referred to the petition as “a well-founded complaint.”

“Our Congregation is taking this issue seriously,” Zani wrote, “and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States. According to the school’s website, “Jesuits have played a significant role in the growth and evolution of Georgetown into a global research university deeply rooted in Catholic faith. … The ideals and principles that have characterized Jesuit education for over 450 years are central to Georgetown’s mission and character.”

So why does a group of hardline Catholics want to crack down on Georgetown? Well, outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke to the students in 2012, angering those who see the Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on preventive care—and especially a requirement that says insurance companies can no longer discriminate against women by charging them additional copays for birth control—as morally equivalent to throwing flaming axes into a nursery.

What’s more, Blatty objected to students being able to choose from courses, including “Political Theology: The Case of Islam” or “Feminist Theology,” to fulfill the second half of Georgetown’s undergraduate theology requirement. And of course there is the matter of H*yas for Choice, an unofficial student group working toward increasing the availability of condoms on a campus that refuses to allow campus stores and medical facilities to sell them.

Rachel Pugh, director of media relations for the university, responded to the petition in an email to The Georgetown Voice. “Our Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger,” she said.

It’s purely ridiculous to suggest that Georgetown is not Catholic, and it’s offensive. Blatty’s petition is an attack on Georgetown University as a whole: its students, its faculty, its administrators, its alumni network, and the community it serves. It is an attack on academic freedom, religious pluralism, and the free exchange of ideas. It is an insult to the very Jesuit ideals of the university, and the many practicing Catholics on campus.

This Is Personal

Full disclosure: I am an alum of Georgetown University, and I have a dog in this fight. I am keenly aware of how the school’s discriminatory policies hurt its women students.

Back in the dark ages of 2002, I was on a university student health plan and a modest student budget. I needed to fork over a $110 copay to refill my birth control prescription at a drug store off campus, even though I was paying my full premiums with the expectation that my health-care needs would be covered. I count myself lucky that needing to scrimp on my grocery expenses was the only consequence.

In 2012, I expressed my anger and embarrassment in an open letter to university President John DeGioia that a law student with polycystic ovarian syndrome in similar circumstances couldn’t afford to continue refilling her contraception, leading to the growth of a cyst and ultimately having an ovary surgically removed. (Georgetown has since accepted the Obama administration’s accommodation for religiously affiliated institutions that refuse to pay for the coverage themselves, and began to include contraceptive coverage in its health plans in August 2013.)

I say this as someone with deep respect for the university’s heritage and traditions: Georgetown could do massive good for its students by adopting more common-sense approaches to its “pro-life” identity at the ground level. As evidenced by the existence of groups like Catholics for Choice and regular polling of Catholic people, the hardline approaches taken by the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church on matters of sexual morality are hardly representative of the whole.

Today I am an active and engaged alum, regularly returning to campus to mentor women students, judge student debates, and participate in panel discussions about leadership and nonprofit management at the career center. Recently, I gave a talk about the underrepresentation of women and politics and the media as part of Choice Week 2014, organized by H*yas for Choice. So when the Washington Post asks a source in its story about Blatty’s petition “how a Catholic school could satisfy Ex Corde if it hosts people and conversations supporting abortion rights,” it is clear we are, among other things, talking about an effort to exclude real people who give freely of their hearts, minds, and wallets to their beloved Georgetown community—including me.  

Not “Pro-Life” Enough?

In 1992, after much pressure from the Archbishop of Washington, and likely Rome, via a petition, then Dean of Students John DeGioia removed the university’s recognition of student-founded group GU Choice just one year after approving it. That decision led to the formation of the unofficial group H*yas for Choice as it continues today. Not being officially recognized means the group doesn’t receive tuition-backed student activities funds accessible to other groups and can’t use or rent tables, Laura Narefsky, a graduating senior and outgoing president of H*yas for Choice, told Rewire.

It also means that disclaimers abound. At my recent talk on the underrepresentation of women in politics and the media, Narefsky opened the session with: “The views and opinions expressed by members of H*yas for Choice are those of the individuals and our presence here and the fact that we are on the Georgetown University campus does not imply endorsement by Georgetown University or the Society of Jesus.”

That disclaimer has been around a long time, at least as long as the first meeting she attended as a first-year student in 2010. “As far as I am aware, that is not something other groups do,” Narefsky said.

Accessing space for events, meetings, and tabling is an issue, Narefsky told Rewire, noting that H*yas for Choice couldn’t use “the big lecture halls,” although a “Memorandum of Understanding: New Strategy for Speech and Expression Policy” released by the university on May 15 and obtained by Rewire says that “Classrooms and other Registrar spaces are places of dialogue and free exchange. The University will accommodate equally all students and student groups who wish to schedule an event or public meeting in classroom spaces subject to availability.” The review came after controversy earlier this year when campus police removed a table H*yas for Choice was using to distribute free condoms.

As for Blatty’s petition, Narefsky minimized its claims and support. When asked what she would say to those who allege that the campus has become intolerant toward people who hold “pro-life” views in accordance with church teachings, the emotion rose in her voice. “I would invite them very cordially to come and look at the crucifixes in every classroom and I would invite them to speak with the student body, which is more conservative [than many campuses],” she said. “I don’t believe the people who say Georgetown is hostile to pro-life values have ever set a foot on campus. It is blatantly untrue.” 

University Ideals, Vatican Hypocrisy

The Blatty petition, and the Vatican’s supportive acknowledgement of it, happens during a broader discussion about the role of free speech, and in particular controversial speakers, on campuses across the country. This commencement season, left-leaning students protested over the inclusion of various speakers, leading Condoleeza Rice to decline an invitation to Rutgers and Christine Lagarde to cancel at Smith, among others.

Liberal journalist Michelle Goldberg has criticized that tactic, telling Vox in an interview that “free speech and the free exchange of ideas and kind of open-ended intellectual inquiry – they’re values that are worth defending in and of themselves, full stop.” It is appropriate to see Blatty’s attack on Georgetown from the right in a similar vein, both against the general value of intellectual integrity and the specific aims of the school. Georgetown says on its website that “we provide students with a world-class learning experience focused on educating the whole person through exposure to different faiths, cultures and beliefs.”

How sad that Blatty and a small, vocal minority in the community aim to change that, and how hypocritical of a Vatican representative to give it any credence, especially when the Pope, a Jesuit, has urged the Catholic Church to focus more on the whole person and less on “small-minded rules.”