- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

For the first time since the Jesuit Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore founded Georgetown University on the shores of the Potomac in 1789, the university does not have a president from the Society of Jesus. The lyrics of Georgetown Universitys Alma Mater include the refrain: "Wave her colors ever, furl her standard never" words whose irony cuts deeply these days, as Georgetowns board of directors lowers the Hoya colors in the face of the forces of secularization.
Perhaps to many observers, this is news of little import. What does it mean anyway to be a Catholic or a Jesuit university? Is it even a relevant notion in the 21st century? The struggle against secularization? Wasnt that battle lost long ago in higher education in this country? And, in fact, is anything but secularization appropriate for an institution that purports to be a place of advanced learning and research?
It would appear that Georgetown, the oldest Catholic college in the United States, has neatly summed up its answer to these questions in its decision to name a lay person, John J. DeGioia, as its 48th president. As the universitys weekly magazine, The Georgetown Voice, put it recently: "If Georgetown is serious about its mission to truly become one of the worlds foremost universities, it cannot simply be content with being the best Catholic school in America. DeGioias appointment offers a tentative sign that the Board of Directors understands that secularizing the University need not ruin its Jesuit identity."
Now, therein is quite a set of oxymorons: A university apparently cannot be Catholic and, at the same time, among the worlds foremost; but it can be secularized and still be Jesuit. One marvels at the subtle anti-Catholicism at the core of a message emanating from Georgetown itself. Catholicisms influence on higher education means what? Second-rate scholarship? Obscurantism? Intolerance? Bigotry? The elite American academy has long been rife with anti-Catholic bias; but it is nonetheless remarkable to hear the echoes of Paul Blanshards polemic against the so-called destructive papists, American Freedom, Catholic Power, resound however more delicately in the columns of a Georgetown news magazine.
Obviously, Georgetowns board of directors sees no contradiction between being simultaneously a secular and a Jesuit institution. This can only be because its definition of being Jesuit has surely become so vapid, so empty, as to be meaningless. One can only imagine the puzzlement with which board members would greet John Carrolls view that in Georgetown, he placed his "hope of the permanency and success of our Holy Religion in the United States." Apparently, such parochial and partisan sentiment has no place at the secular institution of higher learning that todays Georgetown is striving to become.
Yet, how did it come to pass that the board of directors was able to so easily furl Georgetowns standard in the struggle against secularization? It seems as if, at Georgetown at least, there is little stomach for the fight against the marginalization of Catholic values. The argument offered by the board for its decision to bypass Jesuit candidates for president is specious indeed. Chairman John R. Kennedy cited the lack of "qualified Jesuit candidates," an assertion that, rightly, has Jesuit communities around the nation in an uproar. With 28 colleges in this country alone and more than 20,000 Jesuits around the world, it is difficult to imagine that qualified Jesuit candidates simply did not emerge during the search process.
Put in the most innocent light, it appears that Georgetowns board concluded that keeping a Jesuit president is simply no longer a priority for the university. A more jaundiced observer, however, may wonder if there were not more to it than that. Perhaps a Jesuit president, perceived by some as a symbol of all that stands in the way of becoming "one of the worlds foremost universities," is now considered an inconvenient anachronism. After all, in a rather strange twist of events, Loyola University in Chicago recently plucked from Georgetowns ranks Father Michael J. Garanzini, a Jesuit priest and administrator, to be its new president. Apparently, Father Garanzini was not qualified to run Georgetown, but is perfectly suitable for Loyola. Ask any Jesuit or well-connected lay person, and the names of qualified Jesuit candidates scholars and administrators for Georgetowns presidency will tumble off their lips.
For those in the wider Georgetown community who see the Jesuit influence as a value to be strengthened, as a call for laymen and laywomen to remember that we are "in this world, but not of this world," nothing good can come of the end to concrete Jesuit leadership. We should not so easily furl our standard. Rather, we should continue the struggle for a Jesuit Georgetown, not a Georgetown with quaint Jesuit window dressing, but for an education and an experience that reminds us of the eternal contradiction between the cross and the world a message delivered on the Hilltop so well, for more than 200 years, by our Jesuit mentors, teachers and friends, led by our Jesuit presidents.


Richard J. Wolff graduated from Georgetown, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1974.

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