Georgetown University seems to be in serious danger of losing what makes it truly special: its historical commitment to a quality Catholic education. The university’s stately spires, topped with crosses and standing high above the nation’s capital, are a permanent reminder of the fervent Catholic faith and vision of Archbishop John Carroll and his fellow Jesuit missionaries who founded Georgetown the same year the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
But today those crosses stand in stark contrast to the rapid secularization of America’s oldest Catholic university and the unprecedented threats from the White House, just blocks away, to the religious freedom of America’s largest religious denomination.
Both problems, the secularist oppression of the Obama administration and the secularization of Georgetown, will be on display this Friday when the university presents Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as the speaker for its Public Policy Institute diploma ceremony.
In 2008, the former governor of Kansas was asked by her bishop to stop receiving Communion because of her “30-year history of advocating and acting in support of legalized abortion.” Now at HHS, Mrs. Sebelius is the chief architect of a health insurance mandate that would force Catholic colleges and universities, in violation of Catholic teaching, to provide coverage for sterilization and contraception to both students and employees.
Instead of standing by the Catholic bishops and fighting this clear violation of religious liberty, Georgetown has been on the sidelines - until now. Honoring Mrs. Sebelius is a public betrayal of the Catholic Church and all religious people in America.
In many ways, Georgetown’s choice is even more offensive than Notre Dame’s commencement honors to President Obama in 2008. At the time, the president was still making promises to respect the consciences of faithful Catholics. But Mrs. Sebelius has helped him break those promises, which probably is why more than 26,000 have signed the petition at GeorgetownScandal.com calling on Georgetown to rescind the invitation.
Of course, Georgetown’s betrayal of its Catholic roots didn’t begin with the Sebelius flap. Many campus speakers in recent years have offended Catholics, including pornographer Larry Flynt, who warned students, “The Church has had its hand on our crotch for 2,000 years.” Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown student-turned-contraception-activist, earned a prominent lecture on campus instead of correction for her opposition to the bishops.
Many Georgetown professors have opposed Catholic moral teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage and physician-assisted suicide. Madeleine K. Albright and Donna Brazile are perhaps the best-recognized. The Rev. Robert Drinan, a longtime law professor who is still celebrated at the law school after his death in 2007, infamously served in Congress while supporting abortion rights. Judith Feder is a next-generation “pro-choice” politician even while serving as a professor and former dean of the graduate program that will host Mrs. Sebelius on commencement day.
To be sure, some magnificent professors, such as the Rev. James V. Schall, a Jesuit priest, remain on the faculty. Even so, one of Father Schall’s accomplished peers in the government department, Patrick J. Deneen, recently announced his escape with a devastating public critique. Georgetown, he wrote, “increasingly and inevitably remakes itself in the image of its secular peers, ones that have no internal standard of what a university is for other than the aspiration of prestige for the sake of prestige, its ranking rather than its commitment to truth.”
Outside the classroom, Catholic students also find much to regret: condoms distributed in the university’s “Red Square,” the ironically labeled campus free-speech zone; annual performances of “The Vagina Monologues”; Georgetown’s well-funded LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender questioning) Resource Center; groups like H*yas for Choice and Law Students for Reproductive Justice opposing the church on abortion and contraception, and much more.
Last year, Georgetown’s Jesuits released a video intended to celebrate their work on campus, but in the process, they helped explain their diminishing relevance. “Our job as educators and as priests is not to bring God to people, or even to bring people to God,” said the Rev. Ryan Maher, associate dean and director of Catholic studies. “God’s already there and the people are already there. Our job, our way, of living out our educational vocation is to ask the right questions, and to help young people ask those questions.”
By shying away from answers about God and truth, Georgetown seems almost ashamed of its mission as a “Catholic and Jesuit” university. Contrary to claims that this makes Georgetown a “true” university, it threatens the end of once-prestigious Jesuit education. The wavering fidelity of Georgetown and most large Catholic universities leaves too many students unaware or uncertain of their purpose in life beyond the accumulation of knowledge and career preparation.
Secularization cannot replace faith; it only leaves a void to be filled. Georgetown’s students are under intense pressure in today’s culture to veer away from Catholic morality.
In this context, perhaps Catholics should not be so shocked by recent reports that al Qaeda once thought Catholics to be “fertile ground” for conversion to Islam. There’s no denying the shaky ground upon which many young Catholics stand today. The failure of some Catholic schools and colleges to embrace the Catholic faith with honesty and confidence indeed prepares “fertile ground” for ideologies like the secularism and relativism championed by Kathleen Sebelius.
Patrick J. Reilly is president of the Cardinal Newman Society.