Press-Republican

May 30, 2012

Catholic identity, Georgetown and Rome

Terry Mattingly, On Religion
Press-Republican

— St. Ignatius Loyola was clear from the beginning that a Jesuit education would involve more than texts and classrooms, teaching that students should "absorb along with their letters the morals worthy of a Christian."

Thus, the motto of the Society of Jesus can be found in gilded letters across the front of Georgetown University's famous Gaston Hall: "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Inque Hominum Salutem (For the Greater Glory of God and the Salvation of Humanity)."

In other words, a Jesuit university can be judged on its impact on souls, as well as the quality of its research and scholarship. Attempting to balance this equation has caused intense and often bitter debates at Georgetown and other Catholic schools across the nation -- with the Vatican listening in.

The key is to follow St. Ignatius in linking morals and academics, according to the founder of the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, a program dedicated to building character and virtue in students. This strategy is also linked to Vatican demands that Catholic educators maintain a "Catholic identity" on their campuses.

"For far too many students today there is a huge gap between what happens in our classrooms and their experiences in their dormitories, in the dining hall and in the rest of life on and off campus," said Patrick J. Deneen. Thus, it's time for Catholic administrators and faculty members to remember that the "state of our students' lives has as much to do with the state of their souls as the state of their bodies and their minds."

Growing concerns about "Catholic identity" issues played a role in Deneen's recent decision to leave Georgetown and accept a similar political science post at the University of Notre Dame. While stressing he doesn't want to "become the poster boy for Georgetown bashing," the professor said he was increasingly concerned about the impact of years of clashes between Georgetown and church leaders over issues of doctrine and public life.

These debates could reach Rome, if a prominent Georgetown graduate has his way. Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty, best known for writing "The Exorcist," is leading a petition drive requesting that the Archdiocese of Washington and perhaps the Vatican investigate 20-plus years of complaints about the university's compliance with guidelines in the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."

"We may choose to file a canon action again, one much larger in scale and seeking alternative forms of relief that will include, among others, that Georgetown's right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time," noted Blatty in his online appeal (GUpetition.org) to supporters. "What we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked."

The Georgetown administration did not respond earlier this week to repeated requests for a response to the Blatty effort.

Among its many requirements, Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: "In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching." However, the pope also said the "freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected."

Georgetown is not alone in struggling with the tensions created by these kinds of statements, stressed Deneen. The key is that administrators must be willing to seek faculty who are committed to a school's "character and mission," as well as to their own research and careers.

At the same time, Deneen said he has found that today's students "crave input" on subjects that are both highly personal and academic -- such as dating and marriage, as well as how to blend career ambitions with concerns about building strong families in neighborhoods and communities that mesh with their personal values.

The goal is for Catholic educators to find a way for dialogues about these kinds of moral topics "to infuse campus life at every level," from the dorm room to the classroom.

"It used to be normal for students to hear about these kinds of moral and spiritual issues from faculty members, not just from campus ministers," said Deneen. However, on far too many Catholic campuses "they are no longer seen by faculty members as being important to their work. Some even consider them off-limits."

Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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