News broke two weeks ago that Georgetown University, my alma mater, had invited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as a guest of honor for the Public Policy Institute’s commencement weekend festivities. It’s a headline that could have appeared in the The Onion, were it not in the Washington Post. A firestorm of course ensued, and to little avail. The ceremony took place on Friday and Sebelius’ presence became reality.
For years, before, during, and after my undergraduate time at that remarkable university, I’ve had to swat away outsiders’ objections about the place. And I became quite adept at it, because the script was more or less the same every time. An interlocutor would raise an eyebrow when I mentioned my alma mater, reel off some glib remark (“doesn’t everyone who goes there lose their faith?”) and then chortle a bit at their imagined cleverness. “Well, actually, no,” I’d more or less obliged to reply, and then begin a litany of counterfactuals which buried their unserious half-concern.
Were they aware of the excellence of some Jesuit and lay professors who still taught life-changing courses on Dante, Milton, Plato, Church history, and other pillars of the Western canon they’d assumed had evaporated? Had they any idea of the vibrancy of campus ministry; of the quiet leadership of individuals working within and without the system; the sheer history and beauty of the campus? Did they understand that not every student wasted their time there?
These defenses are accurate, and I’d gladly stand by them to the fiercest critics. But what I (and many friends) failed to realize is that they were, to an almost absolute extent, relative. They do not reflect a majority or ‘mainstream’ experience at the school, much less some sort of coherent outlook on the part of the administrators and deputies who makes up its managerial class.
There is not much ‘center’ holding at Georgetown; precious little common frame of reference, shared culture and experience, or underlying first principles to which parties can defer debates about ultimate ends. In the absence of that, of course, rush the watery slogans: “dialogue” (nothing is said about with whom, on what terms, or to what goal this ought to be pursued); vague intimations of humanitarianism and globalism; and “pluralism” (a noble word drained of its essential basis in intractable difference).
Still, if critics are right to point out that Georgetown’s animating Catholicity is endangered, they are dangerously mistaken in calling it dead. The difference between life, even embattled life, and death is not a distinction to be casually or sloppily made. And, as valuable and incisive as outsider critics and watchdog organizations can be, their formulaic denunciations of the place will forever ring hollower to me than perhaps they ought to.
But the Sebelius invitation was absurd, and it doesn’t take an expert or a local mind to see that. There was no way of papering over the cognitive dissonance; of possibly passing this off as some sort of grand “conversation” or anything other than contempt for the Church and her ordained servants. There was an attempt: On Wednesday, the president of the university put out a dithering statement explaining that the invitation was issued before the mandate was promulgated, and Sebelius would not technically be a “speaker” at the ceremony, only a guest of honor. It completely dodged the question at hand (why was she still being invited, knowing what they knew now?) and earned a swift call-out from the Archdiocese of Washington.
To their great credit, a few (nine, to be specific) faculty members signed a letter of protest written by departing government professor Patrick Deneen. Only one of the signers, a venerable professor of philosophy, was both a co-signer of both this and the Paul Ryan protest letter, about whose presence on campus more than ninety faculty members happily found the time and will to register moral objection.
For me, as a recent graduate, the situation is absolutely heartbreaking, and it has already fomented bitterness in people far too young for such sentiments. As a close friend put it: “I expected to become a dyspeptic old alum, but I didn’t expect it to happen this quickly.”
But it is worse than a mere disappointment. It is, in the words of legendary 20th century Georgetown history professor Carroll Quigley, a “contemporary trahison des clercs.” To accord a place of honor to an official responsible for initiating what amounts to a present-day persecution of the Church is not just sloppy; not merely obnoxious. It amounts to a kind of betrayal.
To make a few distinctions which other critics perhaps have not been as adept at: This invitation was not something cooked up by the student body, and apart from maybe a few hardcore activist-types, I don’t think they’d have ever collectively dreamt it up. It certainly was not an initiative of the Jesuits (though we could do with some boldness on their part right now). The reactions of those groups (or lack thereof) do indicate something about the climate of the school, but they did not initiate this battle. No, blame for this particular event lies largely in the hands of the career administrators who now mostly have the run of the place.
When a common culture fragments, it’s the easiest solution: find some ‘neutral’ professionals to sand down the shards, especially when putting them back together would require so much exertion. Never mind that the hired experts may, in fact, harbor their own agenda. It’s a peculiarly sad decline because it’s so lame—the oldest Catholic university in the United States is being suffocated by a thousand qualifications.
Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.
Patrick J. Deneen, “For the Salvation of Souls”: A Farewell to Georgetown
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