Georgetown University has rediscovered its Catholicism. The nation’s oldest Catholic school, the flagship of Jesuit education in America, has been a sad topic among American Catholics for some time now. Crucifixes removed from classrooms, a lay president, pro-abortion activity, a general embarrassment at religion.
Indeed, over the years, Georgetown has been perhaps the clearest example of what many such schools practice: the whipsaw of "Catholic tradition," in which the strongest declarations of Catholic identity come from the fund-raisers, the alumni association, and the public-relations office¯all the people trying to sell the university in a tight economic situation that requires a good bit of niche marketing. On the actual campus, you find much less of that.
Both my wife, Lorena, and I went to school there, and she jokes that the first time she heard Georgetown called a Jesuit and Catholic university was in the material sent to her parents to get them to pay for her freshman year. The second time she heard Georgetown called a Jesuit and Catholic university was in the fund-raising letters sent to her by the alumni association. And somehow in the four years in between, the years of her actual college education at Georgetown, she’d hardly heard it mentioned at all.
But now, at last, Georgetown has rediscovered its Catholicism, at least long enough for a Protestant employee of Campus Ministries to send a letter to six evangelical groups, kicking them off campus. The story made the Washington Post and the Washington Times this weekend, with the kind of headlines the public-relations office hates to see: "Georgetown Bars Ministries from Campus," "Georgetown U. Ejects Private Ministry Groups."
According to the Washington Times , "the decision¯which affects a few hundred students belonging to six Christian groups¯forbids the ministries from having any ‘activity or presence’ on campus, including worship services, retreats or helping students move into their dorms. The groups also are prohibited from using the Georgetown name in publicity."
You always have to be a little wary of campus fights. American colleges invariably have their infighting¯and when it spills over into public view, conflicts of personality and battles over turf can clothe themselves in grand claims of principle. Still, there was something odd going on last year when Campus Ministries demanded that the evangelical groups sign a statement promising not to "proselytize nor undermine another faith community." And there was something even odder when it was done in the name of the school’s Catholic tradition¯by the Protestant chaplains in the official Georgetown office.
The problem, of course, finally boils down to this: The evangelical groups represent only a few hundred students, but they are strongly pro-life and opposed to homosexual marriage. The mainline Protestant employees of Campus Ministry find such things embarrassing, and so they kick the evangelicals off campus, employing the power of the officially Catholic chaplain’s office and the rhetoric of the school’s Catholic identity.
There’s an obvious irony here¯employed too often to be surprising¯in which people begin by protesting in the name of diversity against centralized authority, and later discover, once they’re in charge, how useful those old forms of authority can be in controlling diversity.
But it also represents a tactic we’re likely to see more of: claims of old-fashioned Catholicism, used by people who are far from old-fashioned Catholics, to maintain control of officially Catholic institutions and to ban the people whose political opinions they don’t like. Watch for it at Boston College, and Marquette, and Notre Dame, and Loyola Marymount, and on and on.