Wiliam Blatty, author of The Exorcist and well-known Georgetown alum, recently grabbed media attention when he filed a petition calling for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC to discipline his alma mater. The Jesuit university, the ‘Exorcist’ author claims, no longer merits its Catholic designation due to long-standing patterns of dissent against church teaching. The petition’s Web site names a litany of offenses the university has committed in contradiction to its Catholic identity, including Georgetown’s refusal to submit to the Vatican’s canonical norms for Catholic universities, hosting controversial student-led plays such as The Vagina Monologues, and inviting pro-choice speakers such as Kathleen Sebelius to speak at commencement. So far, the petition’s Web site claims that some “1200 alumni, students, faculty, (and) parents” have signed on to “address repeated scandals, dissidence and non-compliance with church law.”
While Blatty freely names the controversies that offend his sensibilities, he neglects to mention the groups and activities on campus that uphold traditional Catholic teaching. Thus, while H*yas for Choice has a tolerated, but not official, presence on campus, the Georgetown Right to Life is one of the most active and influential pro-life groups in the country, host to the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, which draws thousands of students during the yearly commemoration of Roe v. Wade. While Blatty singles out Georgetown’s non-compliance with Ex Corde Ecclesia, the Vatican’s 1990 set of guidelines for Catholic universities, he fails to mention the vibrant spiritual life in campus ministry and countless theology courses that inculcate deep love for Roman Catholic religious traditions.
Georgetown is, ultimately, a university of political, religious, and intercultural dialogue. It was there that, nearly 10 years ago, I arrived as a naïve freshman from rural Ohio, where I had grown up in a world governed by religious and political fundamentalism. At Georgetown, my friendships with other students, the challenges of critical coursework, and the open-minded atmosphere on campus challenged my uncritical assumptions about the nature of truth and life with others in a pluralistic world. It was this process of spiritual, intellectual, and social questioning that first led me to a dialogue with, and then embrace of, the Roman Catholic Church.
The church, Georgetown showed me, is not an exclusive society of like-minded individuals closed in on itself. It does not retreat into a world of its own making, but rather engages humanity through conversation with diverse cultures and current concerns. At Georgetown, Catholic faith is a lively and dynamic force that interrogates the presuppositions of all those who are willing to engage it. Religion’s role in the modern world is everywhere questioned and tried: in the theology department, the simple mischaracterizations of other religions are deconstructed through work in comparative theology and pluralism; at the Berkley Center, the relationship between faith and public life is considered in terms of ethical responsibility and the contemporary situation; campus ministries and programs for members of all religious backgrounds give students the chance to engage questions of social justice in service to the poor and vulnerable. All of these university functions, along with many others, exemplify Georgetown’s mission to form women and men in service to others for the greater glory of God.
Christianity, indeed, has a long history of interaction with the world that challenges the status quo. From the first Church Council of Jerusalem, where the earliest generation of Christian leaders decided to open the faith to non-practitioners of Judaism, to the proclamation of Vatican II, where, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Catholic bishops called for the church to preserve and encourage the “genius and talents of the various races and peoples,” Christianity is a faith that continuously evaluates its message in relationship to the world and the experiences of ordinary people. The church’s original mission, given by Christ in Mark 16:15, is to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” The spirit of the Gospel sends Christians to interact with and to transform the world, not to reject and condemn it.
In order to effectively accomplish this task, Christians employ a wide variety of charisms, or gifts of faith, that God gives them. Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 how, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Paul likens the church to a body: when all of its individual parts work together, it can effectively spread the good news of faith. To function properly, however, each part of the church must recognize and accept the right functioning of other parts. Christians and their many roles in the faith are not uniform.
William Blatty’s petition does not recognize the value of diversity within the church. His understanding of Catholicism rejects its catholicity—that is, its universal nature—by rejecting engagement with the world and a plurality of spiritual charisms. His characterization of the faith as an internally-focused religious system does not reflect Christian commitments to diversity and the need for dialogue with others. The Catholic faith that I have come to know—a faith that Georgetown gave me—is far more broad, open-minded, and able to reach out the world in service. It is this Catholicism, beautiful and charismatic in its diversity, that fulfills Christ’s call to change the world with the love of God.
Jason Steidl is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Fordham University.