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Here we go again: another supposedly ‘Catholic’ US university honours a prominent anti-Catholic. But why are we all so surprised?

And why are secularised institutions still allowed by the Church to describe themselves as ‘Catholic’?

By on Friday, 18 May 2012

Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at Georgetown University (AP)

Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at Georgetown University (AP)

I begin with an editorial, headlined “Disappointed but not surprised”, published in The Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. This says most of what needs to be said, both about the invitation by Georgetown University (a supposedly Catholic institution) to the supposedly Catholic US Secretary for Health Kathleen Sebelius (who promotes abortion) to speak there, and also about Georgetown University itself:

Late last Friday, Georgetown University announced that US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is the featured speaker for an awards ceremony at the University’s Public Policy Institute. This news is a disappointment but not a surprise.

As is well known, Secretary Sebelius is the architect of the “HHS mandate”, now federal law, which requires all employers – including religious institutions – to provide health insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilisation and contraceptives for its employees and redefines religious ministry to exclude Catholic social services, hospitals and universities if they serve or employ non-Catholics. Given her position, it is disappointing that she would be the person that Georgetown University would choose to honor.

Founded in 1789 by John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, Georgetown University has, historically speaking, religious roots. So, too, do Harvard, Princeton and Brown. Over time, though, as has happened with these Ivy League institutions, Georgetown has undergone a secularisation (my emphasis).

This, says the Standard, is “due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching. Many are quite clear that they reflect the values of the secular culture of our age. Thus the selection of Secretary Sebelius for special recognition, while disappointing, is not surprising”.

This seems both reasonable and realistic. It says, almost, well, Georgetown University used to be Catholic and now isn’t: what do you expect? So why are US Catholics making such a fuss about this invitation? After all, to take an example for me closer at hand, Oxford used to be a Catholic university. Then it became an Anglican university (to receive a degree you had to accept the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion). Today it’s an entirely secular university (which makes it possible for Catholics to attend it once more) , though it has a theology department, many senior teaching positions in which are reserved for Anglicans. But the university operates in an entirely secular way: nobody asks whether those it honours support abortion or execrate religion: some do, some don’t. Catholic members of the University like me take this for granted: it would be nice if it were otherwise, but it’s not. So why don’t US Catholics similarly accept that Georgetown has just changed? It happens.

Well, there’s a very good answer to that question: it’s that in its own official description of itself, it still is a Catholic institution and hasn’t changed at all. Being Catholic, and Jesuit, is part of its sales pitch. So perhaps the Catholic Standard is wrong to be so fatalistic. Have a look at Georgetown’s website if you doubt me:

Established in 1789, Georgetown is the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university. Drawing upon this legacy, we provide students with a world-class learning experience focused on educating the whole person through exposure to different faiths, cultures and beliefs. With our Jesuit values and location in Washington, DC, Georgetown offers students a distinct opportunity to learn, experience and understand more about the world.

So what exactly are Jesuit values these days, we ask ourselves. What does Georgetown think they are? I ask not to invite the horse-laugh some of you are no doubt already emitting, but with the intention of posing a serious question. Here’s another question: if Georgetown University really has “undergone a secularisation”, why is it still calling itself Catholic? More to the point, why is the Archdiocese of Washington allowing it to call itself Catholic? Georgetown is presumably describing itself as Catholic in order to attract Catholics as students, and perhaps deceitfully to allay the anxieties of their parents. If so, its self-description is simply fraudulent. Is there no American equivalent of our Trade Descriptions Act?

The Archdiocese of Washington, according to the New York Times, released a strong letter of rebuke to Georgetown’s president on Tuesday afternoon, calling Ms Sebelius the architect of the birth control mandate — “the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history”. But if even the archdiocese’s own newspaper accepts that it is now a secular university, why bother?

The conflict, as the New York Times reminds us, is only the latest example of friction between Catholic universities and their local bishops, who, as it says “are charged with ensuring that the universities uphold Catholic doctrine and exhibit an explicitly Catholic identity”.

But is this now a realistic expectation? I ask this as a genuine question. From this side of the great pond, I just don’t know, and solicit the informed opinion of any American reader who may be reading. This isn’t a problem we have here. Is this a fight that can still be won? The Cardinal Newman Society of Virginia, which seems to be a rather admirable outfit, is dedicated to waging precisely this particular culture war. The New York Times says it has “played an influential role as a whistle-blower, alerting bishops when they find a university stepping out of line” and informs us that “This spring, the group compiled a list of 12 Catholic universities with commencement speakers they found objectionable because of their support for abortion rights or gay rights.”

Its mission statement reads as follows:

Founded in 1993, the mission of The Cardinal Newman Society is to help renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.

The Society seeks to fulfill its mission by assisting and supporting education that is faithful to the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church; producing and disseminating research and publications on developments and best practices in Catholic higher education; advising students, alumni, trustees, campus officials, faculty and others engaged in renewing and strengthening the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities and Church-affiliated ministries at non-Catholic colleges and universities; and studying and promoting the work of our patron, John Henry Cardinal Newman, especially as it relates to Catholic higher education and the unity of faith and reason.

But can they possibly win? Have they, in fact, had any success in persuading the authorities of any officially Catholic university to “disinvite” a speaker with anti-Catholic beliefs it was intending to honour? Again, this is a real question: if they have been successful in this way, I’m at least partly wrong.

I am pessimistic about this. Not about the renewal of the Church herself: that is already happening. But in the case of universities like Georgetown, has not the whole process of secularisation gone too far? Should not effectively secularised institutions be declared non-Catholic by the Church herself? The dangers of the present situation are obvious. Every time a self-proclaimed Catholic university like Georgetown honours a Catholic apostate it promotes the notion that Catholics can believe what they like, for all the world as though they were Anglicans (there is or used to be an organisation for Anglican priests who don’t believe in the existence of God).

I end on an uncertain note. I have written this piece as much to gather information as to air my own anxieties. This is still, clearly, very much a live question in America. Why is that? Here, it was unhappily settled centuries ago.

  • Nesbyth

    I think the enemy is within the Catholic Church and when such things come to light it’s all the more obvious. Let’s face it, the Jesuits haven’t been preaching orthodox Catholicism since Vat II. They’ve been in the vanguard of the new/socialist/humanist/liberal mainstream that took over in 1962.

    And there is another US Catholic University, DePaul, which has just invited the octogenarian population control guru, E.O.Wilson, to speak to their students. He considers Christianity “the most dangerous of devotions” and boasts about weakening “oppressive institutions of organised religion”.
    He is a great believer in aggressive population control.

    Matthew Archbold of the Cardinal Newman Society (mentioned in Oddie’s article) has said
    “Why a Catholic institution would give a platform to a population control advocate who blasts Christianity as dangerous, is unfathomable.”

    I think Archbold needs to answer this question. It isn’t unfathomable, it’s alarming. It shows how far away these so-called Catholics are from the truth because either they have no real knowledge of their religion after decades of non-teaching or they are knowingly trying to undermine this truth.

  • JByrne24

    I think your question is: ‘why do these universities still call themselves “Catholic”?’ Or maybe: ‘why are they allowed to call themselves so?’
    Possibly because there is no national or international “trade-mark” or copyright mark, protecting the use of the word “Catholic”. 
    Possibly also because they really do consider themselves to be truly Catholic. 

  • J G

    What? There is a Catholic University in Georgetown?

  • teigitur

    If this facility is still run by the Jesuits, then anything is possible. So far have they strayed from their illustrious past.

  • Oconnord

    Which particular “anti-catholic” beliefs would these be? Would they call for an economic speaker who called for an end to Medicare to be banned? How about a law expert who called for an increase in the use of the death penalty. There are many speakers in different fields who would advocate many things which went against catholic doctrine. Where are the calls to have these speakers banned or at least censured.

    It seems that the church’s obsession with sexual matters outweighs all other doctrinal subjects again.

  • JabbaPapa

    Possibly also because they really do consider themselves to be truly Catholic.

    What, like yourself ?

  • Greg

    The problem is that these schools value public funds and  social respect more than adherence to Catholicism. Their core religion is secular humanistic Americanism. The Church should pull their Catholic charter and let them survive as public universities;then the church should found new and greater Catholic Universities.

  • Jae

    Yes probably you are right but Christ and the Church know who really are the Catholics (My sheeps listen to My Voice) and the so called “catholics by name only”. The word Catholic since the very first time it was coined by St. Iranaeus in 150 A.D. was meant for those people who visibly belonged to a Society with sets of beliefs that MUST BE ADHERED TO in order to be of good standing. One can call himself “catholic” but who would believe? There are people today that call and pray to their St. Arius and called their society the “catholic Arian church”, but who is fooling who? Besides the fact that the word Catholic as everybody knew refers to those people who belonged to the Ancient Church with Peter at the helm 2,000 years ago, you can google, read encyclopedia, look at world history- to confirm and all the rest are just impostors. (we called it wolves in sheep’s clothing). Peace.

  • teigitur

    You have a point Damo.There is still a bit of a hang-up on this. Though, of course the main arguement of Dr Oddie stands.

  • Romulus

     Medicare and the death penalty are prudential issues, that is they are areas where Catholics of good will can disagree (because the morality of such issues depends on the circumstances). Homosexual acts (including gay “marriage”) and abortion are ALWAYS gravely sinful.  Your argument is a straw man.

  • Gabriel Austin

     Can one call an objection to murder of a babe in the womb a “sexual obsession”?

  • Gabriel Austin

    In the U.S. simply to call itself a “university in the Jesuit tradition” is clear enough. They have abandoned the Jesuit teaching. I note that Georgetown University refers to “the education experience”. In olden dayes a university was meant to be a place where one learned a subject, rather than experienced it. 

  • Oconnord

    I really did laugh though when I noticed, given the subject of the article, the CH posted a photo of Newt Gingrich speaking at Georgetown. Given that Newt is twice divorced and thrice married he seems as good an example of following catholic marital doctrine as a certain infamous Tudor monarch. In fact they share a certain rotundity about the waist also.

  • Oconnord

    It isn’t a straw man because they are all issues the church “cares” about. That you would find two men getting married more immoral than denying healthcare to a large part of the population shows that you are practising moral relativism. The church, and CNS, should call on ALL speakers disagreeing with doctrine to be banned, not just those who are the subject of the day. 

  • Oconnord

    And if the subject of the article, or my comment, were about abortion then your reply might be relevant!

    But that is not the case…. And, ironically, I the one was accused of using a “straw man argument” 

  • Veuster

    There are ‘cafeteria Catholics’ of the Right as well as of the Left.

  • Oconnord

    Wouldn’t that also be in line with the pope’s vision of the future of the church in the west. Smaller, but stronger. A sort of “Catholic Church Concentrate”. 

  • Oconnord

    I have to admit not being100% sure what the term cafeteria catholic means. By context I presumed those who talked their religion, rather than lived it. So I don’t fully understand your reply.

  • Veuster

    ‘Cafeteria Catholics’ are those who pick and choose among the Church’s teachings. The phrase is usually used of left-wing Catholics who ignore the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, but there are also those on the right who forget that grinding the faces of the poor and defrauding the hireling of his wages are sins that cry aloud to Heaven for vengeance every bit as much as the sin of Sodom does!

  • Oconnord

    Thanks, I got that meaning wrong…. I must have been thinking of Parisian Cafe Catholics! Sitting with a coffee discussing the church, but not practising it’s teachings. 

  • teigitur

    Ah yes, the VD ridden serial wife killer, that started a new Church./ ( I bet this will be removed)!

  • Oconnord

    Not quick enough… I read it.
    I found his arms outstretched pose amusing too. As though he felt a martyr after having had 84 breaches of ethics filed against him while Speaker.

  • Tim

    This is far from being the only example of uncatholic behaviour being alowed to continue within so callled catholic institutions, including churches. And everyone is so surprised that the 3 SSPX Bishops are worried that the church is still under the thumb of V2 modernism. How on earth could they think that?

    What exactly has Benedict done to stop this? The Pope says, the Bishops ignore and nothing is done.

  • Oconnord

    I think you will be safe… as long as it is Henry you’re talking about.
    Even Bill Maher hasn’t gone as far as accusing Newt of being a serial killer :)

  • Liam Ronan

    “But can they possibly win?” What sort of criteria is that to apply when we must witness for Christ? I suggest they have already won in the eyes of God. 

  • JByrne24

    Or yourself ? Certainly you seem to consider yourself to be one of these people.

  • Caterina

    Dear Mr Oddie, What is happening to the Catholic Herald? The website has disgraced us for days with a picture of Mr Prodi (well known in Italy for his anti-Benedict views on everything). Today we see Tony Blair (an English version of Mr Prodi) and there is a silly article about Mgr Livi about the daft but political non-monk (his order is not recognised) Enzo Bianchi (certainly a friend of both Mr Prodi and Mr Blair as well as the bearded gent over at Lambeth). Please let your discerning readers into the secret: what is going on? 

  • Alan

    I don’t know much about this lady, but if she regards herself as a Catholic, we should take her at her word and refrain from using phrases like “anti-Catholic” and “Catholic apostate”.  To my mind, if someone wishes to belong to the Catholic Church, that is good enough, and if they are gravely deficient in what they believe, they are more likely to be put right inside than outside.  It would be interesting to know whether she regards abortion as immoral.  That is a slightly different question to whether it should ever be permitted in law.

  • GFFM

    The reason why it calls itself Catholic is because of the alumni and, quite frankly a kind of parasitism. In the US people give much financial support to their Alma Maters and Catholics do so especially. Alumni do not generally keep up on public stances or political positions their old institutions have endorsed. They give to their old schools remembering the happy years of their undergraduate or graduate experience. Most American Catholics (bishops and religious especially) are woefully uninformed on the state of theological teaching and the identity crises at so called Catholic/Jesuit institutions. To my knowledge, one Jesuit institution (Creighton University) in the US disagreed publicly and forcefully with the latest intrusion into religious freedom that Obama’s health care czar Sebelius has lowered on the Catholic Church.  Quite cynically institutions like Georgetown and Boston College and others realize the ignorance on the part of their alumni, so they trot out their Catholic pasts and their dedication to “social justice” as a part of the their commitment to their identity and their past. It’s all balderdash and as I said a kind of parasitism. Because in reality, none of these institutions would have achieved what they have achieved without the Church and her sold foundation. The honest course of action for Georgetown would be to renounce it’s Catholic moniker. That will never happen; cash and gifts would plummet. Canonically an individual bishop has some power; perhaps it’s time for a test case.

  • Annie

    The controversy is expanding:  “‘Excorist’ author, Georgetown alumni, preparing canon lawsuit”: 

    Let’s hope it’s effective.   

  • Gabriel Austin

    I quote:
    “It seems that the church’s obsession with sexual matters outweighs all other doctrinal subjects again”.

  • ontheocean

    nothing wrong in having the woman to give a lecture , be part of a panel , be a luncheon guest and the like. if she is a good speaker she would be just fine . this is not about limiting the sort of conversation good universities are meant to foster .

    invitations to speak at departmental observances of graduation are to those one judges deserving of special honor and often ” to send a message ”

    choosing someone who is the point person for the HHS insult to catholic institutions as well as being publicly instructed to refrain from receiving the eucharist to be such a speaker sends a hostile message to the institutional church and many , perhaps most, observant Catholics who support it. 

    georgetown is either clueless or it is clearly sending the message that it wants not to be considered ” Catholic ” as that term is mainly used 

  • JByrne24

    Somebody wrote here on this thread (either teigitur or Jabba or Benedict C. probably):

    “If this facility is still run by the Jesuits, then anything is possible. So far have they strayed from their illustrious past.” 

    Well I’m writing this at almost midnight (BST) on the 18th of May.

    The 19th of May is almost here. This is the the anniversary of the election, in 1769,  of Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli as Pope Clement XIV. He was the Pope who suppressed the Society of Jesus (not all that well really).

  • Parasum

    Perfectly stated :)

    The notion that people with the “wrong” ideas/views should be kicked out plays into the hands of those for whom a true Church must be a totally pure Church. People become less important than the Institution,which becomes a Juggernaut. And those who favour out-kicking, seem never to consider that some of their btrethren may regard their views as insufficiently pure. This makes the Church into a never-ending conga line, the frontmost being shoved out by their more *kosher* brethren, who are themselves about to be treated likewise by theirs, who in turn…and so on. 

    What is a Catholic university ? Is it a greenhouse for developing orthodox members who will  regurgitate the “Party line” ? Or, is it an environment for helping people in their development as beings to whom nothing human is alien ? Is it a nursery for Catholic propaganda & ideology – or for different POVs to flourish & be heard ? Is the stress on “Catholic” – or on “university” ? Is the modern “orthodox” (*if* it is) Catholic university the same sort of thing as the mediaeval universities ? This article was thought-provoking:

    Were Medieval Universities Catholic ? –

    ## Arguably not – from some POVs.

  • teigitur

    Of course it was.

  • Annie

    Speaking of the Jesuits, let’s not forget that when Obama spoke at Georgetown the Jesuits there agreed to his request to cover up all the religious symbols that were in the room in which he spoke.: 

  • Rjradley+

    Clearly one should make the distinctions between Catholic, catholic, or Roman Catholic before making any judgment.   A good scientist (i.e. theologian) is precise in use of terms.  the word Catholic/catholic appears in the creeds because no one of us has a monopoly of Christ’s Church or His Truth

  • Jeannine

    Sebelius was told by her bishop not to present herself for Holy Communion because of her very active, extreme pro-abortion positions. And she has complied. It is widely accepted in the United States even among the clergy that she excommunicated herself from the Church.

    She has had private meetings w/ her bishop on numerous occasions discussing the Catholic Church’s position on the grave evil of abortion that she does not agree with before he told her not to receive Communion. 

    Also, she was even an active supporter of Dr Tiller, the late term abortion (partial birth abortion) doctor. Her views are very much in line with Obama’s. Like Obama she does not regard abortion as immoral.

    So please do not feel sorry for this woman for her utter disregard of innocent human life, but pray for her conversion before she someday meets her Maker like all of us will eventually.

  • Jeannine

    Obviously you’re not up on Catholic Church doctrine on various social issues. Let’s start with abortion. Abortion is a grave evil that is never sanctioned under any condition.

    Catholics can disagree on how medical care is to be delivered. The Church is for the idea of subsidiarity where the local community or family takes care of it own. Medicare is set up so that those closest to the needy are hardly in the loop of decision-making—- something the Church is against. 

    Catholics can also be for the death penalty under certain limited circumstances that does not include revenge. 

    What I’m trying to write is that good practicing Catholics can legitimately disagree on how to carry out “social justice.” But there can never be a discussion on abortion & euthanasia: both grave evils that the Church is 100% against at all times.

  • Oconnord

    Quote all you like.. My comment was in context, you were not. Have you read the the article, or are just giving a knee-jerk reaction to my comment? How was your comment relevant?

  • Oconnord

    Sorry to remove the bee from your bonnet.. but the neither article or my comment were  about about abortion.

    But please carry on showing how christians are too stupid to get the point. 

  • JabbaPapa

    There should be a lot MORE of this sort of initiative !!

  • JabbaPapa


    The article is precisely about the University flouting Catholic teaching by inviting this pro-abortionist to make a speech there !!!

    Rather than Jeannine not understanding, you yourself have completely failed to understand one of the primary meanings of the article !!!

    So please, I’d keep quite about people being “stupid” if I were you …

  • JabbaPapa

    Catholics can also be for the death penalty under certain limited circumstances that does not include revenge.

    The US system of criminal justice is inherently revenge-based. It is not possible for a Christian to support the death penalty as it exists in such a system.

    I’d argue in fact that the death penalty is something that ALL Christians should completely ABHORR — the Lord Jesus Himself having been subjected to the death penalty, as the gravest sin of all those that were inflicted on the Son of Man.

    In His defence of the adulterous woman, He clearly preached against the death penalty for her actions.

    How can Christians be supportive of something that the Lord Christ has both preached against Himself, and that He personally suffered ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Waffle — the word only has two meanings of value. 1) Universal 2) Catholic, as pertaining to the Catholic Church.

    The misuse of this word by non-Catholics outside of these two definitions does not change the nature of the word itself.

  • teigitur

    Oh Damo. Leave off the sauce.” Cafe Catholic” should have been self explanitory! lol

  • teigitur

    My prediction has come to pass!! lol

  • Rohan

    The problem is not that she has fallen – like the rest of us, including Gingrich – but that she has intentionally taken a stand against Catholic teaching.

  • Benedict Carter

    Another fruit of Vatican II: the almost-total destruction of Catholic education. 

  • Oconnord

    Not my fault if the coffee served is Irish :)