Church Controversy is in Georgetown’s DNA

When Georgetown University students gathered on the Healy Lawn for their graduation this past weekend, they did so within sight of a stately seated statue of John Carroll, the university’s founder and the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States. Born in Maryland in 1735, Carroll was educated and ordained in France, where he became a member of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. He returned to North America only when his religious order came under attack across Europe, supposedly for their tendency to interfere in matters of state. The Jesuits had a knack for giving voice to opinions that threatened their spiritual and political rivals.

Given this history, Bishop Carroll would likely not be surprised to find his university embroiled in a controversy concerning the appropriate place of religious groups in civil affairs. He might be surprised, however, to learn that this time an attack on a Jesuit institution was instigated not by forces outside the Church, but those within.

Earlier last week the Archdiocese of Washington released a statement describing as “shocking”: Georgetown’s invitation to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as a commencement weekend speaker. According to the statement, Sebelius’ role in defining which institutions would be exempt from the Obama administration’s health care mandate to provide coverage for contraception presents “the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history.”

The Catholic higher education organization, the Cardinal Newman Society, presented a petition to the university’s president, John DeGioia, to rescind Sebelius’ invitation. They also produced a video that did everything but show the famous “Exorcist steps” to suggest that Georgetown had gone to the devil:

Not to be outdone, the archdiocese newspaper opined that that whole affair suggests the “vision guiding the university” is not “authentic Catholic teaching.” 

Yet “authentic Catholic teaching” is not as straightforward as one might suppose, as John Carroll’s life could remind those on both sides of the issue.  

It was, after all, authentic Catholic teaching when Pope Clement XIV bowed to outside pressures and formally disbanded the Jesuits in 1773. It was this same authentic Catholic teaching that led a group of former Jesuits set adrift in a new country to join together in an ad hoc hierarchy of their own, with John Carroll as their leader, and eventually to found Georgetown as the first Catholic university in the young United States. It was likewise authentic Catholic teaching that in 1814 once again allowed the Jesuits to exist, reviving a tradition of education and outreach that found its best example in John Carroll’s Georgetown. 

Created at a time when Protestants outnumbered Catholics 20 to 1 in the U.S., Georgetown was from the outset not a site of challenge to religious liberty, but a testament to it—as it continues to be today. The religious liberty Georgetown represents, however, is not simply a matter of the right of each religious group to have its way. It is instead, like both the Church and the nation of which the university is a part, a product of practical pluralism and ongoing compromise. 

As a student of theology at Georgetown, I see religious liberty all around me as I walk in the shadow of John Carroll today: on the sidewalks leading to Healy Lawn, where pro-choice and pro-life groups sit smiling behind information tables; in the hidden gem of Dahlgren Chapel, where mass is crowded every day at noon; in the students wearing headscarves who find quiet corners of classroom buildings for their midday prayers; and in small seminars like one in which I once sat, where a Jesuit led discussions on the Qur’an with a Catholic, a Muslim, and a Jew.  

Religious liberty does not begin with taking umbrage at every possible slight, and it is not assured by silencing those we don’t want to hear. It begins instead with an awareness of what other religious viewpoints have to offer, and with an acceptance that those within the same tradition will inevitably disagree. 

As John Carroll sat through his umpteenth commencement this weekend with political controversy swirling around him, I like to think that the founder of Georgetown—himself a product of religious disagreement—looked upon the current conflict and recalled something once said by his friend and fellow champion of religious liberty, Thomas Jefferson: “Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.” 

For any university, religious or not, difference of opinion is more than advantageous—it’s necessary.