Sunday, May 20, 2012
Over the past several weeks, some of my friends and colleagues here at the Mirror of Justice and contributors on other weblogs have been addressing issues dealing with the matter of Georgetown University inviting HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to be the speaker at a commencement-related event. The Washington Post has chimed in [here] as has the President of Georgetown, Dr. Jack DeGoia [here]. With respect to the positions of both the Post and Dr. DeGoia, they get it wrong, not right as the Post claims, regarding the matters of “academic freedom” and whether the University did or did not honor Secretary Sebelius by inviting her as a speaker. Professor Patrick Deneen has done a careful analysis of these claims proffered by the newspaper and the University and has ably demonstrated why they are inadequate [here]. I do not intend to repeat Professor Deneen’s accurate explanation of the matter and evolving misfortune at Georgetown and other institutions that claim the moniker “Catholic”.
However, I want to use his critique and the defenses offered by the Post and the University to recall and revisit an important topic we often address here at the Mirror of Justice: that is, the reason for Catholic education (including legal education) and the nature of the Catholic institution of higher education.
During Eastertide, we recall the teaching of Jesus Christ in his farewell discourse that he is the vine and we are the branches. Our Lord builds upon this theme by reminding his disciples that the branches which do not bear fruit but wither are collected and burned. John 15:1-11. But before the withered branches are removed for incineration, they are pruned in a good-faith effort to revive them. This is the imagery which I think Archbishop Michael Miller had in mind when he spoke at Notre Dame in 2005 (and then later, Boston College in 2006) and used the image of “evangelical pruning” that necessitate positive institutional changes by an educational institution if it is to remain faithful to the institution’s Catholic mission and identity [here]. However, if the pruning is unable to remedy the problems, it is reasonable to conclude that the institution is not an asset but an obstacle to the Church’s mission of education where the faith and reason are complementary and essential partners.
Georgetown is my alma mater, and I have many fond memories of the college at which I matriculated almost fifty years ago. I had many fine Jesuit and lay teachers (amongst the latter, not all were Catholic but understood, respected, and celebrated the institution’s mission and identity as a Catholic and Jesuit center of learning) who helped me simultaneously cultivate my mind and soul. I don’t think I would have the same experience today if I were matriculating in the present day.
Why? Was the decision to change the soul of the institution intentional? Probably not. But change has happened through decisions that persons responsible for the nature and soul of Georgetown have made freely over the years. The evidence of the withering of the Catholic soul has grown during the passage of time. I cannot say if there is still time for Georgetown, and other schools pursuing the same path, to self-prune, but I pray for this. Being an optimist, I want to say there may well be a final opportunity, but the time is growing short, very short, for this to happen.
Almost twenty-two years have passed since Blessed John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae addressing many important matters concerning Catholic universities, their mission, and their identity. Some of the institutions which claim the modifier “Catholic” have taken the counsel of JPII to heart, but others have not. Georgetown is in the latter category, so it appears, judging from all the currently available evidence. Today I join the appeal of Professor Deneen and others acknowledging that much will be lost when this, the oldest Catholic university in the United States, takes that final step that severs itself from the Vine of Christ. As I said, there may still be time, and if there is, it is preciously little. The bonfire that may result is not one of vanity but of a soul. With the soul gone, the vanity will remain.