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Exorcist screenwriter Sues Georgetown University over its Catholic Identity

May 23rd 2012

William Blatty

Academy Award winning author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, whose best-selling book and blockbuster film The Exorcist were situated at his alma mater, Georgetown University, announced on May 18 that he will lead a petition to the Catholic Church for "remedies up to and including the possible removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit in its fundraising and representations to applicants." This would mean submitting the petition to the Vatican's apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States and later to Vatican authorities for review for possible violations of canon law. Canon law refers to the internal system of regulations and tribunals within the Catholic Church.

The move comes on the heels of a rebuke of Georgetown and its first lay president, John J. DeGioia, by Cardinal Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, over Georgetown’s invitation to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to be a diploma ceremony speaker. Sebelius is a Catholic.

The editors of the newspaper published by the Washington archdiocese wrote in a May 13 editorial regarding Georgetown, “When the vision guiding university choices does not clearly reflect the light of the Gospel and authentic Catholic teaching, there are, of course, disappointing results.” Linking GU’s non-compliance with Church law to GU’s regular scandals, the website tracks the editorial the newspaper of the Washington diocese. “Twenty two years of GU scandals, since Ex corde Ecclesiae (ECE) was promulgated, are not just proof of a failed Catholic identity, they are evidence and a direct result of Georgetown’s failure to comply with ECE.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae refers to a document promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 that sought to define Catholic institutions of higher learning. In order to refer to themselves as 'Catholic,' such institutions must seek affirmation from the Vatican or local bishops. It has been viewed as a rejection of a position paper affirmed in 1967 by Catholic universites (including Notre Dame and Georgetown, among others), called the 'Land O'Lakes' Statement, which sought to establish a certain level of independence for these institutions.

Blatty spoke to what Georgetown's critics regard as a "slide" away from Catholic orthodoxy. Said the author, “This is simply the last straw. The scandals that Georgetown has given to the faithful are too many to count, and too many to ignore any longer.” Regarding the canon law action directed at Georgetown, Blatty wrote at the Father King Society website, “Of course, what we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked. …Georgetown is being dishonest. Together, we need to end that!”

“Many believe that to make Georgetown truly Catholic is to turn back the clock hands and somehow limit its very nature as a university, as if the notion of ‘Catholic’ and ‘university’ are new to each other, or inherently at odds," said Blatty.  "On the contrary, to make Georgetown ‘Catholic’ is to move the clock forward; it is to make the University better than it now is!  Of course, there are always those who are afraid of change—who lack vision.  They may need to step aside.”

“John Paul II exhorted us all to preserve for the Church the highest places of culture—our universities.  Generations of alumni have long been seduced to ‘go along’ by dinners, medals, and board seats.  We have all been negligent for too long: the laity, the clergy, and the bishops as well.”

The Fr. King Society has enlisted the help of The Cardinal Newman Society, which for nearly two decades has been a leader in the movement to promote strong Catholic identity.  The Cardinal Newman Society will provide expert advice, research assistance, and public relations support.

In 1991-1992, Georgetown was the stage for a similar canon law action based on Ex corde Ecclesiae.  Then-Dean of Student Affairs Dr. John J. DeGioia, now GU’s first lay president, authorized funding and support for a pro-abortion student advocacy group.  Cardinal James Hickey rebuked Georgetown but held that the matter needed resolution in Rome, and the petitioners appealed directly to John Paul II.  Georgetown’s Jesuit president was called to Rome.

A few weeks later on a Friday afternoon, the support for the pro-abortion student group was reversed, and the Canon petition became moot.  It was a success that reverberated as other universities announced defunding of similar clubs.

The newly planned Canon Law action is larger in scale and potential consequences than the 1991-1992 petition.  The United States Catholic Bishops are presently evaluating the implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae two decades later, and on May 5th Pope Benedict XVI urged American bishops expressly to implement the constitution in the United States.

Martin Barillas also edits Speroforum.

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