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

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.