William Peter Blatty, Academy Award-winning author of The Exorcist, has died. The renowned novelist passed away January 12 at the age of 89; announcement of his death was made Friday, January 13 on social media by Exorcist director William Friedkin.
Blatty’s controversial and wildly popular novel, originally published in 1971, recounted the true story of a child’s demonic possession in the 1940s. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 weeks, and was made into a movie which garnered ten Academy Award nominations. In addition to the paranormal novel which brought international fame, Blatty wrote comedy and nonfiction – 16 titles in all.
But perhaps the effort which had the greatest impact within Catholicism was not Blatty’s published writing, but a Canon Law petition which Blatty authored, regarding his alma mater, Georgetown University. In the petition, which was signed by more than 2,000 concerned alumni, students, faculty and parents, Blatty asked Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, to remove the label “Catholic” from the school because of its continuing embrace of secularism.
A Crisis in Higher Education
Since Catholic university leaders signed the Land O’Lakes Statement in 1967, asserting academic freedom from authority, the Catholic identity of American universities has been under assault from within. In 1990, Pope John Paul II promulgated the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (English: From the Heart of the Church), which sought to address the problem by requiring that Catholic universities receive approval from their local bishop in order to call themselves “Catholic” and requiring that all professors of theology at Catholic universities sign a “mandatum” promising to uphold Church teachings.
In the ensuing years, Georgetown, the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States, has frequently made news for its noncompliance with Catholic teachings. In 1991 and 1992, Georgetown Dean of Students John J. DeGioia brought criticism when he authorized university funding for a pro-abortion advocacy group, GU Choice.
William Blatty Steps In to Reform His Alma Mater
And in May 2012, William Blatty launched a new organization, the Father King Society, after the university honored Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at the university’s Public Policy Institute’s Tropaia awards ceremony. The Father King Society, named for the late Fr. Thomas King, S.J., of the theology department, had as its mission to “make Georgetown honest, Catholic and better.”
Also in 2012, Blatty announced plans to file a complaint against his alma mater. He enlisted the help of leading public affairs strategist Manuel A. “Manny” Miranda as counsel to prepare a petition. On May 31, 2012, the petition — some 198 pages including 476 footnotes, 91 appendices and 124 witness statements documenting 23 years of “scandals and dissidence” — was delivered to the offices of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Speaking about what was occurring at Georgetown, Blatty said,
“Ignoring the magnitude of what is at stake in losing a major university like Georgetown to the well-organized efforts that are fundamentally anti-Catholic, some well-meaning friends or earnest Jesuit might want to point to the liturgies, the chaplains, the Knights of Columbus chapter, and so on. Georgetown administrators wish to assure us that they speak to the Archbishop and visit Rome regularly. We know the litany all too well. It describes a Potemkin village.”
Concerned Catholics Join the Cause
Writing on behalf of the Father King Society, Blatty published an open letter, inviting other concerned Catholics to join with him in signing the petition and to withhold their contributions to Georgetown for one year. In that letter, Blatty asked:
From William Peter Blatty, GU’1950
I invite you today to join me and over 1000 members in The Father King Society to Make Georgetown Honest, Catholic, and Better by signing on to a very special effort here. I ask you also to curtail your donations to Georgetown University for one year.
The late Jesuit Father Thomas M. King was a good friend. I had the privilege of lecturing his theology class, which started the rumor that he had inspired my priestly character in The Exorcist. Father King inspired many other things; and our effort now.
On May 5, 2012, in a speech to American bishops, Pope Benedict XVI called on America’s Catholic universities to reaffirm their Catholic identity. The Pope noted the failure of many Catholic universities to comply with Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae. The Pope said that preservation of a university’s Catholic identity “entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus.”
For 21 years now, Georgetown University has refused to comply with Ex corde Ecclesiaie(“From The Heart of the Church”), and, therefore, with canon law. And, it seems as if every month GU gives another scandal to the faithful! The most recent is Georgetown’s obtuse invitation to Secretary Sebelius to be a commencement speaker.
Each of these scandals is proof of Georgetown’s non-compliance with Ex corde Ecclesiae and canon law. They are each inconsistent with a Catholic identity, and we all know it. A university in solidarity with the Church would not do these prideful things that do so much harm to our communion. (You can pen a heartfelt letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington and the Holy Father offering your own experience here.)
In the months to come, The Father King Society will ask Georgetown and the Church for explanations and decisions. In 1991, in an effort led by courageous Georgetown students, my dearly missed classmate, GU Law Center Prof. Richard Alan Gordon, took the awesome step of submitting a canon law petition asking the Church to remove Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic. Then Dean of Students John J. DeGioia had authorized the funding of a pro-abortion student advocacy group. A contemporaneous secret memorandum from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to the presidents of all Jesuit institutions showed us that Dr. DeGioia’s decision was part of a larger scheme: GU was to be the dissident leader for others to follow. Dean Gordon’s effort was provocative and drastic, but within months of the filing, Rome required Georgetown to reverse itself, and Georgetown did.
Father Tom King was actively involved and submitted an essay to be used in support of the canon law action. (We post it here.) Soon after the 1991 “GU Choice” funding, a meeting took place on campus that collected the students, teachers, alumni and parents who had reacted to the University’s scandal in diverse ways. Fr. King listened intently, and then the mild-speaking priest told us of a call the night before from his brother, also a priest. His brother had said, “Tom, you have to choose sometimes — either you fish or cut bait.” Father King told us that he had decided to fish. And now, at long last, so have I. I ask you to join us!
For almost two decades, The Cardinal Newman Society has pursued with true inspiration and devotion its unique ministry to strengthen Catholic higher education in America. We are very grateful that CNS has agreed to help us.
We may choose to file a canon action again, one much larger in scale and seeking alternative forms of relief that will include, among others, that Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time. We will ask for lesser relief as well. 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. I invite you to sign the “Mandate of Procurator” on this website so that I, and other alumni, parents, teachers and students, may represent you in this special and historic Church petition.
Like many men of my generation, I owe much to the Jesuit fathers and to Georgetown University. My hard-working mother had faith that I could win a scholarship to attend Georgetown, a “rich boys’ school.” Georgetown gave me that scholarship, and I am ever- grateful. With it came a rich liberal education that included the keys of reason to unlock the mysteries of my Lebanese mother’s Faith.
Throughout an undeservedly wonderful life, I have been guided by the light of my Georgetown education, grounded firmly, as I knew it was even in my youth, in the unmatched intellectual wealth of the Catholic Church. Each time I faltered, as I often did, that guiding light never failed me.
What I owe Georgetown, however, is nothing as compared to what Georgetown owes to its founders and the Christ of Faith, and so it grieves me deeply that my beloved alma mater is failing so scandalously in its debt both to the Church and to the militant Jesuits still buried there who gave it their everything; who made it so special for so long. It grieves me that Georgetown University today almost seems to take pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful.
In the meantime, should you suspect that mine are the quaint views of a wistful old man, if not a spry but cranky dinosaur, I invite you to read what Chiara Cardone, a 2010 GU graduate, wrote to me:
“Georgetown’s Catholic identity was one of the many outstanding attributes that appealed to me. After four informative but uninspiring years of public education, I was excited by the freedom of thought and the purposeful inquiry promised by a private, Catholic, liberal arts institution, unrestricted by contemporary fads in society, public policy and academia, not bound to inconsistent “conventional wisdom.” I sought a university engaged in the timeless pursuit of truth (that unfashionable but empowering claim that freedom and thought have a higher purpose), through the application of reason and rigorous scrutiny. I fully expected my opinions to be challenged, but I also expected my values to be respected.
Unfortunately, I found that Georgetown today lacks the integrity to consistently live the Catholic identity it claims. While faith and spirituality are embraced at Georgetown, they are respected only so long as they are either confined within the walls of Dahlgren Chapel, or diluted to appease the dictatorship of relativism which is sweeping our civilization. My Catholic manner of worship was always accepted, but my Catholic lifestyle and convictions were sometimes attacked by student organizations and staff members, themselves underpinned by tacit and even explicit university endorsement. Far beyond nuanced scrutiny or respectful debate, my convictions, especially those regarding the dignity of human life, were instead the subject of sweeping condemnation, even at university-sponsored events. My cultural identity was insulted; my intellectual autonomy and personal agency were denied in order to render my voice inconsequential. On those occasions I came to wonder why, at a Catholic institution, I was so ridiculed for my Catholicism. I sometimes felt betrayed by a campus culture which discouraged faithfulness, even while banners everywhere touted the ideal of “faith in action.”
Colin Cortes, a student at Georgetown currently, essentially agreed with Chiara and wrote: “It is time for Georgetown to decide whether it wants to be a Catholic institution….”Colin, I agree.
Georgetown is being dishonest. Together, we need to end that! In very recent years, Georgetown has even created the impression that its Jesuit tradition can stand apart from its Catholic identity. I am told that in on-campus debates, students will divide over favoring either Jesuit or Catholic! After eight years of Jesuit education, – when Jesuits and their reputation were one and the same – I shudder at this deception. The great Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles anticipated and admonished his fellow Jesuit educators over this fomented confusion: “To be Jesuit is merely to be more intensely Catholic,” he said. Of course.
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. 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 (I accepted my John Carroll Medal too). We have all been negligent for too long: the laity, the clergy, and the bishops as well.
Please join me now in making Georgetown honest, Catholic and better!
William Peter Blatty
College, Class of 1950
The Future of Blatty’s Crusade
Whether William Blatty’s crusade to restore Georgetown’s Catholic identity will be successful remains to be seen.
In 2014, in a letter which gave hope to the complainants, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education seemed determined to investigate the situation at Georgetown, and to work with the university to enact reforms. In a letter dated April 4, 2014, Archbishop Angelo Zani, secretary of the Congregation, wrote: “Your communications to this Dicastery in the matter of Georgetown University . . . constitutes a well-founded complaint.” Zani added: “Our Congregation is taking the issue seriously, and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”
Georgetown’s administration, however, has seemed reluctant to turn the rudder toward greater orthodoxy. This year, for example, the university credentialed a radically pro-abortion student group on campus, Medical Students for Choice. The group’s self-described mission was to train “tomorrow’s abortion providers.” The pro-life group TFP Student Action (TFP) wrote regarding the group’s mission.
For the record, this is how Medical Students for Choice describe their activities:
- “Many MSFC [Medical Students for Choice] chapters host a ‘Papaya Workshop’, a hands-on training session using fruit to simulate a uterus, to teach students the basic concepts of Manual Vacuum Aspiration.”
- “Learn to perform an abortion using this quiet, portable technology,” continues the Medical Students for Choice Facebook page.
- “At the end, Dr. Costescu-Green will give a special demo of a 2nd trimester abortion using dilation and evacuation simulators. This is a great session to bring back to your campus.”
In other words — the Medical Students for Choice clubs teach students how to kill unborn babies… With a crude vacuum.”
TFP mounted a petition drive, asking the Georgetown administration to remove Medical Students for Choice from the list of approved student organizations.
One Notable Success
In an update published on January 13, 2017, TFP Student Action thanked those who had joined with them in protesting the group, and announced that Medical Students for Choice has been deleted from Georgetown’s roster of more than 200 student groups. William Blatty would be proud.
Let us pray that the Catholic renewal which Blatty envisioned for Georgetown will continue; and pray that a loving God will welcome William Blatty to his eternal reward.