The Befuddled “Jebbies” of Georgetown

by Patrick J. Buchanan – November 24, 1997

That God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ — that he was crucified, died and rose again to redeem mankind — is the core belief of Roman Catholicism.

To testify to those truths and spread that faith, French Jesuits were among the first Europeans to come to an American wilderness to convert the Indians. The stories of heroes like Fr. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, Jean de Brebeuf and the other North American martyrs canonized in 1930 were once taught in all parochial schools.

If you wish to see evidence of the moral confusion of today’s Society of Jesus, consider: At Georgetown University, the Jesuits are conflicted over whether or not crucifixes — the defining symbol of their faith — even belong in university classrooms.

Georgetown’s students who raised the matter of the missing crucifixes in 90 percent of the classrooms, even non-Catholics, seem to understand the issue better than the agonized Jesuit community.

“When you apply to this university, you realize that this is a Catholic university,” said junior Edwan Fadzillah, a Muslim from Malaysia. “I think it is a great opportunity for people of other faiths to gain an appreciation of Catholicism.”

“It’s a litmus test for Georgetown University,” said senior Marcus Ellison, who belongs to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The school “either embraces Catholicism, or it rejects it.”

Exactly. Why would a Catholic university refuse to display the symbolic expression of its faith? Rabbi Harold White, who teaches theology and heads the Jewish ministry at Georgetown, blurted the truth, “I think they are very afraid that (putting up crucifixes) will alienate faculty and staff and students who are not Catholic.”

The rabbi was politely told to shut up. For the cosmopolitan Jesuits of Georgetown wish to be seen as part of a community of progressive scholars, and today, it is the mark of the intellectual that he does not assert truths but is “tolerant,” “open” and “searching.” The Jesuits, however, have two problems. First, the Church teaches that its truths are infallible, to be proclaimed to the world. Second, there is a warning from the New Testament: If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father in heaven.

The source of the paralysis in settling the crucifix question is Fr. Leo O’Donovan, the university president who is presiding over a lengthy colloquy over what to do. But what’s to discuss? If Jesuits take permanent vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to witness to and proclaim the truths of Catholicism, what is there to debate? The Catholic Church is not a democracy that decides where it stands by majority vote. And if Georgetown’s Jesuits are fearful they will make themselves unpopular, or non-believers uncomfortable, how can they call themselves a Catholic university?

“Frankly, I can’t imagine why a university, run by the Society of Jesus and operating under a pontifical charter, would have to debate the issue,” writes Cardinal James A. Hickey of Washington. “The crucifix is a basic, identifying Catholic symbol. … It offends only those who are intolerant of the Catholic faith.”

The cardinal may have had in mind the writer at Washington Jewish Week who, in an editorial mockingly titled “Don’t Crucify Georgetown,” declared: “For many Jews, Jesus on the cross is a repugnant symbol. It represents two millennia of bloody crusades and pogroms that directly led to the Holocaust and Vatican indifference to it.”

WJW rapped Georgetown’s Rabbi White for his “shocking” statement that “It’s good for our students, through the crucifix, to know that suffering exists in our world” and suggested that Georgetown expose its Catholic students to “what Jews feel when they see a crucifix hanging in a classroom.”

Fr. Thomas Reese of the campus-based Woodstock Theological Center offered this explanation for Georgetown’s paralysis. “What we’re trying to deal with at a Catholic university,” he said, is “how you intelligently dialogue from Christian tradition with a pluralistic culture.” But what is there to “dialogue” about if, on the matter of Catholic beliefs that the crucifix symbolizes, you have been given, by God himself, the infallible truth?

While Georgetown pathetically agonizes over whether to hang crucifixes in its classrooms, Alabama high school students are witnessing to their Christian faith by defying a federal judge to pray in their classrooms.

“It’s rearranging chairs on the Titanic,” says an exasperated Fr. Reese. Unfortunately, the ill-fated Cunard liner of Fr. Reese’s metaphor seems to be Ignatius Loyola’s Society of Jesus.