The Wrong Choice: The Rise and Fall of Pro-Abortion Advocacy at Georgetown

By Ann Sheridan (President of the Georgetown Ignatian Society.)

(Reprinted, with permission, from the November 1992 issue of FIDELITY MAGAZINE.
which is published monthly by Ultramontane Associates, Inc., 206 Marquette Ave., South Bend, IN 46617. Annual subscription: $29 per annum.)

The Feb. 22, 1991, decision by Georgetown University to fund and grant the use of its name to a pro-abortion advocacy group, "GU Choice," did more than wreak havoc on its campus; more than place the reputation of the oldest Catholic university in America in peril; more than split the loyalties of students, Jesuits, board members and alumni. The unintended effect of this unfortunate decision was to compel good and faithful Catholic men and women to rise up in opposition to GU Choice and invoke the wrath of canon law against an institution of the Church; take on the Society of Jesus; challenge the right of the university to claim a Catholic identity, and, in so doing, wind up in a contretemps with the local ordinary. The events and actions which ensued are proof positive that Vatican II means what it says when it admonishes the laity to "get involved."

Before examining the issue of GU Choice, some basic questions must be addressed about Catholic universities in general. Do they deserve the religious designation they claim by virtue of their association with the Church? Are they worth the money reaped from that claim? If they are unique in the educational system, what makes them unique? Why do students, alumni and faculty choose to be identified with them?

There was a time when students at Catholic universities, traditionally and rightfully, looked to the religious community on campus, not only for the kind of educational guidance they desperately needed as they prepared to go out into a secular world, but for an explanation about their responsibility toward a secularist society.

Politically correct thought now argues the "need" for secularism on these campuses. It is hardly an exaggeration, however, to say that today's Catholic students are close to drowning in secularism. One only has to walk across a campus to see that ideology raised to a high art form in everything from feminist support of abortion to condom-use encouragement; beyond that, on these campuses there is more than enough evidence of drinking, drugs, sexual acting out, and the emotional problems which attend these activities. These secular values are funded with money collected through guile and misrepresentation by those who operate under the aegis of running Catholic institutions. As long as the bursar gets paid, few in positions of leadership seem to care that the piper is also demanding payment, and the interest on that bill is mounting daily.

"In the larger Catholic colleges and universities, writes Father Francis Canavan, SJ, "Catholicism will fade away like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only a bland, reassuring, administrative smile."

GU Choice was one pivotal event in Georgetown's relentless march into secular decay. Those who are against killing babies in the uterus are appalled. Those who are in favor of abortion are disgusted that they've been smoked out and challenged, and both sides feel cheated in what they expected of one of the only two pontifical universities in the United States and the flagship of the Jesuit educational system on this continent. How could this once great institution have become embroiled in so much controversy? It was both a steady and unsteadying process, and in that process the Cheshire Cat has had the smile wiped off its face.

The Catholic Church is not Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Protestant. It is belief-specific, and its universities are likewise belief-specific. The Jesuits at Georgetown, as agents of the Catholic Church, are "salesmen" of that product, and the university's president, Father Leo O'Donovan, S.J., is the Church's resident chief executive officer; yet Georgetown's visible Catholic identity is being systematically obliterated. Crucifixes have been removed from most of the classrooms as too offensive to non - Catholics. An enormous new organ, however, has been installed in the main chapel, which necessitated taking out several rows of pews. This was a gift from the same member of the board of directors, who, when approached, as were all board members about the subject of GU Choice, responded by saying that "the days of suppressing dissent left the arsenal of acceptable weapons of the Catholic Church centuries ago."

Dissent? Dissent from what? The teaching of the Catholic Church that abortion is a settled issue and not open to debate on the merits?

This opinion is so consistent with the administration's prevailing philosophy, one can readily understand why such an individual not only sits on the board, but why Catholic worship has been replaced at Georgetown's main chapel with a nonsectarian deconstructionist "new age" image. Two other smaller chapels have been closed in the last 10 years to make room for offices.

Other offenses include:

* Fr. O'Donovan's predecessor, Father Timothy Healy, funded the gay and lesbian group (GALSA) at Georgetown, despite the fact that a specific congressional exemption (the Armstrong Amendment) was adopted which exempted Georgetown and other religious institutions from the moral devastation of the District of Columbia's Human Rights law. One motivation was at work in this funding decision -- money! Fr. Healy feared that the District Government would withhold the bond money needed to guarantee his personal vision of Georgetown.

* Incoming freshmen are currently required to take a "safe sex" indoctrination course in the use of condoms, under penalty of a $25 fine if they refuse. Among other things, this rule directly violates the U.S. Bishops 1989 statement: "The use of prophylactics to prevent the spread of HIV is technically unreliable. Moreover, advocating this approach means, in effect, promoting behavior which is morally unacceptable."

* Georgetown is the only university, Catholic or secular, to be listed as a donor in the annual financial report of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation. As a participant in the Combined Health Appeal Campaign of the National Capitol Area, it solicited contributions and transferred $6,804.50 of employee's donations to the Washington Area Planned Parenthood Foundation.

Contrary to what is embraced as enlightened theology on John Carroll's once proud campus, homosexuality, fornication and abortion are still considered to be sins in the Church; yet, those who advocate these practices are encouraged through funding. Thus the slippery slope slide now brings us to the matter of GU Choice and its place at Georgetown.

Before making his decision to fund GU Choice under the University's Free Speech and Expression Policy, Fr. O'Donovan consulted the Jesuit Community at Georgetown. Many of his fellow priests advised against the decision. One Jesuit went so far as to say that Fr. O'Donovan had walked into a minefield. This same Jesuit went on to add that the pope had problems with American universities and that the good-faith relationship between the Jesuits on campus and the local bishops wasn't working. The system was already in trouble, and GU Choice could bring about its total collapse. Other Jesuits, however, supported and defended Fr. O'Donovan and continue to do so.

To suggest that the discussion of abortion needed the protection of any policy was a work of supererogation. Abortion has been discussed at Georgetown ad nauseam for years. By any normal standards, funding signifies approval of the entity funded. Those who fund organizations, such as the Red Cross or a political party, do so because they approve of the aims and the public image of the entity funded. No amount of effort to convince Fr. O'Donovan of this distinction succeeded. Paradoxically, in what amounts to a reductio ad absurdum, the Knights of Columbus at Georgetown cannot get funding because they exclude non-Catholics. If the situation on campus weren't so outrageous, it would be laughable.

One of the prevailing politically correct beliefs on Georgetown's campus is that the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the American Nazi Party would never be funded by the university. Under Georgetown's morality-free policy, the question arises, why not? These groups certainly have repeatedly obtained protection of their legal right to assemble. The American Nazi Party had a permit issued by police to march in Skokie, Ill., a few years ago, and in 1990 the KKK was issued a permit by the U.S. Park Police to march in Washington, D.C.

"For all his good intentions," Prof. Richard Alan Gordon of the Law Center, and past president of the University Faculty Senate, wrote in a campus newspaper:

for all his charm, and for all his certain love of Georgetown, the hard fact is that Leo O'Donovan (and the Jesuit leadership at Georgetown) is in open schism with the Church. They decided that the funding of GU Choice does not contradict Georgetown's Catholic nature. Who are these men to make such a determination in flagrant conflict with the unequivocal pronouncements of Archbishops Hickey, O'Connor and Foley? Who elected Leo O'Donovan Pope or ordained him Bishop? Fr. O'Donovan's stubbornness puts into question the legitimacy of everything taught, said or done by every Catholic priest at Georgetown.

If Fr. O'Donovan can justify a discussion group promoting the right to choose the murder of innocent unborn children, then perhaps we might also wish to discuss the advantage of slaughtering Jesuits in El Salvador who dabble in politics. We can discuss why slavery should make a comeback, or why Jews, Catholics, Gypsies and homosexuals may be justifiably gassed to death. The funding of discussion groups as dedicated to these subjects as GU Choice is to the question of abortion, is as offensive and as legitimate as the funding of GU Choice. Like the right to abortion, the slaughter of Jews and the owning of slaves also at one time had the sanction of law and constitutional interpretation. Prior to the American Civil War, Georgetown's Jesuits, in addition to owning slaves, sympathized with the South. Leo O'Donovan might do well to take a lesson from history.

How "free," then, is free speech and expression at Georgetown?

* The day after GU Choice was funded, the editor of the alumni magazine was asked to notify the membership in the next issue. He refused. Formal written requests by distinguished alumni and faculty to address and inform the governing boards of both the university and the alumni association were denied.

* During a campus brunch catered by the Marriott Corporation, following the 1991 graduation Mass, students, graduates, faculty and other members of the Ignatian Society quietly carried balloons saying "GU Choice-Jesuit Shame." Georgetown security guards not only threatened these balloon holders with arrest, they defended a pro-GU Choice student waitress who had, in a clear case of assault and battery, repeatedly cut the strings to the balloons, and in so doing, stabbed one of the demonstrators in the arm. (Marriott has since settled the case out of court.)

* At a board of governor's meeting, a motion was moved and seconded to adopt a resolution asking Fr. O'Donovan to reverse the GU Choice decision. After carefully orchestrated parliamentary maneuvers, the board voted not to debate the question. At the close of the meeting, one of those who opposed GU Choice, asked Fr. O'Donovan about his involvement in what had happened. The president of the university, a theologian, responded by calling the questioner a "disgrace to the Church."

* Several members of various university boards have resigned because they were neither consulted prior to the funding decision, nor allowed to vote on the matter at their meetings.

* Contrary to the initial agreement with the university, GU Choice members ran amok. They lobbied for the Freedom of Choice Act; escorted women past Operation Rescue lines; handed out cards prepared by the National Organization for Women (NOW), which protested the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court; demonstrated in front of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception while John Cardinal O'Connor was celebrating Mass; set up a table on campus soliciting signatures on cards prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), urging members of Congress to pass pro-abortion legislation; and, backed by NOW representatives brought onto campus, urged students to join the pro-abortion march on Washington. Fr. O'Donovan was provided with sworn affidavits attesting to all of these violations, yet he continued to let the organization operate with funding for 14 months.

* Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), spoke on campus in the spring of 1991, and praised GU Choice, stating, "Your victory has enormous significance." Small wonder. NARAL trained the two co-founders. In addition to giving Michelman a $500 honorarium, Georgetown spent another $500 on the event. This is money raised from tuition and contributions to a university that claims and enjoys a special status because of the public's perception that it is Catholic.

* In a transparent attempt to justify Fr. O'Donovan's decision on GU Choice, the alumni magazine, although continuing in its refusal to print any articles or take a paid ad opposing GU Choice, published an article by Fr. O'Donovan, in which he said the group had received only $135. Whether $135 or $135,000 is irrelevant. Subsidization is subsidization.

So much for "free speech and expression" at Georgetown!

One week after the funding decision, James Cardinal Hickey issued a statement condemning the actions:

The decision of Georgetown University to grant benefits to an organization called "GU Choice" is most regrettable. This discussion group does not share the clear institutional commitment of Georgetown University to the Church's teaching with respect to the humanity of the unborn child. To allow such a group access to university facilities, office space and funding is inconsistent with the aims of an institution of higher learning that has a Catholic identity.

It is not enough to say that Georgetown University does not give ''official recognition" to any student group, including this one. As a Catholic institution of higher learning, Georgetown University has both a right and responsibility to decide which of its groups are deserving of its recognition and support. It is my hope that the decision to grant support to GU Choice will be reversed.

Unfortunately, as eloquent as those words are, it was the only public statement regarding GU Choice that Cardinal Hickey made for 10 months.

Very quietly, with no fanfare, an event of paramount importance to Catholic universities occurred in September 1990. The Vatican promulgated a new Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), and it became not only the core of the canon court proceedings against Georgetown but the core of the disagreement with Cardinal Hickey.

In protest of GU Choice, two groups were immediately formed. First, Georgetown Life Advocates became active on campus, passing out flyers, organizing students, mounting protests at events and taking over the functions of the Right-to-Life club which had become essentially inactive.

Second, The Georgetown Ignatian Society was founded by students, faculty, alumni and friends of the university, who decided to deal with the scandal through canon law by filing a formal petition with Cardinal Hickey. Four procurators were named to represent the Ignatian Society. The procurators, in turn, hired Washington attorney Manuel Miranda (GU '82), to act as their counsel and counsel to the Ignatian Society. Mandates were circulated soliciting opposition to GU Choice, ultimately resulting in almost 1,500 signatures from the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The Saint Joseph's Foundation in Texas was consulted and a canon lawyer was hired to guide the effort through the process, while the Georgetown administration kept aloof from the mounting storm and Fr. O'Donovan maintained a stony silence.

The petition did not challenge academic freedom, the professorial rights of faculty in the classrooms, or attempt to restrict open discussion on campus. Rather, it sought to align Georgetown's student affairs policy with its obligations as a Catholic institution and to prevent the application of university funds, as well as the use of Georgetown's name and facilities, to pro-abortion advocacy and the dissemination of pro-abortion information.

In the closing days of September 1991, the procurators and the Ignatian Society attorney met with a member of Cardinal Hickey's staff. Although not acrimonious, the meeting was formal and somewhat strained. The Ignatian Society was told it was putting Cardinal Hickey in a difficult position, that "these things took time," and they should leave matters to the cardinal, who was in close contact with Fr. O'Donovan. (Fr. O'Donovan was quoted recently as saying he met with Cardinal Hickey twice.)

The procurators, in turn, pointed out that GU Choice had been in existence for almost eight months, and that time was neither on Cardinal Hickey's side nor theirs as frightened and confused pregnant students continued to kill their babies because of having heard an ambiguous message about abortion at a Catholic university.

Undaunted, the procurators filed the petition and libellus two days later on Oct. 1, asking Cardinal Hickey to remove Georgetown's Catholic identity and seize her chapels and campus ministries. By canon law, he had 90 days in which to respond.

The petition was submitted with elaborate supporting documentation and statements by prominent theologians, including the president of another Catholic college, who expressed his concern that the unchecked erosion of Georgetown's Catholic identity could harm the credibility of all Catholic educational institutions. After the petition was filed, Marquette University, College of the Holy Cross and Boston College stated their refusal to fund organizations similar to GU Choice. St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and the University of San Francisco also held the line against funding. Meanwhile, Fordham University has rescinded official recognition from both Fordham Students for Choice and Fordham Lesbians and Gays.

In a separate effort to rid Georgetown of GU Choice, distinct from the canon court proceedings, the Committee for Georgetown Values was formed by attorney Richard Coleman, former president of the Los Angeles Bar Association and classmate of Fr. O'Donovan's. Members of the committee included: John Cardinal O'Connor; Father Aldo P. Petrini, pastor, St. Mary Mother of God Parish in Washington, D.C.; Jesuit Fathers King, Foley, McSorley, Moffitt, O'Connell, Ryan and Schall; Tony Lauinger, whose family donated the library to Georgetown; William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist; Rep. Henry Hyde; William Dooley and Frank Casey, both past presidents of the university's alumni association; Nellie Gray; Pat Buchanan; the French Ambassador, His Excellency François de Laboulaye; a former vice president of the university, Malcolm McCormack; Dr. Edward Sheridan of the Georgetown University Medical School faculty; the first president of the Georgetown Faculty Senate, Professor Emeritus Valerie Earle; and 48 others from all walks of life, representing eight generations of Georgetown alumni. They contacted more than 6,000 alumni and brought enormous pressure to bear on Fr. O'Donovan.

Cardinal O'Connor, in joining the committee, wrote:

As an alumnus of Georgetown, I share your severe disappointment over the administration's decision, and profound anxiety over its implications for what we have always wanted to believe Georgetown represents. As a Churchman, I find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to equate the administration's decision with the spirit of Church teaching.

The Ignatian Society distributed Cardinal O'Connor's letter at the Red Mass in October, and afterward, at the John Carroll luncheon, one of Cardinal Hickey's most trusted advisors asked what it would take to induce the Ignatian Society to withdraw the petition. He was told that GU Choice would have to be defunded.

Cardinal Hickey responded to the petition on Dec. 19, claiming that he lacked jurisdictional competence either to grant or deny the petition, that Ex Corde Ecclesiae had not been implemented and so did not apply, that the petition was flawed in several ways and, in any event, as Georgetown was a pontifical university, only the pope could take away what the Holy See had granted.

On Jan. 14, the procurators filed an appeal brief, pointing out where Cardinal Hickey's reasoning was flawed. On Feb. 13, the Cardinal responded:

Please know that I remain resolute in my opposition to the group and that I continue to work for a reversal of the decision to grant it benefits. My efforts are in no way linked to the petition you have sent me. At the same time, I wish to re-assert the conclusions expressed in my Dec. 19th reply to your petition. Any communications you may wish to make with the Holy See should be sent to the Apostolic Pro Nuncio, Archbishop Cacciavillan.

GU Choice was, at that date, one week short of its first anniversary.

One is always disappointed when redress is denied, whether in civil or ecclesiastical matters. That disappointment is deepened when redress is perceived to take a back seat to legal expedience and public image.

Cardinal Hickey was correctly petitioned as the competent legal authority. As the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and the repository of authority in matters which threaten faith and morals in his see, he has powers of persuasion unparalleled in the archdiocese. He also has access to the media, a bully pulpit at his disposal and a clergy which could have brought pressure to bear on Georgetown. If, in trying to work this matter out quietly, he hoped to avoid a public scandal, the effort failed on all fronts. The GU-Choice event has been covered nationwide in Catholic and secular newspapers, on television and radio.

If a parish priest were using collection money to fund a pro-abortion advocacy group on Church property, Cardinal Hickey would argue, legitimately, that since the church was within his see (as are Georgetown's chapels and ministries), he would be entitled to stop the action. As Cardinal Hickey never met with the procurators, they were unable to determine why he did not bring about the immediate defunding of GU Choice.

Unlike Cardinal Hickey, Fr. O'Donovan was glad to play the public relations game, telling The Washington Post that he was "heartened" by the cardinal's decision not to act on the petition.

Heartened? That's like the captain of the Titanic being heartened he hadn't run into two icebergs. In the alumni magazine, he wrote: "The dispute over GU Choice involves fundamental differences of opinion concerning our mission as a university and our obligation, as a university, to the men and women whose intellectual and moral development is entrusted to our care." Unacknowledged by him, however, were the souls of pregnant students and the lives of their babies also entrusted to his "care."

On April 1, the procurators forwarded their petition to the pope. Copies were forwarded to Pio Cardinal Laghi, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and to two close personal friends of the pope.

Although both he and the public affairs office at Georgetown have steadfastly denied it, Fr. O'Donovan was summoned to Rome in March 1992, where he met with Cardinal Laghi. In early April, a letter was sent from the highest authorities in the Society of Jesus, instructing Fr. O'Donovan to terminate Georgetown's support of the group. Shortly thereafter, he was visited by Father Pittau, the former acting superior general of the order, in a move by the Jesuit Curia to settle the matter "in-house" before the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education stepped in. This series of events was confirmed by high-level Vatican sources to campus newspaper reporters.

Three weeks after the petition was submitted to the pope, and a full 14 months after GU Choice was funded, Fr. O'Donovan held a press conference and announced that GU Choice was officially defunded. He did so, not on principle as was strongly recommended to him by some Jesuits at the university, but because of violations of the abortion group's agreement with the university. The closing sentence of his letter to students, faculty and alumni announcing the reversal was: "I hope you will agree that we acted responsibly -- then and now." That statement clearly demonstrates that he is either incapable of understanding his actions or, for whatever reason, chooses not to accept responsibility for them.

Later, while making reference to the new Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Fr. O'Donovan, in a mind-boggling display of defiance, would tell the university's board of regents that, as long as he was president, no document from Rome was going to govern Georgetown.

As he well knows, the Apostolic Constitution does, indeed, pose a significant challenge. Under Part II of the Constitution's General Norms, §3 of Article 4: "Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition." Part II of the General Norms, 94 of Article 4, further requires that: "In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the university or institute of higher studies, the number of non Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the institution, which is and must remain Catholic."

It will be fascinating to see how Georgetown, as well as other Catholic institutions around the country, deal with this document.

If GU Choice had been defunded on principle, the degree of loving protection which every member of the Georgetown family, whether born or in utero, has a right to be guaranteed, by virtue of association with the university and the Society of Jesus, would have been reestablished. But it was not and the "Georgetown question" is not yet answered, nor is the the matter of the canon court petition, which is still before the pope and the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Fr. O'Donovan has had the advantage of an education a majority of people on this planet cannot even imagine. In his inability to grasp the depth and scope of the scandal which he has inflicted on Georgetown, he claims to be aghast at the degree and tone of opposition to his defunding decision. Well he should be. Pro-abortion students are promising to "rage" on campus, forming new clubs, funded by NARAL and others. These students held a rally where they chanted: "Spit out the wafer; condoms are safer."

No public statement condemning this use of "free speech" was forthcoming from Fr. O'Donovan. If students had chanted, "Spit on the Torah; condoms are safer;" he no doubt would have reacted swiftly. How sad it is that he chose not to defend the most sacred sacrament of his own Church. Does he really believe free speech takes precedence over the sort of attack on the glorified Body and Blood of Jesus Christ that goes on in a "Black Mass"?

This banality of evil, so present on campus, legitimately raises the question of whether God or the Prince of Darkness is being given top billing at Georgetown and amounts, ultimately, to the moral molestation of those entrusted to its secular theology. Although it hasn't reached the status of a movement yet, many alumni are not only suggesting that Fr. O'Donovan resign but are questioning whether the entire Jesuit presence should continue at Georgetown if Catholic teaching is rendered so superfluous.

Opposition to the defunding decision has spread across town to the Georgetown University Law Center, where some members of the faculty passed a resolution stating:

As a matter of principle, we believe that student groups, such as GU Choice, should not be denied student activity funds or other university benefits because they discuss or advocate legal or political positions that conflict with religious doctrine.

Why do visions of Nuremberg, defenses made and lessons not learned there, lurk around the edges of that resolution? The halls of academe are redolent with the scent of blind compromise, and one only has to reexamine the years before the Holocaust to remember how German law professors, who valued their tenured respectability over moral imperative, took safe positions in defense of hollow law rather than politically unsafe positions in favor of higher law. The holocaust continues.

There is a more intimate scandal, though, and it is the pain caused to the Jesuits. Father Thomas King, SJ, of Georgetown's theology department, solicited comments from his fellow priests and received a long list of impassioned statements ranging from condemning GU Choice to fear for the future of the order itself. The Society of Jesus has a long and glorious tradition of courage in resisting the enemies of Christ and defending the pope. Many feel they have been dishonored. This is their "family," and they are excruciatingly torn, as any family would be, when one of their number brings the family name into disrepute. Those who filed this petition have no regrets other than witnessing this pain in the Jesuit community.

GU Choice has come and gone, and, in the aftermath of this incident, a few lessons remain. The real reason GU Choice is gone today is the clear, unequivocal and unprecedented intercession by Church hierarchy, coupled with the untiring efforts of the Committee for Georgetown Values, the Georgetown Life Advocates, the Ignatian Society and all who signed the mandates. A message has been sent to universities, which claim a Catholic identity, to take notice; there are avenues open to those who wish to mount similar opposition.

Georgetown, because of its reputation and stature in the Catholic educational system, was the logical place to bring a test case through canon law. Publicity, which the administration tried so assiduously to avoid, was guaranteed because of Georgetown's name. The timing of Ex Corde Ecclesiae was perfect. There was enormous support from Jesuits around the world. Those in the Ignatian Society, who petitioned first a cardinal and then a pope, all worked pro bono; the whole thing cost less than $5,000.

Catholic universities are worth the effort it takes to protect their uniquely religious identities. Students, faculty, parents and alumni do care and can work with the hierarchy to correct damage done to the Church's beliefs by those who put secular goals before the Word of God. As Pope St. Felix warned 14 centuries ago: "Not to oppose error is to approve it. Not to defend truth is to suppress it."


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