Forget the Pope, Catholic Universities Are the Future of the Church

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses students and faculty members at Georgetown University on Dec. 14, 2009
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses students and faculty members at Georgetown University on Dec. 14, 2009

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Pope Francis confirmed widespread suspicions of his liberal sympathies yesterday with the publication of a wide-ranging interview that sent progressives into fits of jubilation and conservatives into rationalization and revisionism. Perhaps most controversially, the pope also took a step forward on homosexuality, fretting that the church was “obsessed” with gay marriage and needed instead to remember God’s love of gay people. Doctrinally speaking, the statement wasn’t a sea change, but the underlying message undeniably indicates what my colleague William Saletan labeled “creeping tolerance.”

It’s impossible to deny the importance of the pope’s words, especially on the issue of gay rights. But it’s also easy to overpraise them. His newfound tolerance didn’t develop in a vacuum, and it’s probably not shared by many in the upper echelons of the Vatican hierarchy. Rather, Pope Francis’ remarks seem more or less ripped from the playbook of certain Catholic universities in the United States—and, more specifically, the Jesuits who run them.

Consider Georgetown University. The school—which, full disclosure, is my alma mater—remained identifiably conservative, even somewhat homophobic throughout the first decade of this century, even as other college campuses were leading the way on gay rights. Anti-gay hate crimes on campus and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods were distressingly common, and the school did little to address the underlying problem, or even to confront the violence at hand. In fact, for most of the decade, Georgetown had no administrative liaison to the LGBTQ community, no resource center for LGBTQ students—really, no apparent concern for the well-being of its non-straight students.

But in 2007, a group of students, protesting a recent spate of hate crimes, marched into the university president’s office and demanded recognition. Because of Catholic teaching, most students thought the mission was quixotic at best; after all, a decade earlier, the Vatican had forced the school to defund a student club for being pro-choice. Yet after the march, the administration caved and established an LGBTQ resource center, the very first of its kind at any Catholic university anywhere.

During negotiations for the center, gay students had a crucial ally: the Jesuits. A famously freethinking contingent, the Jesuits have often been a step ahead of the hierarchy on social and political issues. It was logical, then, for myriad Jesuits to join the chorus for greater LGBTQ tolerance at the school, arguing against official church doctrine for the benefit of gay students. Some Georgetown Jesuits have even joined Catholics for Equality, a deeply religious group that promotes Catholic acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Today, gay rights has receded as a flashpoint at Georgetown; an increasing number of LGBTQ students come to the school each year, and the current student body president is, uncontroversially, gay. (Georgetown, however, is not the first Catholic school to boast a gay student leader. Catholic University, also in Washington, D.C., beat them to it.) There are still debates between progressives and conservatives on the issue, still Jesuits who resist the change. On the whole, however, the university has managed a comfortable equilibrium between social progressivism and Catholic devotion, thanks in large part to its very Jesuit tradition of questioning, discussing, and, eventually, reforming.

Was Pope Francis influenced by the kind of Catholic tolerance that developed at colleges like Georgetown? No one can say for sure—but it seems likely. In fact, given that Francis is a Jesuit himself, the most surprising facet of his “creeping tolerance” is that it took so long to develop. For many prominent and pious Catholics, gay acceptance is virtually a nonissue. It’s about time the Vatican caught up.