Ssssshhh! Conservative Catholics may exist at Georgetown

When the news broke about the election of the first Jesuit pope, several on-air commentators offered variations on the following line: “You know, I bet they are popping the corks on champagne bottles right now out at Georgetown University.”

The assumption, of course, is that all Jesuits would be equally exhilarated about the election of Pope Francis, a man who at first glance appears to be a quite loyal, traditional Catholic. If he is as doctrinally conservative as it appears that he is, then perhaps it is relevant to ask if Pope Francis could land a faculty position at the prestigious university here in D.C. that has long served as the May pole around which progressive American Catholics dance.

I bring this up because of feature story that ran the other day in the Style pages at The Washington Post about life behind the scenes at Georgetown. In particular, it focused on recent online controversies about a secret network — cue appropriate sounds of amazement at the thought of Jesuits involved in a secret operation — called the Second Stewards Society.

Here’s the key: It’s a society that thinks some of the old-time values found in Catholic education are (wait for it) good and worthy of defense.

Now, note the key word in this following factual summary early on:

The all-male group, which doesn’t identify its members or detail its activities, has long been a source of rumor and controversy on the 104-acre campus, where some students harbor suspicions that group members are pushing a right-wing political agenda — charges the Stewards call absurd.

The last time the society made big news was back in the late 1980s, when, after students’ complaints about elitism and sexism, the Stewards declared themselves dead. Now, thanks to an anonymous blogger with the very Washington moniker “Steward Throat,” the Stewards are back at the center of Hoya scuttlebutt. The most entertaining conspiracy theories — cabals, power grabs, sinister alliances — sound a lot like a campus version of “House of Cards,” the Netflix political drama.

“Whenever our name comes up, immediately a lot of people come to the conclusion that something must be awry,” acknowledged Chief Steward Sam Schneider, a Montgomery County senior who is authorized to speak to the media on the group’s behalf. Some people think that the Stewards are seeking political power, he said, “but that’s simply not true. Our anonymity is about our public service. We find that not taking credit for service can be much more rewarding, in the same way people make anonymous donations to buildings.”

The key word, of course, is “political.”

It is in this context that the name Manuel Miranda surfaces. This is a conservative Catholic activist whose path I have crossed a number of times while covering events linked to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), the “apostolic constitution” on Catholic education issued in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. It’s considered a master work by pro-Vatican conservatives, in part because it says things like this:

“Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”

This is not the kind of sentiment that causes champagne corks to pop in many faculty offices at Georgetown.

Thus, the Post report on the Second Stewards Society notes:

The Stewards were co-founded in 1982 by prominent Washington lawyer Manuel Miranda, whose headline-making career as a GOP congressional aide and State Department diplomat has shaped the Stewards’ reputation for conservatism.

In 1992, Miranda spearheaded a successful campaign with the Vatican to compel Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, to defund a student club that supported abortion rights.

Miranda said misperceptions about the group are the result of its support for Georgetown’s Catholic traditions. “Some of the projects we’re associated with are Catholic, but we don’t view them as political,” Miranda said. “We view them as honoring Georgetown’s Catholic identity.”

Obviously, attempting to defend Catholic doctrines about the sanctity of human life is pure right-wing politics, right? I mean, ask the Blessed Dorothy Day.

So, just how right-wing and narrow is this pack of vipers hiding in the Georgetown shadows?

The story notes that, in interviews, Stewards said their current membership includes “gays and members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as liberals and conservatives.” A candidate for campus office at the heart of the current online controversy is “a Democrat and a Jew.”

Sounds pretty dangerous. So the Post kept digging:

Only a few details about the group have leaked out: Its symbol is two keys lying horizontally on top of each other. Its colors are crimson and gold. Its motto: Non Scholae Sed Vitae (“Not for School but for Life”).

A 2000 copy of its bylaws, obtained by The Post, reveals some cryptic officer titles: the Quaestor of the Treasury; the Keeper; the Dean of All the Years; the Master of the Ritual; and two Guardian Stewards — one of whom, the documents stipulate, “shall be a member of the Society of Jesus or [a] Roman Catholic priest.”

Oh my.

So what is my point here?

Well, the story in question is really quite enjoyable in that it plays this whole darkness and shadows motif to the hilt. It’s clear that some of the liberal Georgetown powers that be, especially feminists, are really quite riled up. Note the logic that it is bad that the school is being falsely portrayed as a center for liberalism, but everyone is freaked out that there may be this small society — one including at least a few male liberals, gays, Democrats, etc. — that is interested in preserving elements of the school’s proud and to some degree orthodox Jesuit past.

It’s almost like, well, satire.

It also seems, and I know that this is shocking, that the Post team seems to think that this is yet another story about politics, when it seems, well, that the key points of conflict are about religion and doctrine.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ben

    Manny Miranda… now there’s a name I haven’t thought about since my time on the hilltop. The conservative campus journal that the story says the Stewards fund definitely had a period of not just theological but politically conservative advocacy. Sounds like its latest incarnation is more focused on Catholic identity. If you care to get into the weeds, this Georgetown Voice article explains the history: http://georgetownvoice.com/2008/10/23/controversial-catholics-and-the-third-coming-of-the-georgetown-academy/

  • Greg Cook

    Though many of us hope to see Dorothy Day beatified (and then canonized) she is not “Blessed.”

  • tmatt

    GREG:

    Yes, I know. That was a bit of an editorial remark on my point.

    Should I have used scare quotes?

    ;-)


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